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Image Blocking, Alt Tags and Why CSS Rules

For the most current results on image blocking in email clients, view our updated post. I read an article on Clickz today by Jeanne Jennings on the current state of image blocking in email. Jeanne tested 30 random B2B and B2C emails in her inbox on their approach to image blocking. While the results were mixed, I was very surprised to see her suggest that image alt tags might not even be worth the effort. She cited the instructions Outlook 2003 places before the alt text for every image (explaining the image is blocked and how to show it) as the reasoning behind this. It’s a mouthful. And it precedes any alt tag text the sender might have included. So even when there were alt tags, they weren’t prominently placed or easy to read or skim. Based on this, the value of alt tags is minimal. I’m not sure I’d bother. The only problem with this assertion is that not everyone uses Outlook 2003. In most of the popular email environments, such as Yahoo, Gmail, Thunderbird for example, alt text is displayed unimpaired for every image in your email and can go a long way to encouraging your recipients to enable images. But there’s another benefit that needs to be considered. What about accessibility? To many email readers, there’s an even more important reason to ensure descriptive alt text for every image in your email – accessibility. Any of your recipients who are visually impaired use the alt text you specify for each to get a better understanding of your email content, especially if that image has some relevance/importance to the content of your email. Jennifer Kyrnin has put together some nice suggestions on how to write alt tags for accessibility that are worth a look. The magic of CSS While alt tags are extremely important, there’s an alternative CSS technique we can use in our HTML emails that in my opinion beats the pants off the old images/alt text approach. This technique, explored in detail by Mark Wyner a few months back, includes the use of background images via CSS instead of simply placing the image in your XHTML/HTML content. Using this approach, Mark can display styled and well formatted alt text when images are off, replaced with the image itself when images are on. No ugly placeholder images with a big red X, no messy instructions in Outlook, just a nicely styled text alternative or the image itself. Further to this, the content is completely accessible for the visually impaired. Talk about a win/win! So, I guess the takeaways are: Always use alt text for the images in your email Try to keep them as descriptive as possible (see here for more on this) If possible, try and use the CSS background image approach to avoid the ugly placeholder issue altogether.

Blog Post

Inside the New .Mac Webmail Client

Apple has introduced a new webmail client for their .Mac customers. It’s a truly phenomenal webmail client, functioning nearly parallel to that of their desktop client, Mail. For a brief moment I became disoriented, because while in my browser I was experiencing what I do every day in Mail. Whoa. Of course my first thoughts were concerns for how they may now be handling HTML emails. As I noted in a previous article, .Mac’s previous webmail client had amazing support for CSS and standards-based markup. The two major oddities were easily remedied, and we were on our way. So how does the new .Mac perform? I ran some tests and the results are in: the plane has crashed into the mountain! (A reference for the Lebowski fans out there.) Testing: Round One My first tests lead me to believe that .Mac’s support for CSS completely disappeared. (And that consequently produced a brief daydream wherein I was Tony Soprano chasing down the .Mac developers for some revenge.) Quickly realizing there were roughly 10,000 lines of AJAX markup (have I mentioned how cool the interface is?) in the .Mac interface, I turned to the amazing Web Developer extension for Firefox to help me locate the markup for my rendered test-message. Once I was in, it didn’t take long to locate the problem. The new .Mac takes an approach similar to that of Yahoo, whereby a message ID is applied to a new all-encompassing container DIV and every style is prefixed with the respective ID to create child selectors… Original HTML: <div id="BodyImposter"> <h1>Headline h1</h1> <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p> </div> Original CSS: #BodyImposter { [properties] } #BodyImposter h1 { [properties] } Modified HTML: <div id="messageCanvas_070C9153"> <div id="BodyImposter"> <h1>Headline h1</h1> <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p> </div> </div> Modified CSS: #messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter { [properties] } #messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter h1 { [properties] } This process is obviously aimed at foiling any modifications to the .Mac GUI caused by the use of type selectors. And if properly executed it would not impact the appearance of the source email. However, .Mac adds a gratuitous DIV just inside the new #messageCanvas DIV, consequently rendering all CSS useless… .Mac-rendered HTML: <div id="messageCanvas_070C9153"> <div> <div id="BodyImposter"> <h1>Headline h1</h1> <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p> </div> </div> </div> In order for the .Mac styles to work, #messageCanvas_070C9153 > #BodyImposter would need to become #messageCanvas_070C9153 > div > #BodyImposter. Such a seemingly harmless little DIV topples the entire email. The .Mac developers obviously didn’t thoroughly test this process. Testing: Round Two I ran a second test to see if I could overcome this problem, but came up short. I added my own child-selector system in the CSS, but did not add it to the HTML… My HTML: <div id="BodyImposter"> <h1>Headline h1</h1> <p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…</p> </div> My CSS: div > #BodyImposter { [properties] } div > #BodyImposter h1 { [properties] } This would account for the gratuitous DIV that .Mac tosses into the mix because I didn’t actually add the new DIV to my HTML. Sure enough it worked like a charm, and .Mac’s support for the CSS in my test email was flawless. But using this process would render the CSS useless in every other email client because the new DIV would only appear in .Mac. Oh, the conundrum. Grim Conclusion So the result is that we’re at an impasse with .Mac: either we support other clients or we support .Mac. The former is the obvious choice, leaving us with .Mac emails looking like those rendered in Gmail and Hotmail. Bummer. I contacted Apple about this bug, but since they do not communicate directly with their customers we can only hope my message is routed/attended to by their .Mac developers. Until then, we just have to live with it. Unless someone out there has a creative solution up their sleeve? UPDATE: David/Rumble’s recommendation works wonders I ran a couple tests using this remedy, and all is well with .Mac. The downside is this solution requires a significant increase in markup because every selector must be declared twice. So for anyone considering this technique to preserve formatting in .Mac, I recommend first assessing how many .Mac addresses are on the subscription list.

Blog Post

AOL Delivery Issues

We’re currently experiencing problems delivering some campaigns to your AOL subscribers. We’ve been in talks with the AOL postmaster since the issue was identified and are hoping to have the issue resolved as soon as possible (the big guys aren’t the most nimble unfortunately). In the mean time, we’ll be delivering all your campaigns as normal, but holding off sending your emails to your AOL recipients until they can guarantee the issue is resolved. We’ll be posting an update here the moment they can give us that confirmation. Update (6pm US EST): We’ve just had confirmation from AOL that they’re aware of the issue and are resolving it now, just waiting for a final confirmation and green light. More here soon. Update (7.20pm US EST): The issue has now been resolved and we’ll be resuming delivery to your AOL recipients in the next 24 hours. Thanks for your patience.

Blog Post

Scheduled Maintenance This Sunday

We’ll be completing the final phase in our big infrastructure upgrade we mentioned a few weeks back this Sunday night morning. Because of this, you won’t be able to access your Campaign Monitor account for roughly six hours between 12.30am and 6.30am on Sunday morning US EST (convert this to your own time zone). We’ve gone very conservative with this window and are hoping to have this upgrade completed sooner. And don’t worry, the application will continue to tick along nicely behind the scenes adding new subscribers and tracking your campaigns, you just won’t be able to log in to the Campaign Monitor interface. New IP Range Our system upgrade also means we’ll be delivering your campaigns from a new set of IP addresses. In our continued commitment to getting your email delivered, we’ve been submitting these new IP’s to the big ISP’s like AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo! and many others to ensure we continue to be whitelisted. Our new IP range is: 72.15.222.60 - 72.15.222.74 (inclusive) Also, anyone who has whitelisted our old IP’s for their own server or corporate network or set up SPF/Sender ID records should update their mail servers and DNS accordingly. We’ll make an announcement here as soon as the upgrade is completed. Update: Please note that we’ve changed the maintenance times from Sunday night to very early Sunday morning starting at 12.30am. By the time most of you guys are out of bed, we’ll be good to go. Final update: DONE! Our infrastructure upgrade is now complete and we’re purring along nicely in our new data center. We’ve been doing some serious testing for the last few hours, but if you spot anything that looks out of the ordinary, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. Some subscriber list RSS feeds might not work for the next few hours until re-delegation is completed. Thanks for your patience, we’ve had a long day and it’s well past beer o’clock at the Freshview office!

Blog Post

Want to Join the Campaign Monitor Team?

We’re looking for an experienced, Sydney-based designer to join the Freshview team and help our Campaign Monitor and MailBuild customers (that’s you guys) kick even more ass than you already are. The responsibilities will be varied, including working with customers to improve how they use our products, putting together helpful articles and flexing your design muscle across our apps and web sites. This position is perfect for a designer who is looking to get their hands dirty in other fields like building communities online and educating other designers. If you’re interested, you can get the full scoop on the Freshview site. While we’re on the subject, we’re also on the hunt for an experienced .NET developer and Windows sys admin. It’s exciting times in the Freshview office.

Blog Post

Optimizing for Gmail’s Snippets and Outlook’s AutoPreview

Inspired by Jeanne Jennings great write-up on designing emails for Gmail’s snippets and Outlook’s auto-preview, I decided to run a few tests of my own. First things first, a Gmail snippet is that small chunk of light grey text immediately following your email subject in the Gmail inbox. It usually includes the first few lines from your email to give the recipient a sample of what’s to come. Outlook’s AutoPreview feature is a very similar concept. Problem is, the first few lines of your email might be a link to your web-based version or an unsubscribe link – probably not the optimal text to encourage your recipient to dive into the email. Then Jeanne came out with this gem: Yes, you can simply place your fabulously engaging snippet/AutoPreview phrase at the very top of the e-mail where all will see it. Or you can use alt tags and place it beneath an image at the top of your e-mail (say, your logo). The alt tag text will come through in the snippet or AutoPreview area, but it won’t be seen once the reader opens the e-mail. What a top idea! We decided to have a go at this technique with the latest version of the Campaign Monitor newsletter, which of course, was sent a few hours before we saw this article. We left the original email completely untouched, but added the following single pixel transparent image to the top of our email with some alt text that gave a good overview of the email contents, like such: <img alt="14 new email designs in the gallery, loads of tips and the latest updates for Campaign Monitor" src="https://www.campaignmonitor.com/assets/uploads/explanation.gif" width="1" height="1" /> Here’s a before and after sample of the original version of the email in both Gmail and Outlook and the updated version with the transparent image: Gmail The alt text version now gives the recipients a much better idea about what to expect from our newsletter. Outlook For some reason Outlook was inserting a weird line-break in our alt text that we couldn’t avoid. If anyone knows the reasoning behind this we’d love to hear it. Either way though, a much improved bit of teaser text. As you can see, that small hidden image gave our recipients a much better teaser about the content of the email, which would hopefully encourage more of our subscribers to check the email out. Big props to Jeanne for introducing us to the concept. I’d say we’ll be using this approach for all our newsletters moving forward, and encourage you to do the same.

Blog Post

Tips on Effective Segmenting

As many of you know, Campaign Monitor makes it easy to create segments of subscribers within a larger subscriber list. This makes it much easier to target specific types of subscribers based on their demographics, preferences, etc. While creating a segment is easy, choosing the right segments and executing on a good segmentation strategy is much more challenging. Stephanie Miller recently put together a whole swag of tips on the best approach to list segmentation, specifically focusing on capturing the right data during the initial subscribe process. Well worth a read if you’re currently segmenting, or looking for a good place to start.

Blog Post

A Few Handy Plain Text Formatting Tips

We recently made a few subtle tweaks to Campaign monitor when you select the format you’d like to send your email in. We still present the same options – HTML only, HTML and text or plain text only – but we’ve tweaked the copy to encourage those sending HTML only emails to also include a text version. There are many reasons behind this. Including a text version can improve your deliverability, it looks much better when forwarded by many web-based email clients, and is a format some of your subscribers simply prefer. While your formatting options are obviously more limited, there are still plenty of do’s and don’t you need to observe when designing plain text emails. Stefan Pollard recently put together a few great tips on the best approach to formatting plain text emails that are definitely worth checking out. While you’re at it, take a look at Mark Brownlow’s tips for formatting plain text emails we published here back in December 2004. All his points are still very relevant today.

Blog Post

Look for the Positives in Your Unhappy Subscribers

As you know, Campaign Monitor is directly integrated into the feedback loop for a number of large ISP’s like AOL, Hotmail, MSN, Juno, Netzero and a few others. This means that when any of your subscribers at these ISP’s mark your campaign as junk, we automatically remove them from your list and give you a detailed report about who made the complaint and when. Derek Harding recently put together an overview of how feedback loops actually work and there are two points we think he covered really well. The first is an explanation of why even the most well maintained lists can still see a few complaints. It’s important to understand that though your list may be 100 percent opt-in, it may still receive a substantial number of complaints. For years, end users have been told not to trust email unsubscribe links, so many users hit the spam button as a way of unsubscribing. While we do take action when a customer receives a significant number of spam complaints, we certainly realize that many of your recipients are just taking the easy way out or might not trust your unsubscribe link. Then there was this beauty. Too many marketers dismiss complainants as troublemakers and malcontents. The reality is there’s a wealth of data in who complains and what they complain about. Regardless of whether you believe the complaints are unfounded, if they complained they were dissatisfied. Smart marketers aim to avoid dissatisfied customers (or prospective customers). In my experience, the majority of complaints are caused by a failure to meet expectations. A common case is high complaint rates among new subscribers. This can be caused by subscribers not realizing what they signed up for, subscribers not getting what they thought they signed up for, or a long delay between sign-up and the first mailing. Just like the recent tips on getting the most out of your unsubscribes, there’s plenty we can learn from those marking our legitimate emails as junk. If you’re receiving complaints for any of your campaigns, it might be time to review your subscribe process and make sure you’re meeting and exceeding the expectations of your subscribers.

Blog Post

Hardware Upgrade Problems

A few hours ago we flicked the switch on a big server upgrade including a significant hardware boost and a brand new database server. Unfortunately the process hasn’t gone as smoothly as we had hoped and something that should have taken 5 minutes is going to take much longer. At this stage, it’s very unlikely that we’ll have Campaign Monitor up and running before 6pm (CDT) this afternoon. We can’t apologize enough for this, and please rest assured that we’re doing everything in our power to get things running smoothly again. We’ll post updates here the moment we’re back online and you can access your account. UPDATE – 12.45pm (CDT) All sent campaigns should be displaying and working fine now. Link tracking is currently disabled but we’ll switch that on soon. In the mean time though, your recipients won’t notice a thing. We’re now working on your subscribe forms and will post here as soon as they’re back online. UPDATE – 1.25pm (CDT) OK, subscribe forms are back online now. This means your campaign recipients and any subscribers are no longer affected by this outage. Link tracking is also back online and we’re now hard at work getting the application itself available UPDATE – 4.45pm (CDT) We’re making plenty of progress bringing the application back online, but it looks like we won’t make our self imposed deadline of 6pm (CDT). As it’s coming to the end of the business day for many of you, we recommend waiting until tomorrow to get any campaigns out. A hardware problem managed to corrupt some recent data, so we’re treading carefully to restore this problem before we open the application up again. It’s tough to give accurate estimates on when this will be complete but we don’t want to promise any less than 6 more hours (12am CDT). As usual, we’ll be posting here the moment you can access your account and thanks again for your patience. UPDATE – 2.00am (CDT) Right now it looks like we’re less than 2 hours away from bringing the application back online. All of our hardware issues have now been resolved and we’re tying up loose ends before flicking the switch back on. Thanks for all the kind words we’ve been receiving too, your understanding is very much appreciated. More news to follow real soon… UPDATE – 6.40am (CDT) WE’RE BACK! Access to all accounts has been re-enabled and all the queued campaigns are getting delivered as I type this. We’ll be closely monitoring everything, but please feel free to access your account. We can’t thank you guys enough for the kind words of support and patience as we got to the bottom of this issue. We’ve seriously got the best customers in the world. UPDATE – 8.20am (CDT) While the application is back online and fully operational, the hardware failure did mean that a portion of our customers data needed to be restored from a very recent backup. Unfortunately this meant that anything added to those accounts during this window was lost. We’ll also be restoring some data to these accounts to fill in some of these gaps over the next 12-24 hours.

Blog Post

One of the Most Underrated Essentials in Email Design

These days there’s a growing list of essential content you should include in every email you send. You know the drill. Unsubscribe mechanism, postal address, link to web version, the list goes on. The permission reminder message Of all the essential content though, there’s one I consistently see missing in many of the thousands of campaigns we deliver each week. What makes this more surprising is that this is one of the most important elements and also one of the easiest to add. I’m talking about the permission reminder message – a simple sentence or two reminding the subscriber how they gave you their permission to email them. Here’s a quick example: Hi, just a reminder that you’re receiving this email because you subscribed via our web site. As promised, this issue includes great tips on …… Simple hey. In 2 simple sentences you’ve assured each recipient that your email isn’t spam and reminded them why they were interested in hearing from you in the first place. Don’t stop there We’re nearly there, but now that you’ve reminded the subscriber how you got their permission and what you’re sending them, why not give those that are no longer interested the option to unsubscribe right there and then. Here’s a complete example: Hi, just a reminder that you’re receiving this email because you subscribed via our web site. As promised, this issue includes great tips on ……, but you may unsubscribe if you’re no longer interested. If you can’t summarise how you got their permission in a few words, then there’s every chance you don’t have it or they won’t remember giving it to you. “Remember that time you downloaded a report from our partner and gave them your email address” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. While we’re on the subject, we recently tweaked our anti-spam policy to make our permission requirements crystal clear. We give you a quick summary of this each time you add subscribers to your account, but it’s worth a peek if you haven’t already checked it out.

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