Email best practice

Updates from Gmail and Yahoo: DMARC

Gmail and Yahoo have both recently announced significant changes that will impact email senders, emphasising the need for enhanced authentication, decreased spam rates, and streamlined unsubscribe processes. As we delve into the upcoming modifications, it’s crucial for UK-based agencies to stay abreast of these alterations to ensure optimal email deliverability.

Authentication requirements

Gmail and Yahoo are tightening their grip on email authentication, requiring senders to configure both SPF and DKIM. This dynamic duo not only fortifies against abuse but sets the stage for the implementation of DMARC. For bulk senders exceeding 5,000 messages daily to Gmail, a DMARC record becomes mandatory, signalling a move towards a more secure email ecosystem.

It’s imperative to assess your current authentication practices and engage with your ESP to make necessary adjustments. The introduction of DMARC provides a strategic approach, beginning with a “none” policy before progressing to enforcement, a nuanced tactic to ensure compliance without disrupting existing email programs.

Spam complaint rate threshold

Sending wanted mail is paramount, and consent plays a pivotal role in user interactions. Gmail, in particular, has set a ceiling of 0.3% for spam complaint rates, signalling a tiered approach to consequences. Monitoring complaint rates through platforms like Google Postmaster Tools and Yahoo’s CFL provides valuable insights into program performance, enabling proactive adjustments to avoid inbox issues.

List-Unsubscribe

Simplifying the unsubscribe process is a key strategy to combat complaints. The introduction of List-Unsubscribe functionalities, including a one-click option, aligns with the overarching theme of making email management seamless for users. Notably, unsubscribes must be processed within two days, surpassing the CAN-SPAM requirement of 10 days, showcasing a commitment to exceeding legal standards.

What’s new?

While these standards have existed for years, the enforcement of these practices is a response to the persistent challenge of non-compliance. By implementing stringent measures, email providers aim to incentivise adherence to best practices, ensuring that non-delivered emails do not compromise revenue, awareness, or loyalty.

Looking ahead

These changes from Gmail and Yahoo are just the beginning. Expect similar stringent requirements from other providers as the industry unifies to create a robust defence against spam. As we approach February 2024, Gmail and Yahoo are cognisant of the need for a gradual transition, allowing senders to adapt without facing abrupt disruptions.

Conclusion

Adapting to these changes is essential for maintaining a successful email program. Our team is here to support you through this transition. For more details on the new requirements, visit Gmail’s Email Sender Guidelines page or consult Yahoo’s Sender Best Practices. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and together we can navigate the evolving email landscape. Blame the bad guys – spammers ruin everything!

Email best practice

Deliver the goods with good delivery

Maintaining a decent delivery rate can be hard enough at the best of times in email marketing, but it becomes increasingly difficult when you factor in busy sales periods like Black Friday or the festive period. Black Friday used to be just the one day, then Cyber Monday and you couldn’t do a whole lot of damage to your reputation across two days. But now companies have found to compete in the crowded retail market their campaign needs to span weeks, if not the whole month! That is a lot of emails for one person to get from a company and imagine how many they will get from all the marketing they are signed up to!

Deliverability tips

In a normal state of play, the best way to keep your email hygiene as tip top as possible may include the following:

  • Ensure you have correctly configured SPF, DKIM and DMARC records set up for your domain otherwise your emails may get quarantined or outright rejected and your delivery rate will plummet.
  • Ensure permanent bounces and all unsubscribers are removed.
  • Be willing to remove persistent soft bounces – they will never engage and only do harm to your send reputation.
  • You can sign up to receive the complaints back from such ISPs as Hotmail and Yahoo e.g. people hitting the “This is Spam” button and remove those.
  • Be willing to remove people that haven’t engaged with you for a particular period, e.g. 1 year, as again these emails will only harm your sender reputation and aren’t interacting with your emails. You can always attempt to re-engage them with reactivation campaigns.
  • Ensure you have a regular, steady flow of emails going out for ISPs to recognise the pattern from you which keeps them happy. Sudden changes, like massive volume spikes, may make them suspicious and less inclined to deliver your emails.
  • Targeting your users with personalised content is better than the “spray and pray” method to everyone. The engagement rates will be much higher and keep your sender reputation in good health. AI and data analysis can help you divine much about your users and only send them campaigns about things they actually like.

The above are a must for good delivery rates and list hygiene. But you may need to go a little further to survive busy sales periods unscathed.

A delivery tightrope walk

To ensure you get the best out of your sales campaigns whilst maintaining the health of your mailing list is no doubt a perilous balancing act. The temptation could be to send to as many people as many times as possible through fear of missing someone, but this method could have a disastrous effect on your sender reputation if complaints and unsubscribes come in their droves.

If you stop delivering to everyone, you are going to start missing out.

So what can be done?

Step 1: Warm up your IPs

The best thing you can do in the lead up to big sales events and an anticipated rise in email volume is to gradually increase your normal volumes and/or frequencies so there are no big spikes when the big push comes. If you want to know more about how this works, see our Black Friday-specific tips.

Step 2: Get your user preferences

Ask your users what they want! You will save a percentage of the data you would otherwise have lost if you provide a preference centre (even a temporary one) so your users can say how often they want to hear from you and on what topics (or even if they want to at all during the sales frenzy that is Black Friday). You may end up sending to fewer recipients as a result, but you should be sending them stuff they want which should increase engagement, reduce opt-outs and give your sender reputation a boost to keep your delivery rates ticking over.

Step 3: Stand out from the crowd

If people are receiving email after email that’s just piling up in their inbox, you need to stand out and be relevant to them. Getting people to engage with your emails is one of the best ways of maintaining a solid sender reputation and increase the chances of getting your email into the inbox, and not sidelined to a secondary tab, or worse, the dreaded spam folder. This will involve well crafted subject lines and as many tricks as you can rustle up, for example, why not check out Gmail’s promotion tools?

Step 4: Resend to non-engagers

With the aforementioned ever-growing pile of emails in people’s inboxes, even if you’ve done your best to get your customer’s attention you still may get missed. There is no harm in a second bite of the cherry by way of a resend to non-engagers, perhaps with a shiny new subject line, but this may well be a juggling act once again. You will inevitably pick up more unsubscribers for every send you make, which is an unavoidable hard truth in the art of email marketing, so you need to weigh up acceptable losses versus potential gains to work out the best strategy for you.

Forewarned is forearmed – you know how customers will feel throughout intense sales periods so make sure you do everything you can to keep them happy and nurture your relationship with them. Even if it feels like your strategies lead you to sending less than the maximum number of emails, the quality will be better and should produce better results whislt maintaining your list hygiene and see you through unscathed.

Email Marketing

Planning and implementing your email marketing strategy

Email marketing strategy

Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should! It’s an old adage and one many email marketers would do well to consider before embarking on their email marketing strategy.

If we start from what is possible the prospect of drawing up an email marketing strategy, budget, resource and timelines is daunting. I like to start from the other end, not what is possible but what does the business need. It sounds simple and the oft flippant response is more sales but that doesn’t always hold true. So start with a blank canvas and decide your business’s short, medium and long term goals. They may all turn out to be the same – sales, sales and more sales.

If that’s the case your email marketing strategy is a fairly simple one. Build product led emails and send them to everyone on your list as often as you can. Automate basket and browse abandonment, cross sell in sales notifications and dispatch notices. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But in truth this approach, even if your end goal is more sales, tends to be a short term solution. Data apathy, data churn, price marginalisation, stock management, all tend to make this approach, in isolation, one that’s unsustainable long term.

Email drives sales

So what to do, as in truth the ultimate goal of any marketing comes down to sales. We dress it up as brand awareness, customer retention, brand engagement, social media presence – but ultimately all marketing has one goal and that’s to drive long term revenues. So, if we accept that we need to plan our email marketing to fulfil long term revenue targets. This is done using a combination of sales and value-added content which engages the customer as well as sells to them. In essence you need to become the trusted source in the inbox. This has its challenges because marketers have an irrational fear of being seen as spammers. In his book, “Fear and Self-Loathing in Email Marketing”, Dela Quist says: “It is time, for legitimate email marketers – who bend over backwards not to be seen as spammers – to stop feeling so guilty about something they don’t even do”. It really is okay to send an email a day, or even two if you have something new and interesting to say.

In order to understand how best to use email we first need to look at how the long term goal is achieved.

List growth

New customer acquisition, grow the number of people you can realistically sell your products and services to. The more people on your list who look like the other people on your list the better.

Buildfires email list growth blog

List retention

This is like the silver bullet. Grow your list using customer acquisition tools and reduce the churn in your database. Increase the time someone stays a customer then the return on your initial CPA becomes exponential.

Automation

Automate touchpoints to deliver relevant and timely content. Keep your user engaged, recognise special life events and deliver new purchase user guides/vlogs/updates.

display block email automation workflow
Example email automation workflow

Loyalty and incentive programs

Make your user feel special, make them part of your inner circle.

Targeted communications

Segmentation in the data based on generic product offerings. Utilising the one-to-one marketing tools available to you to customise your one-to-many emails.

One too many sales emails

Don’t be frightened of emailing everyone in your base every time you have something to say. The idea of one-to-one marketing is in truth not achievable because you’re just not sure what I want next. It’s okay to assume I want something I looked at, just don’t assume I don’t want something else as well or instead.

Next, we will look at how we utilise the strategies outlined above to maximise our customer relationship and ultimately drive higher, long term revenues.

Let’s take a look at how you go about implementing some of the ideas mentioned. It’s time to flesh out the opportunities afforded by the medium of email marketing.

List growth

How do you go about growing your list? You can do this in many different ways, each one having their own level of effectiveness. The standard tools available are:

Newsletter sign-ups:

Have a clear and obvious way of letting people sign up for emails, hiding your newsletter sign up at the bottom of the contact page is almost apologetic. You’ve paid for the eyeballs, now try and capture them. Place the sign up somewhere obvious. Also, look at using downstream popups to incentivise sign up.

White paper downloads:

Put your valuable content behind a simple sign up to access a download page. In old fashioned sales you’re always taught to get a name for a name. No difference here, you have valuable content, the price of which is an email address.

Competitions:

Run competitions on your site, and in your existing email encourage people to sign up to be entered. If possible, give away experiential prizes rather than material ones. People are much more likely to enter a money can’t buy competition.

Referrals:

Incentivise your base to refer people like them to sign up for the newsletter or sales emails. Remember, people know people like them, if they enjoy your emails so will some of their friends.

display block email capture form
Example sign-up page

Point of purchase:

Be it on or offline, when someone makes a purchase it is the perfect time to ask permission to market to them via email. Make sure your staff do this routinely if on the phone or face to face in store. Make sure your site has a very obvious sign up tick box available when checking out. If at all possible also advertise text to email gateways in store and incentivise those.

Rented lists:

As long as you manage your expectations, renting lists can still be an effective way of building your database.

List retention

List retention for me is the silver bullet, if you can reduce your churn while at the same time growing your list you should be looking at exponential growth in revenues. Email on Acid believe in a “70/20/10” rule for brand emails. This means 70% of emails should be educational demos, tips, storytelling or advisory information. 20% should “centre on content from thought leaders, creating a feeling across your list that your brand is giving them exclusive access to content” and the remaining 10% should be product-focused. This rule is said to establish valuable relationships with your customers making them feel important, which they are! The more important they feel, the more engaged with the brand they will be.

Automation

Take some of the workload away and automate as many of your emails as possible. There are many tools available to help you collect site side data, send an API call to your email platform and subsequently trigger a timely email reminder. These types of communication tend to have the greatest open and click rates and the highest ROI.

The sort of things you can try are…

Welcome/acquisition:

Welcome programs work best when they come as a series of emails which lead the recipient down various paths of action dependent on whether they open and click a particular email or take a specific site side action.

display block workflow
display block workflow

Basket abandonment:

Someone has put a product in their basket on your site but not completed the purchase in a timely fashion. Post that data to your email automation tool, most of those on the market (ours included) can handle this easily. This data will then populate a predefined template and trigger an email to the recipient encouraging them to complete their purchase. Fresh Relevance in their Rip Curl case study show in excess of 10% of those customers receiving a basket abandonment email go back to purchase the item.

Basket abandonment statistics
basket abandonment uplift from Fresh Relevance

Browse abandonment:

Almost identical to Basket Abandonment, Browse Abandonment happens when you implement business rules such as “identified email address has viewed a product 3+ times without going further, trigger this template with this personalisation in it”. These type of emails are seen to generate in excess of 3% increase in sales.

Event led:

Birthdays, anniversaries, insurance renewals, these type of emails just sit there in the background and trigger daily depending on when someone matches the criteria. This is a simple but effective way of increasing your brand loyalty and triggering clicks back to your site. In their birthday email, Audit Experian said birthday emails out perform promotional emails in nearly all KPIs

Birthday email campaigns audit
Experian Birthday Emails Campaign Audit KPI’s

Cross Sell:

Not only should you cross sell in your order confirmation emails but also dispatch notifications, delivery confirmation and in truth, any other order point of contact. Forrester Research found a 10% increase in AOV on purchases where a recommendation was clicked on.

I am just scratching the surface of what’s possible with automation, essentially, if you can whiteboard the process we can implement an automation program that will sit in the background and increase your revenues from email.

Loyalty and Incentive programs:

This is just an extension of the Nectar, Clubcard, MyWaitrose (other loyalty cards are available) card you have in your wallet but in an online format. Richer Sounds do this very well at point of sign up. You’re encouraged to be a VIP and you’re told what you’ll get by becoming one. It helps with both list growth and list retention.

Targeted communications:

Your email platform will almost certainly have the functionality to segment based on any data held within your database. You can then send targeted communications to people based on the products they’ve previously bought, those they’ve browsed, those that compliment previously purchased products, the list is almost endless. You can do many different targeted emails or if you can code using the dynamic tags, or outsource that bit to an agency like us, you can build one email that dynamically inserts the relevant targeted element based on the data. It is also possible to use some of the personalisation tools out there to scrape in particular offers from your website in real time and drop them into the dynamic personalised section of the email.

The takeaway

The possibilities and the opportunities afforded to you by utilising the tools available and the skills of a professional email marketing company can have a material effect on your bottom line. It is no coincidence that the companies who have fared better in the current pandemic are the ones whose online presence and email marketing programs are constantly pushing the boundaries, whereas the ones that have struggled were slower to embrace the opportunities afforded them by the technologies available.

Email best practice

How to figure out when is the best time to send your email campaign

It’s a question that comes across our desk almost weekly, “When should we send out the email, when is the best time?” – The answer as with so much in email marketing is… “it depends”. Working out when you should send an email is really unique not only to the company sending it but even unique to the content of the email itself. If your goal is to increase your engagement rates then you are going to need to work out when is the best time to send emails.

We have been sending out emails for quite a few years now and to say ‘we’ve seen it all’ would be a bit of an understatement. With over 5 million emails sent every month by myself alone. Therefore we can say with a great degree of certainty that there is no one perfect time to send an email. The best time really does vary from industry to industry, business to business as well email to email. Unfortunately for you dear reader there is no singular time that is best for all emails to be sent. Although that would make all our lives a lot easier.

The main goal of any email is to drive traffic to a website. This email engagement can only be improved if every part of the email is carefully designed to suit the audience. This includes everything from the pre-subject line, copy, design, email length, buttons and even the send time.

Test, test, and test again

Getting email engagement to increase really does require quite a lot of different tests. This includes testing the send time, subject lines, copy, design, and other key elements of the email. Ideally each aspect of the email is tested one part at a time as to not cloud the results from any specific test.

Having so many things to test and evaluate may seem daunting at first but by systematically working through each with a number of A/B tests you should start seeing patterns of engagement. Make sure to test one aspect at a time and also try run 1-3 A/B tests per item so you are sure of the results. Employing other tools like our subject line creator tool can also assist with this process.

1. Divide your list into segments

The first step is to divide you database into smaller segments. Ideally the divisions are not arbitrary but based upon matching characteristics such as, purchase history, geographic location, age, gender or as many matching characteristics that seem relevant. Hopefully by grouping similar subscribers together they will produce less random results and make testing to those segments more accurate.

Most email marketing platforms have segmenting tools built in and if not we can assist with any data segmentation you might require.

2. Create your tests

With your newly created segments it’s time to start testing. It is important to be able to measure the success of each test so try not to test multiple things at once. Always be goal orientated with each test. For example, “Does placing high value products near the top of emails result in higher sales for these item?” Make sure you tests are also based on some real world knowledge, for example people will always spend more closer to pay day. So this might skew some results if you’re testing close to those days. Try and isolate your tests as much as possible.

It is also important to also build on the findings of your tests. So for example if your Sales email is always the most profitable email and you know people spend more on payday. You should certainly then test if your Sales email is more effective if sent closer to payday.

3. Divide each segment into control and test groups

Once you have decided what you are going to test divide each segment into two equal numbered sub-segments. Your ESP should be able to do this for you. It is important to ensure each sub-segment is large enough to produce meaningful test results. If you think the segments are too small you might want to adjust what you are testing or add more data. The final option would be to run more tests to remove and randomness from the results. There is also a useful calculator you can use to calculate a good size

4. Create two versions of the email

To make the test create the email as you normally would then create a version that will test your hypothesis. This can be anything such as reordering of content, subject line, overall design, button placement.

5. Measure the results

Ideally your ESP has a robust reporting suite or heat-map capability. This should allow you to easily see which email generates more engagement as well as allowing you to see what element of the email is generating all the clicks. To really make sure of the results you could run 1-3 additional tests, testing the same thing to remove and randomness from a one off test. For evaluating send times make sure that you’re getting the same type of engagement you would expect regardless of when you send the email. Then choose the send time that gets the most engagement.

Build on the wins

Now that you have established the best time to send or any other aspect you have been testing implement these results on the main database sends. As long as the results are replicated in the main sends you are good to begin at the beginning of your testing cycle again. Testing should be a consistent practice that you continuously include into you marketing calendar. Remember also that just because a Sale email might perform well close to pay day doesn’t mean you should send your welcome emails out then to. You might find Welcome emails perform better if sent only 30 minutes after sign-up.

The key point with trying to improve engagement through email testing is to remember to constantly tailor your tests and ultimately your approach to your audience. Use your educated guesses to guide your questions and then make decisions based on the real data you get back from tests.

Email best practice

Email accessibility: are you leaving anybody out?

Communication. That’s what email is all about. The same is true whether you’re using it to apply for a job, or to seek help from customer services… or to market your product to thousands of customers.

Marketing emails typically go to lots of different people using lots of different devices. Your objective is to convey an equally intelligible message to all of them. That brings us to the concept of accessibility.

Defining email accessibility

Firstly, here’s what accessibility is not:

  • An inconvenience
  • An afterthought
  • Exclusively a matter of visual impairment

And now for what it is. Mozilla (the developers behind the Firefox web browser) describe accessibility as: the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible.

Applying this thinking to our favourite medium, it means emails that can be easily understood, navigated and interacted with. We want our mailings to render optimally in any application on any gadget. They must impart a clear message and invite a defined action from the customer. And accessibile emails are open to people whatever their level of physical ability.

Email accessibility is a huge topic, encompassing many human and technical factors. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Clarity in message, design and function

A marketing email usually performs two main functions:

  • Communicates a message to your customers.
  • Invites them to take action in response.

Concise copy and a user-friendly structure support those objectives. Worry not – that doesn’t mean your email needs to be sterile and unimaginative. There’s still plenty of scope for characterful writing and vibrant imagery. The art is in creating an eye-catching design that supports your message rather than overwhelming or obscuring it.

Accessible copywriting begins with the subject line. Good, honest information beats vague open-bait every time.

Image of good and bad versions of an email subject line

I like big buttons and I cannot lie

There’s a tendency in email marketing to go link-crazy. Every heading, every subheading, every image, every block of text… and even empty space – all clicking through to web pages. That usually means ambiguous destinations and multiple links to the same places. The technical term for this is a mess.

The solution: buttons. Big ones. Big ones with clearly defined calls-to-action. Your customer should know in advance what sort of content to expect upon pressing it. And don’t forget to include plenty of breathing space around those buttons. You don’t want links to different places squashed up against each other, especially on touch-screen devices.

Don’t get left in the dark

Dark mode took off a few years ago, and remains a popular display option among those who care about things like battery life and corneas.

It can have a dramatic effect on the way your email is rendered. And often not in a good way. Images can be camouflaged against recoloured backgrounds, or left floating in unsightly squares.

Email being email, the rendering methods for dark mode are not consistent from one email application to another. It therefore requires an assortment of coding and imagery techniques to create dark mode-friendly mailings. Dark mode-specific CSS classes are possible. PNG format images with border effects help them stand out, should they be unexpectedly displayed atop a dark background.

Comparison of a logo as seen in light and dark modes

The technical details are a complex topic for another day. But let’s be clear on the objective – you want to optimise your email for dark mode, not override your user’s preferences.

So many apps, so many devices

Sorry in advance, but I’m about to throw a bunch of words at you. Here goes.

Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobiles. Screen sizes, model versions, display settings. Desktop software, webmail services, mobile apps.

My point: there are many software and hardware combinations out there, and your marketing emails could be viewed on any one of them. You want your email to be just as legible on a dusty old laptop running Microsoft Outlook 2016 as it is on a brand-new iPhone.

Responsive email – i.e. that which is coded to fit to any screen size – is the answer. It’s standard practice nowadays, but that absolutely does not mean that it is always handled adequately. All too often, mobile rendering remains a secondary concern – leading to visual problems like tiny text and confusingly mismatched imagery. We’ve written extensively about responsive email in the past, but let’s sum up some of the most important points:

  • Plan your responsive design from the outset. The mobile layout should never be a secondary consideration.
  • Support for HTML and CSS in email is extremely varied and somewhat limited. An email developer must understand how to code effectively for all major devices and email services.
  • Be prepared to simplify an overly-ambitious design. Fanciness for the sake of fanciness is not in the spirit of accessibility.

Even if you’re confident that your email is perfection itself, always include a link for it to be viewed in a web browser.

Hear me out: your emails could be confusing to screen readers

I mentioned earlier that accessibility is not all about visual impairment. It is however an extremely important aspect, and will largely be the focus of the remainder of this article.

A screen reader is a piece of assistive software that will audibly describe the content of an application, web page… or indeed an email. You probably have a screen reader right in front of you right now. Press COMMAND + F5 if you’re on a Mac, or CTRL + WIN + ENTER if you’re on a Windows PC. While the use of a screen reader takes time to master, this will give you a helpful insight into how a visually impaired person might be interacting with your content.

As technically incredible as screen readers are, it is unfair to expect them to do all the work. A website must be designed and coded in a way that a screen reader can navigate and interpret. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) publishes extensive guideance on this topic, and a lot of the advice carries over to email.

Let’s take a look at some ways to develop emails with screen readers in mind.

Write semantic code

Do you shop in supermarkets? They have signage to help you find your way around the array of aisles. ‘EGGS’ here, ‘HOUSEHOLD ESSENTIALS’ over there. If those signs didn’t exist, your shopping experience would be a lot more frustrating. An email without semantic code is a bit like a supermarket without signs.

Semantic email code can be defined as meaningful HTML tags. These are the basic elements behind the scenes that make up a mailing. Here are a few important ones:

  • <header>
  • <nav>
  • <section>
  • <article>
  • <h1> (the main heading on the page)
  • <h2> to <h6> (increasingly minor headings – seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever gone past h3)
  • <p> (a paragraph)
  • <strong> (bold text)
  • <em> (italic text)
  • <footer>

But there are also multi-purpose, non-descriptive HTML elements:

  • <div>
  • <span>
  • <table> (for the presentational purposes of email, that is)

Those last three are far from invalid. But it’s easy to be lazy in web and email development alike, and rely on them too heavily. In fact it’s actually somewhat rare to code particularly semantically in email.

But guess what – descriptive HTML tags help screen readers know what’s what. Say your main heading is just sitting there in a generic <span> tag. A screen reader won’t know that it’s any more significant than any other text that happens to be floating about on the page. If it’s wrapped instead in an <h1> tag, the screen reader will announce it as “heading level 1”. Now the user better understands what is being communicated. Construct your entire email with semantic code and you communicate useful information to those who can’t see it.

Similarly, sequence is important. Screen reader users will often be using a keyboard to navigate through the email. By default this will jump from item to item in the order they appear in your code. Make sure it makes sense.

And while there is actually a way to override this sequence, doing so is so far removed from best practice that we will discuss it no further! Far better to construct an email that follows a logical sequence in content and structure.

Mark your bricks as bricks

Modern websites are constructed with the finest materials available – divs, spans and all sorts of CSS-styled goodness.

Emails are built using a more… rustic method. They use HTML tables for structure, just as web pages did once upon a time.

When a screen reader encounters a table, it assumes that it is a table of data. Something like this:

Image of a table showing populations of capital cities

A screen reader may therefore produce confusing results when dealing with the structural table of an email. There’s an easy fix for this. Just apply the following HTML attribute to all of the tables that comprise your email:

role="presentation"

Congrats – you’ve just told screen readers what your tables are for, and made your email immediately more accessible.

Let text be text

When you write a text message to a friend, do you take a screenshot of it and then send it as an image? Unless you’re charmingly eccentric, I suspect the answer is no.

The same principle applies to email. And yet countless companies – sometimes even the biggest of corporations – produce marketing emails in this roundabout manner. Paragraphs of text are drawn up in a design application, saved as JPEGs and dumped into HTML emails. Why?

This practice is so widespread that phrases such as ‘live text’ have sprung up. Let’s get out of that way of thinking. It’s just text.

There are probably multiple factors at play here. Brand guidelines and typography. A desire to achieve complex layouts in a medium that doesn’t make it easy. Or it could be the it’s-always-been-done-this-way mentality.

Accessibility and usability trump all of those things. There are all sorts of reasons to use proper text. It renders sharply and at a consistent size, whereas images shrink and grow. Users can zoom in without the letters becoming blurred. Chunks of text can be selected and copied. And it’s the purest form of copy for screen readers to detect.

Web fonts are reasonably well supported in email these days, so you don’t even need to lose your brand typeface. Now all of the boxes are ticked.

Animated comparison of text and image versions of the same content being scaled

Pictures speak a thousand words

But only if you let them. And you should probably cut that down to a handful of helpful, descriptive words.

HTML comes equipped with a thing called alt tags. That’s short for alternative. These tags allow you to attach text content to any image on the page. We can use them to describe what is pictured or relay copy from a heading. Normally the alt tag goes unseen.

They are however of critical importance for users who cannot see your image. That might be someone who has chosen to turn pictures off, or perhaps the file has failed to load, or it could be a person with a visual impairment.

Take a look at a few examples:

Overhead aerial photograph of a hotel's outdoor pool, surrounded by trees and rooftops

alt="Overhead aerial photograph of a hotel's outdoor pool, surrounded by trees and rooftops"

Watercolor painting of a pink flower in a plain background

alt="Watercolor painting of a pink flower on a plain background"

Example heading saying SALE NOW ON

alt="SALE NOW ON"

Without these descriptions, the content of these images would be completely concealed to a screen reader user. By typing just a few words, you have produced an immeasurably more inclusive email.

One more thing – emails often include some purely decorative or spacer images. Just leave the attribute as alt="", and screen readers will know to ignore them.

Self access-ment

We’ve covered a reasonable amount here, but this is a topic too broad to fully explore in a single article. There are plentiful accessibility resources online, even for the relatively niche branch that is email.

Among those are tools to analyse the accessibility of your web page or email. Some of these are commercial products, but there are also some handy free ones.

Paste in your email code at accessible-email.org and you’ll see an instant report with suggestions for improving accessibility.

You might also wish to try WAVE – web accessibility evaluation tool. As the name states, this is intended for web pages. But much of the feedback also applies to email, so there’s nothing to stop you popping a ‘view online’ link in there.

Perhaps most useful of all is a simple checklist. That’ll let you score your emails consistently according to your particular requirements.

Here’s to more inclusive emails

Making your emails accessible is a complex task – but it doesn’t need to be an extra one. Accessibility standards are intertwined with email best practice. By putting accessibility at the core of your design and development process, you automatically produce better emails all round. Everybody benefits.

Perhaps the key to accessibility isn’t to think of it as a separate subject at all, but simply the act of making a good email.

Email Marketing

Your email open rates are changing

Unless you’ve been living on a remote island somewhere you’ll know that on September 20th Apple’s iOS 15 update was launched. It contains a feature call Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) which – amongst other things – will eliminate the ability to accurately track email open rates.

For the uninitiated, email opens are recorded using a tiny image in the email code. When the email is opened, that image loads, which tells the sender an email was opened, by whom, when, where and on what device. What Apple have done is add a ‘middle man’ into the mix. Emails are now firstly routed through Apple’s proxy servers to pre-load email content – including the tracking image – before serving the email to the original recipients.

This will make it impossible to tell whether real people or Apple opened your emails. We won’t know when the open happened, where the person is located or which Apple device they use. That means no more mobile vs. desktop insights!

For some email campaigns, we are already seeing the percentage of emails where the device data is being hidden by MPP at 20%. That’s double what it was a week ago and we expect this to increase as more Apple users install the latest iOS 15 update.

What will the adoption rate be?

Whilst MPP won’t be switched on by default, when opening email for the first time after installing iOS 15, you are presented withprf a screen asking if you would like to be tracked or not.

When Apple launched its App Tracking Transparency tool in April, 96% of people opted out. There is no reason to expect Mail Privacy Protection will be any different. I mean, who in a post-GDPR and Cambridge Analytica, Facebook etc. world would say ‘Yes, please track me’!

So, from now on you can expect to see your open rates jump. You just won’t know if any of that increase is real. With estimates putting Apple proxy opens at 75% you can be sure this jump isn’t because your audience suddenly loves you more.

…and why does that matter?

The upshot of this is that open rates will no longer be a useful metric when measuring subscriber engagement. This has repercussions for a range of emails you may already be sending, including:

  • A/B testing subject lines using opens to determine the winner.
  • Targeting based on the last open date.
  • Automated workflows and journeys that rely on someone opening an email.
  • Send time optimisation based on previous open times.
  • Countdown timers may also show incorrect times as they will start at the Apple open rather than the real recipient open time.
  • Local content driven by opens or IP addresses, such as the nearest store location (although this is more of an issue in large geographies like the USA rather than the UK).
  • AI platforms that use email opens in their algorithm for creating optimised subject lines.

Going forward, list hygiene management using non-openers over time will become a challenge although as Apple can only cache images if the Mail app is running, it means those email addresses are valid.

There is a chance this could all backfire of course. The muddying of these waters will mean emails that are less targeted and none of us want that. We have all come to expect a high level of personalisation. Sometimes we even claim we are happy to trade a degree of privacy for an improved experience. However, I can’t see this becoming a big enough issue to prompt large numbers of people going into mail settings on their iPhones and switching MPP off again.

So what can we do to best prepare our email marketing for the future?

Who’s who?

The first step is to understand the email client breakdown of your audience to determine who uses an Apple device. You can also create a reliable opens audience for non-Apple Mail users as you can still use the open metric here.

Update and remind people about your email preference centre. Give them a range of choices on how they would like receive emails from you. And – as always – keep your email list clean to stay on top of deliverability.

Focus on click rates

The goal of any campaign is most likely not about how many people open an email but how many make a purchase and in between the email open and the website is the click. We are already focused on click rates and now we’ll need to rely on these even more. The open-to-click metric will also need changing to clicks compared to emails sent.

Expand your engagement-based segments

As open rates become increasingly unreliable, double-down on your engagement criteria to include clicks, web visits and purchase activity. The numbers who meet these criteria will naturally be smaller but it’s a good way to continue having highly-targeted engagement segments.

Segment your contacts based on how far they are on their path to purchase. This provides another data-driven measure of intent that can be used for targeting.

Add new channels

Other channels like SMS and push notifications can help expand your reach. In 2020, the number of SMS messages sent increased nearly 400% with conversion rates doubling.

For web push notifications, the increase was around a 30% conversion rate, which is nearly five times what it was the previous year.

Whilst you should consider these channels to mitigate no longer having complete email open data, neither SMS or push notifications have open rates at all so have always had to measure success in terms of conversions. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that email is still at the top of the pile in terms of ROI. A drop in the accuracy of measuring open rates isn’t going to change that.

Shopping data

Place more importance on customer purchases using recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) data.

If you don’t already have one, create a customer lifecycle program which can identify customer stages based on all of these other metrics. It will allow you to build and automate data-driven campaigns based on purchase behaviour.

Be creative

Be adaptable so you are able to move quickly when things change. We should always be looking for new ways to provide value to our customers. The ultimate goal is revenue from initial and repeat purchases, not open rates.

As marketers, we have all the data we need to help understand customer preferences which should allow for smarter promotions overall. The open engagement metric may be more unreliable, but the metrics of clicks and conversions remain unchanged.

Hide My Email – should I worry?

Another part of Mail Privacy Protection allows people to hide any of their email addresses (e.g., Hotmail/Outlook, Gmail, etc.) by generating unique, random icloud.com email addresses that forward to their real email address. These are used only once. If people hide their email from multiple companies, they will have generated multiple fake emails (one for each website).

icloud email addresses aren’t anywhere near as prevalent as Gmail or Hotmail/Outlook. Nonetheless it’s worth tracking your email data at a domain level to check for growth.

These fake email addresses can be deleted which means next time you mail them they will hard bounce and, If you get a lot of these, your email deliverability will suffer.

Another challenge is tying email activity to purchases when, say, someone signs up for your newsletter with Hide My Email but then later make a purchase using their real email address.

Whilst it is early days, Hide My Email is unlikely to gain enough traction to become a problem. After all, there have been similar services available for years. Also, if you’re seeing lots of new random icloud addresses appear in your database then you have a more fundamental trust issue. These people saw enough of a reason to hide their real address from you in the first place.

The future is bright

If your core objective of marketing is to provide the right value to the right customer at the right time, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about.

However, Apple’s iOS 15 update is certainly making it more challenging. Apple may be leading the way but expect other companies to follow suit. We should all see this as an opportunity to look at the other ways customer engagement and behaviour can be measured and improved.

Ultimately what Apple has done is a good thing. We have all had our trust eroded over the years by unscrupulous marketing. Spammers often use harvested email addresses. There is ever-pervasive advertising that follows you around the internet. And the almost sinister use of AI algorithms that present us with filtered realities within social media platforms – just to keep us there longer so we see more ads.

In this brave new world it has become easy to forget the marketing fundamentals of building trust and respecting our customers. Apple have just given us a reminder.