The Real Story Behind Changes to AOL Image Rendering

The eec sent around an email yesterday with some alarming news about the new release of AOL.com and AIM email. According to their report, subscribers using either of these email environments will have their images turned off by default and open rates will suddenly plummet.

Our testing indicates that this is inaccurate. In fact, the new release does suppress images by default, but only for new subscribers to these services. Existing AOL.com and AIM email users will maintain the same image settings they have today. It is certainly true that this change will impact open rates as an open can not be counted on an email with images suppressed. But this change will not be sudden and for some mailers may not be noticeable at all. This is because someone will have to have signed up with one of these accounts yesterday, then sign up with your program now. How much of an impact this will have on your program is completely dependent on three factors: 1. How many new subscribers you typically get in a month, 2. How many of those subscribers use AOL.com or AIM, 3. How many of the people in #2 are new to those accounts.

If you are concerned and want to track the impact of this change, that’s easy. Segment your AOL.com and AIM.com domains by date and analyze your open rates for the time before the change and the time after. One caution: new subscribers usually behave differently than existing subscribers, so it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison. But it should at least give you a sense of what might be happening.

Another important note that the eec report left out: new account holders will be able to set images back on for all messages by default. If they don’t do that, the settings will work the same way they do in AOL 9: images will show for senders who are in the recipients address book, recipients can turn on images for individual messages and images will show for messages that are part of AOL’s enhanced whitelist.

So the advice here is the same as usual:

  1. Encourage users to include you in their address book. See our handy step-by-step guide on how to do this. You might even set up a separate welcome message for new AOL users that encourages this behavior in the early part of your relationship when they are most engaged.
  2. Use a consistent from message. How does this matter? There are many subscribers who make case-by-case decisions on turning on images. Making your email recognizable as one they trust and enjoy and therefore want to see in all it’s graphic glory is the key with these folks. The from address and subject line can help with this. Using text in your header also helps.
  3. Work your design. Be sure to optimize your HTML code so that when images are turned off — in any environment — your message is still formatted correctly and your subscibers know who the message is coming from.
  4. Be a good mailer. It always comes back to reputation. Getting on AOL’s enhanced whitelist means having low complaints, low unknown user rates and squeaky clean infrastructure.

If you have questions about how these changes might affect your program, call your Return Path Account Manager.

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