Ads in the Inbox: Know Your Rendering Reality

It’s the email marketing equivalent of looking in the mirror after you’ve been dancing all night. You feel great, you were light on your feet, but WHAM, you suddenly see your beautiful HTML email crammed into the Hotmail, Yahoo! or AOL interface with blinking ads all around it and suddenly you’ve got a hangover. How in the world can we break through all that interface clutter?

The web-based email clients are certainly getting much more aggressive about navigation, promotions and banner ads surrounding the message. AOL recently started placing ads even for paying subscribers. Might be great for advertisers (although I’m not convinced based on my work at Hotmail in the early, pre-Microsoft days), and it might even be okay for subscribers. But it’s lousy for email marketers — it’s more competition (sometimes literally competitors, as with Gmail) for your message.

How will the ad influx affect your email program? Every case is different, so you’ll need to do some analysis to find out. First, be sure you’ve seen your messages in these client interfaces to understand the visual impact. Use Return Path’s Campaign Preview rendering tool, or create your own test accounts. Then, look at the data. Do subscribers from these domains respond at lower rates? Did you see a drop in response when AOL launched ads in the paid service in early June 2006? Assess how valuable these subscribers are to you, and what you can afford in terms of resources, segmentation and design work to keep them engaged. Most likely, you’ll need and want to do something to keep these folks active. We’ve heard rumblings of some marketers boycotting AOL or disallowing those domains on the house file. That seems silly to me, and naive. Instead, optimize the experience for these subscribers.

Focus on subject lines to improve opens and engage with readers so they are more likely to search amid the ads for your message. Be sure to brand in the from line and even consider “double sided” branding (from line and subject line). Try wild, bold images to overshadow the ads. Alternately, try a minimalist approach to draw the eye better, since many web users skim over banners and navigation when they are searching on a page for content. Consider opposite colors for each of the major domains — i.e. will orange pop in Yahoo!’s blue interface? What if you surround your email template with whitespace so it breaks apart from the navigation? Sure, that reduces your message real estate, but it might make your message pop.

Most subscribers get non-marketing emails in these inboxes, too, so they know where to look for the message. But if your message is also heavy on images or uses a banner-like masthead, it might be hard to distinguish. Be sure to optimize as much of your preview window to really appear in the interface preview window. This might mean dropping a masthead in favor of a headline. Place the call to action (and the button) up top. This is especially important for prospect and acquisition email.

Actively encourage these subscribers to add you to their personal whitelist, so your images appear by default. Do this at registration, on the confirmation page and in the welcome message. Send a quarterly reminder with an incentive (a whitepaper, coupon or special offer could work well and not distract from your brand) to older files.

During registration, test to see if prospects will provide an alternate email address if you give them a good reason to do so. Your desire to have center stage probably won’t work so well for them. But if inbox deliverability and access to certain offers are on the table, you may be able to reduce your reliance on these email clients going forward.

As with every marketing effort, test and re-test. Track success by ISP/domain as well as by segment (buyers, women, new subscribers, etc).

Let me know what you are thinking on this issue!

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