When it comes to HTML email, anticipate the worst

Outlook's Trust Center

Our recent blog post on image blocking in email received an awesome response. I generally gauge this by the quality of questions, rebuttals and comments that wash in, many of which are genuinely good food for thought. Like:

This statement “only 48% of email recipients see images automatically.” does not actually result in “(the email being not read) by over half of its intended recipients.” because presumably… some have changed the default settings. I would like to see some stats on how many users have changed their default settings to show images.

As it turns out, most folks don’t tinker with their apps. According to this experiment by Jared Spool, less than 5% of users change their default settings, even when prompted. Jared’s study required that users turn on autosaving of documents in Microsoft Word - a simple, beneficial change - and was just as surprised at the low uptake then as we are now. He explains:

When we interviewed a sample of (our users), they all told us the same thing: They assumed Microsoft had it turned off for a reason, therefore who were they to set it otherwise. “Microsoft must know what they are doing,” several participants told us.

Now think about Outlook 2007. The first time I attempted to turn off image blocking in this email client, I had to Google around to find out where this setting could be (it’s in their Trust Center). Do you think most Outlook users (excluding coders, designers or tech folk) would have the time, inclination or know-how to fool around and do the same?

Would most Yahoo! Mail users be bothered to change their similarly tucked-away spam settings, so images are displayed for trusted senders?

What this tells me is that email designers have to anticipate the worst. Images will be blocked in email clients. Just because .wmv videos do play in the inbox when Outlook’s security settings are turned right down, doesn’t mean that they will play. To take it a step further, if some of your subscribers are using CSS-unfriendly email clients like Gmail, you have to design like they all are. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use cool CSS effects and nice formatting - you just have to make sure the message is still very much readable, even under less-than-desirable conditions.

So test your emails with default settings on, even if it results in the worst-case rendering scenario. Chances are, that’s what many of your subscribers are stuck with.

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

7 Comments

  • Kelly Lorenz
    13th October

    Thanks for this follow up. I definitely understand as marketers we have to expect the lowest common denominator, but what about individual email/sender behavior? My hunch is that if an email is wanted and valuable, the user simply hits “Always display images from this sender” and image blocking is no longer an issue. Any thoughts on this?

  • Keith
    14th October

    Not hitting “Always display…” out of laziness is always an issue. I’m guilty of it. Kind of like continuing to hit the delete button rather than unsubscribing. I vote design/test for worst case.

  • Ros Hodgekiss
    14th October

    @Kelly - It’s hard to say how often this happens. To take the ‘Negative Nancy’ view, could it be just as likely that the recipient will hit ‘Delete’ if they can’t view the email? Or to use the example above, could many recipients assume that images are not being displayed because ‘the email client knows what it’s doing’ and never enable them?

    These are all contingencies that we have to prepare for, even if they run against the generally positive outlook that designers and marketers have :)

  • Aim Social
    19th October

    I almost never hit “always display” until perhaps a year of receiving an email and occasionally opening.

    If only all were using Gmail then we could send actual video in that email easily!....the holy grail!

  • Jarrod
    25th October

    Being quoted on a Campaign Monitor blog post! It is and will be the height of my Internet fame. Great to see it sparked an investigation!

    To be honest I’m not surprised, unfortunately the majority of people aren’t aware of settings or preferences in most programs, therefore won’t look to change the status quo.

    Nice find Ros, now I can back up my assumptions with research :)

  • igor Griffiths
    26th October

    Having just moved my autoresponder service to GetResponse they disparagingly call plain text email as returning to the 80’s yet it is for the very reasons that you highlight that I stick with it.

    I wish to focus on the message and not have to focus on how to get the message delivered, it is after all hard enough to get them opened!

    Images do add an extra element to the message but they can also hide malicious content and this is the pervading message that most non technical people are receiving. Not to trust html email.

    Of course as more people move onto mobile Internet they are not going to be pleased when you waste a portion of their precious monthly allowance on an image that adds little to the message.

    igor Griffiths

  • mel
    29th October

    I never read a text placed between ugly blank image frames… I find the whole message disgusting!
    So, I guess the people who have images disabled will never read an HTML message… I can optimize all I want, but they simply won’t read it!

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