How long is too long?

A client recently asked me if their emails are too long. They were concerned that they were featuring too many messages and, especially on mobile, that the overall scroll height was getting a bit out-of-hand. It’s an interesting question and it would be convenient if there was a straightforward answer like ‘2,000 pixels’. Alas, it’s not as simple as that; there are a few important factors that need to be weighed up before we can make a judgement. 

Managing expectations

Before we get too involved, it’s worth mentioning that the average time spent reading a marketing email is pretty short. Less than 12 seconds. Roughly 25% of opens get a cursory glance of less than 2 seconds. When creating content for attention spans comparable to that of a toddler, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it short and sweet. Sure, some emails will buck the trend but, as a rule, particularly for B2C campaigns intended to drive conversions (as opposed to awareness or engagement), less tends to be more. 

Balls all over the place

Say I throw you a single tennis ball. Assuming I don’t launch it at your head like a Scud missile, there’s a good chance you’ll catch it. Say I then simultaneously throw you three tennis balls - you might catch one of them, but there’s a risk you won’t be able to decide where to put your attention in time, and they’ll all go sailing past you. The more I simultaneously throw, the less likely you are to catch any. 

You get the idea - single-minded messages are easier to absorb and typically result in greater response rates than the same message bundled in with a load of competing noise. 

Don’t get clipped

There is one area where we have a clear-cut limit that should not be exceeded. Gmail (which accounts for 26% of all email opens at the time of writing) and Yahoo! Mail clip emails that have a message size (by which we mean HTML payload, not your images) greater than 102kb. The rest of your message will be hidden behind a ‘view entire message’ link. What’s more, Gmail and Yahoo! aren’t remotely considerate about the code they chop off, and they certainly don’t helpfully close any HTML tags that are left open as a result, resulting in a high propensity for wonkiness. And if that wasn’t enough, your tracking pixel is usually right at the bottom of your code, so that gets clipped too and you don’t record an open. Clipping is no bueno. 

Fortunately it shouldn’t be hard to keep your HTML below the threshold, provided you (or your developers, or your agency - need a new one?) put appropriate energy into crafting clean, minimal code. And your emails aren’t too long…

Images, images, images

Linked to, but distinct from, the point above, is the issue of how long your emails are taking to load. This really comes down to your image payload, more than the size of your HTML file. There are many arguments for keeping the number and file size of your images as low as possible and I plan to rant on this very subject in the near future. In the context of this discussion, if your emails are already image-heavy, extra length equals extra load time and a greater risk of a recipient getting bored of waiting. 

What do the stats say?

Ultimately, you’ll get the best measure of whether or not your emails are too long by taking a look at your analytics. We would expect a drop-off in CTR from top-to-bottom, but if the content at the bottom of your email is still getting clicks and your broader trends indicate a healthy list (ratio of active to inactive subscribers, unsubscribe rate etc) why not include it? Just make sure you’re happy with the idea of it playing second fiddle to (and potentially diluting) the content a bit higher up, that you aren’t overdoing it on the images, and that you aren’t going to get clipped.

Would you like us to help?

At Wax Media we create email that inspiresTM (not actually TM). With more than a decade’s experience working with some of the biggest brands and agencies, whatever your goal, we can help you get the most out of the email channel. For a no-obligation chat, give us a call on +44 (0)1189 778578 or email hello@waxmedia.co.uk - we’d love to hear from you.

Do you need to re-think your approach to mobile email?

“Do you design mobile-first?”

I’m asked this question quite frequently. And of course I know that the expected answer is “yes, of course”, which is why it comes as no surprise that when I reply “no” I get looked at as if I’ve just trumped loudly in a business meeting. 

The thing is, I’m not sure that a mobile-first email design philosophy is the answer. Let's look at our options...

design for desktop and casually ignore mobile

Well, no, that’s obviously daft. Daft, but depressingly prevalent; 23% of B2C brands are still sending out emails that are only designed and built to be viewed on desktop or webmail. It’s easy to see how this happens - email code is hard, slicing up a big image is the simplest way of creating an email that doesn’t explode when it lands in the inbox. Add to that the fact that most of the business world consumes email using desktop clients and you can see how it’s all-too-easy to rationalise a desktop-only design approach.  

The good folks at Litmus are handy with the research, and according to their 2017 State of Email report, 54% of email opens (out of more than 12 billion tracked in 2017) were on mobile devices, with desktop and webmail at 16% and 30% respectively. It’s safe to say that for the majority of sectors, more than half of your recipients will open your email on a mobile device.

OK, so we design for mobile first, then?

Sure, you could do that. But what does that actually look like? A single column of content, lots of space between elements, predominantly live text, big fonts, large tappable buttons and links suited for clumsy fingers. In purist terms it makes a lot of sense, but creatively it’s a very limiting approach and for many sectors the loss of design freedom is going to be too bitter a pill to swallow. 

So responsive design is best, yes?

In a lot of ways, yes, it is. Responsive design enables us to use behaviours such as stacking, hiding, re-sizing and swapping to arrange content differently depending on the size of the screen or device on which it is being viewed. Problem solved, let’s go nuts in Photoshop and our developer will make it work.

Alas, there is a drawback. Some mobile email clients still don’t support media queries, so your responsive code won’t… respond. Instead they will scale down your desktop layout to fit a small screen and, often, break it a bit in the process. 

Something for everyone

We believe that the answer is to consider every inbox, and use all of the tools at our disposal. Responsive design will always give us the most flexibility, but we also need to think about those poor souls trying to decipher our emails in the old Android native mail app, for instance. That means thinking about how our desktop layout is going to behave on a small screen and making small adjustments. 

Essentially, take a bit of the logic behind mobile-first, but use responsive design techniques and an understanding of how a wide range of layouts and design elements behave across the entire spectrum of clients and devices to make it better. 

Would you like us to help?

At Wax Media we create email that inspiresTM (not actually TM). With more than a decade’s experience working with some of the biggest brands and agencies, whatever your goal, we can help you get the most out of the email channel. For a no-obligation chat, give us a call on +44 (0)1189 778578 or email hello@waxmedia.co.uk - we’d love to hear from you.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos of email rendering

As a professional email designer and veteran of more than half a million Litmus email previews, hearing me describe email rendering as chaotic may not inspire confidence in my abilities. Fear not, dear clients, I remain a stickler for detail and at Wax we take great pride in achieving the best possible appearance for a given campaign in every inbox. But I can assure you of one thing - your email won’t look the same for every recipient. To pursue perfect consistency between the myriad desktop, webmail and mobile email clients, factoring in the added influence of operating system, browser or user-specific settings, is frankly a fool’s errand. Not a comfortable feeling for the brand police, but with a little mental adjustment this might actually turn out to be a positive thing. 

Why so different?

Once upon a time our agency built websites for a living. Back then we used to rant endlessly about Internet Explorer 6 and how it was crippling the Internet with its lousy CSS support. Fast-forward a few years and we routinely test each and every email we create in upwards of 40 different environments, ranging from the top-of-the-class (well played, iOS Mail) to the kids in dunce hats (I’m looking at you, Outlook and IBM Notes). How we long for simpler times. 

The differences in email rendering from one environment to the next come from a number of factors:

  • the ESP
  • the mail server
  • pre-processing
  • the operating system
  • the mail client’s rendering engine
  • the web browser (for webmail clients)

At each step in the delivery chain there is potential for our lovingly crafted email code to be tinkered with (or just not understood). Some of the tinkering is fairly benign, some can be anticipated and 'fixed' in advance, but some is just plain unavoidable, leaving us with rendering inconsistencies that we have to accept and factor in to our design process. Here are a few specifics that highlight the extent of the challenge:

  • Most Android mail apps will replace your font with Roboto.
  • Google Inbox on Android will make that font 20% larger than everywhere else.
  • Fonts across the board look heavier on Mac OS than Windows.
  • Gmail App on Android running an IMAP mail account will refuse to show your background images.
  • IBM Notes, Outlook 07 - 16 and Windows Mail can be bullied into displaying a background image but with many limitations.

And your point… is?

Well, I previously stated our goal at Wax as achieving the best possible appearance for a given campaign in every inbox - and that’s really the crux of the matter. All too often our efforts at ironing out the inconsistencies in an email’s appearance result in us fixing and fiddling until we’re left with something that looks decidedly mediocre everywhere. We know that our emails will look a bit different for every recipient, so once we’ve freed ourselves of any hopeless obligation to achieve uniformity we can start to think about how to achieve that ‘best possible appearance’ throughout the spectrum of rendering environments. And what we find is that ‘best possible appearance’ means something very different for Outlook 2007 when compared with something like Apple Mail. 

Time for a buzzword

Progressive enhancement. Sounds like jargon, is jargon, but it actually describes our approach quite nicely. Start with a basic appearance that isn’t going to get messed up - fundamental things like the broad desktop and mobile layout, colours, sizes and proportions of elements. We then add layers of niceness (technical term) that the more capable mail clients can handle. This can range from simple things like webfonts and CSS properties right up to animation and even interactivity. 

Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, you actively exploit the ways that different email clients handle and alter HTML code to enable you to target them with certain features. In the past year we’ve created emails containing quizzes, interactive hotspots, hamburger menus and all sorts of other fun and funky features that roughly half of the recipients get to see, targeting the email clients that will support that sort of functionality and providing fallback content for everything else. Rather than a big broken awful mess.  

So there we have it. Rather than disappear up our own collective fundaments in the pursuit of a homogenised email rendering world, let’s get the basics right, and then start thinking about those layers of niceness.

Would you like us to help?

At Wax Media we create Email That InspiresTM (not actually TM). With more than a decade’s experience working with some of the biggest brands and agencies, whatever your goal, we can help you get the most out of the email channel. For a no-obligation chat, give us a call on +44 (0)1189 778578 or email hello@waxmedia.co.uk - we’d love to hear from you.