So You Want Big, Bold, Branded Emails

An image is worth a thousand words. Unless it ruins your sender reputation.

Image-heavy emails seem to be all the rage these days. Dazzling GIFs, bold colors or soothing pastels, striking contrasts, a (couple of) million shades - these emails look like pages straight out of a glossy catalog. The appeal is almost palpable. What’s not to like?

Singing the praises of great images

Don't get us wrong: we're by no means discouraging the use of great images. Sharp, colourful product images or a well-chosen lifestyle shot will certainly grab your audience's attention. As long as images play a supporting role in your message, they're an asset to increasing brand awareness. It only gets troublesome when they take the lead.

After all: we are talking about email marketing here, not the April issue of Vogue. The goal is a bit more complex than entertaining your audience. To make our point, let’s check out some of the issues to watch for.

The dark side of image-heavy emails

Without even getting to the pesky details around file sizes and load times, pixels and paddings, there are a few things that can keep you from maxing out your ROI when it comes to image-driven emails.

  1. Design doesn’t come cheap. Design resources can be intensive when you're thinking about image-first approach. This is fine, as long as you can reasonably expect a solid return on investment - what does it cost to create versus the anticipated revenue you'll be generating. For an NPS email, it will probably be a waste of resources. For a new product launch? Go all in.
  2. Usability matters. Shoppers cannot copy-paste promo codes; they also can't search in their inbox to find the email that triggered their attention. Using just images without live text, you're losing usability opportunities that turn into revenue.
  3. Images aren't responsive. The desktop version of your email may be stunning, but the mobile user experience is critically important too. We all know that images won’t stretch automatically so either you're building every asset for both desktop and mobile (ahem, see point one) or settling for one experience being subpar. And what happens when the text is too tiny on a mobile screen? The dreaded no-click.
  4. Dual track emails are heavy. Creating separate images for desktop and mobile may seem like a handy (though costly) solution to tackle readability - but doing so can easily double the size of the email. Why does that matter? The likelihood of getting clipped or landing in spam also goes up.
  5. Images can be distracting. While lovely to look, our goal is to sell the click - not to impress readers with the designer’s skills. Your audience can miss the key message while they’re busy admiring the trendy duotone design complete with a matching - but less visible - CTA.
  6. Dark mode gives design a bad vibe. Dark mode can pull a nasty one on designs, too. (This is also true for image/text hybrid emails so be careful!)
  7. Watch your spam flags. Discussing deliverability is probably the least sexy aspect of email marketing but trust us - it’s crucial. Image-heavy emails may wreak havoc on deliverability as they are more likely to trigger spam filters. In other words, you pay more to reach a smaller audience.
  8. Email clients are cruel to marketers. Many - even the most common ones like Gmail and Outlook - still block images by default. Estimates vary but somewhere between a third to 45% of all emails sent will be opened with images disabled. At best, shoppers will see the alt texts - then scream in horror and disengage as fast as lightning. (Oh, by the way, voice assistants are getting more and more popular - these apps don’t recognize alt texts so that won’t help either. 

Long story short

Do design-heavy emails look amazing?

A million percent.

Do they cost more than regular emails?

Oh, yes.

Do they outperform plain text?

Well, no.

Can they hurt your brand when used recklessly?

Hell yes.

Plain doesn’t have to be dull

Once again, we are not saying images are entirely bad news bears. They certainly serve a purpose when used wisely. Our approach is to strike a balance between design-heavy and plain text emails.

‘Plain’ doesn't mean sending text-only emails - and it certainly doesn't mean they’re boring and unimaginative. Think properly built and optimized HTML emails with your brand colours, a few well-chosen images, laser-sharp targeting, and a healthy 60-40 text-image ratio. 

TL;DR: A picture is worth a thousand words - unless your email client will not render it and your audience is left with an experience that they’ll drop like a hot potato.

Be clear about your intentions in each email. What goal do you want to achieve?

Aiming to attract attention? Bring in the big guns, go wild with design.

Looking to build trust? Go with plain text.

Our take? Focus on intent, engagement and targeting first, frills and fluff - well, there is a time and place for that, too. And, as always, when in doubt, A/B test your hypothesis.

Let's talk about how you can upgrade your digital marketing experience.

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