Headlines can make or break an e-mail. They can engage readers immediately or send them to the next message. Something I've been adamant about since mid-2004 is formatting headlines in rich text rather than images. That way, you're 100 percent certain they're seen, even if images are suppressed. I'm surprised more folks aren't in my camp on this.
Only 43 percent of the messages viewed had a headline I could read when images were suppressed. I defined headline pretty broadly. Basically, I was looking for a brief phrase that wasn't in an alt tag that told me what the e-mail was about. In many cases, there was no text visible at all, just a field of red x's.
Of the B2B e-mail messages, 64 percent had headlines I could read; only 25 percent of B2C messages met this same standard. If recipients don't know what the message is about, what's their incentive to download the images? This is why having a headline that's visible, even when the images aren't, is useful.
Call to Action in the Preview Pane
Another best practice I strive to incorporate into all my work is a viable call to action in the preview pane. By viable I mean clickable. If readers skim the reading pane and are sold, they can take the next step without having to scroll.
But if the call to action is an image, readers can't see it. That big "Order Now" button is nice... until it morphs into a red "x." Even the "click here" alt tag doesn't quite do it.
In my study, only 33 percent of the messages had a call to action that was readily recognizable with suppressed images. Either the visual call-to-action image was blocked in the other 67 percent or there wasn't one that appeared in the preview pane at all. It was hard to tell.
B2B messages again came out on top, with 50 percent including a non-image call to action in the reading pane, compared to just 19 percent of B2C e-mail messages viewed.
Link to View Online
Back before HTML e-mail (yes, I know I'm showing my age!), we used to send plain-text e-mail and include a link to view the content on the Web. That went out of fashion when HTML came along, but it returned when image suppression became common. Giving the reader a link to view the e-mail online provides a one-click way to view images. It's a quick, if somewhat primitive, way around image blocking.
Again, I was surprised how few e-mail marketers take advantage of this simple idea. Only 27 percent of the e-mail I looked at included a link like this in the reading pane. The B2C group was ahead here with 38 percent, compared to just 14 percent of B2B marketers who included this feature for readers.
The traditional location for this type of message is the very top of the message; it usually appears in plain text in a small font. Placement may be changing (see my column on snippets for why), but for now this is where most marketers include it.
Request for Whitelisting
This is another oft-cited best practice for deliverability, but one few seem to be taking advantage of. In the sample, only 27 percent of e-mail included language at the top of the message (same location as the "view online" link) asking readers to whitelist the sender. No B2B marketers made this request, and only 50 percent of the B2C messages included it.
In addition to keeping the e-mail you send out of the junk folder, Office 2003 and other programs for which image blocking is the default show e-mail images from senders that appear in the recipient's contact list. It's just one more reason to make the request and to make sure you're sending from a single sender address so readers need only add you to their contact lists once, not repeatedly. (Many of these programs work off e-mail addresses, not domains, though Outlook 2003 gives readers the choice. Don't count on recipients knowing the difference.)
Ability to Communicate Without Images
This is the big one. If the images in your e-mail are suppressed (and the recipient doesn't download them), is the message still delivered? If it is, you're good. If not, it's a waste of time, money, and effort on your part.
I used a scale of 0 to 3 to rank each message:
* 3 = Message was delivered loud and clear, even without images.
* 2 = Basic information on offer was visible.
* 1 = Basic information on sender, but not offer, was visible.
* 0 = Without images, the reader has no clue what the e-mail is about.
The average rank for my sample was 1.4. Here's the breakdown:
* 17 percent (all B2B) of the messages earned the top rank of 3.0, an A.
* 34 percent scored a 2.0, a B.
* 20 percent (all B2C) landed at 1.0, a C.
* 30 percent were a big goose egg with a 0.0 rank, an F.
B2B messages fared far better than B2C messages, garnering an average rank of 1.8 (C+) compared to just 1.0 (let's call it a solid C). No B2C e-mail earned a 3.0; 31 percent rated a 0.0, with the same percentage garnering a 2.0. On the B2B side, the 3.0 ranking went to 36 percent of the sample; 29 percent were in the 0 zone.