Going retro with e-mail creative

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In interactive marketing, form follows function. The best designs are not only aesthetically pleasing, but work within usability guidelines and best practices for maximum optimization in that channel. This is no more apparent than in e-mail, where designers must work within a very strict set of rules and limited technologies.

Couple that fact with the changing landscape of deliverability and you're left with a challenge: deliver your brand promise consistently in e-mail in the face of stricter and often vague spam filters and Internet service provider (ISP) variances. It's scary to think that less than half of your audience is seeing your message rendered as intended - if it's delivered to the inbox - but ignoring these issues now will most certainly doom your future.

I recently worked with a client that used e-mail for years to promote products and services. What worked for them five years ago, much less one year ago, simply did not work now. They found themselves in a situation where their sender reputation was damaged so badly they were literally blocked at every major ISP.

While poor data was the main culprit, content didn't help either. By our analysis, the campaigns averaged a 40 percent probability of being perceived as spam by ISPs. Every call to their servers to display an image in the HTML was hurting them. Lack of interest due to poor rendering was adding to an already high complaint rate.

While researching ways to lower that probability, and thus complaints and bulk folder delivery, I noticed a trend among many client campaigns that may seem obvious in the e-mail industry - text messages almost always experienced a 90 percent or above inbox delivery.

With advances in CSS for e-mail and the ever-increasing expectations of consumers, e-mail design has evolved to include more imagery. The goal was always how to create an impressive design that includes elements such as forms, animation and video, and then allow it to render properly in the inbox. As a former e-mail creative manager, I can attest that we became pretty successful in accomplishing that goal. But is this progress now hurting us?

Perhaps a way to overcome this obstacle is to encourage thoughtful e-mail designers to think retro. By retro, I mean a movement back to the beginnings of e-mail where text dominated and images were kept to an absolute minimum.

Using a retro design does not mean compromising your brand image. A well-placed logo, font coloring, copyright and background colors can adequately communicate brand identity in e-mail.

Applying the retro concept, we recommended our client simplify their e-mail template. In the end, the only image needed was a logo. All other content was in rich-text. The result was a marked improvement in inbox delivery, leading to more opens. Further, once opened, the e-mail did not have formatting problems because of suppressed images and CSS, and that lead directly to increased clicks.

Recipients will appreciate that - even though it's not as flashy as the brand's Web page or TV commercial - the e-mail they view is easy to read quickly. They will understand that it was created to function as best it can in that specific media channel. Sure, some of your e-mail subscribers may have whitelisted you, allowing automatic inbox delivery and image rendering, but are you willing to risk alienating over half of your audience because of a designer's pride?

Andrew Osterday is the solutions director of e-Marketing for Premiere Global Services. Reach him at andrew.osterday@premiereglobal.com.

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