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Bridging the Web and Email: The Case for Subtle Interactivity

The limitations of email might be frustrating for most designers, but for Austin Woodall they’re a source of inspiration — so much so that it changed his career.

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The limitations of email might be frustrating for most designers, but for Austin Woodall they’re a source of inspiration — so much so that it changed his career.

“I went to school for traditional print marketing,” Woodall says. “Development was something I just did for fun. But through some contract work I was introduced to email, and I fell in love with the medium because it was such a challenge.”

When we last spoke to Woodall, he talked about his interest in exploring the limits of email as a medium and an art form. To that end, Woodall has experimented extensively with interactive email. In the conversation below, he talks about the pros and cons of going interactive — and why getting your messaging just right is still what matters most.

Why isn’t interactive email more common?

For developers, interactive email has a high barrier to entry. It’s definitely the most difficult form of email. And with email, we don’t have the convenience of things like JavaScript to power interactivity. So when adding interactive elements, you have to rely on hacky techniques — which are really easy to screw up.

There are so many email platforms out there that render email in so many different ways. You have to be able to account for 20 different scenarios. So email — and especially interactive email — is not something most developers want to work on.

But it seems like something consumers would respond well to, since so much of the web is interactive.

One of the biggest hurdles of interactivity in email is that subscribers don’t know that elements are interactive. People are so used to receiving an email that doesn’t do anything that they don’t look for those types of interactions. In order to see meaningful engagement, it takes time to train users that these elements work in their inboxes.

For a marketer with limited resources, interactive email must seem equal parts enticing and intimidating. How should they decide if this is something they’d like to try?

Interactivity opens a lot of options for additional features. When you can fit elements like "Add to Cart" or "Checkout" into an email, it can be a real game-changer. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

First, you have to have a foundational knowledge of code. You don’t have to be a web expert, but you need to know HTML and CSS, because that’s all you get in email — there aren’t any of the more dynamic scripts.

Next, you need to be prepared for hours of trial and error. For instance, I once spent several months working on an interactive email for a big Black Friday sale because there was so much testing to be done. The odds that you’ll get it right the first time on 20 different email clients are pretty low — and then there are all the little errors you’ll nitpick to death.

You should also look at your metrics to see what email clients your audience uses. If most of your subscribers read email on Outlook, you might as well forget interactive email — it’s just not going to work.

That all sounds pretty grim.

The thing I would remind people of is that most users only view an email for about 10 seconds. That’s just not a big window for people to browse through an elaborate experience. As a developer, I think interactivity is great, but what marketers want to know is whether it converts.

That’s why I tend to emphasize starting with micro-interactions. If you’re new to interactivity, you can still use it to good effect by focusing on hover states for links, or playing with rollover images — for instance, showing different angles and aspects of a product when you hover over it. Interactive elements don’t have to be these huge pieces of functionality. They can also be pretty simple pieces of design.

What are the other advantages of keeping things simple?

For one, it’s more familiar. Hover states are pretty common on the web, and it’s easy to get that interaction in an email even if people aren’t expecting it.

But also, let’s not forget that the message is what’s important. It can be easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to say, or what you want your user to do. For e-commerce, I don’t think that interactive elements should try and supplant a working website. They can be a great way to catch people’s attention or show personalized recommendations, but you still want to drive users to your site. Keeping things simple helps you point them to an action.

So putting a whole shopping experience within an email might not be the way to go.

To me, that’s over the top. The closest I ever came to building something like that was a checkout CTA — here’s an item, add it to your cart, and go out.

I think the balance you want to strike is to bring the aesthetics of the web into email. You’re trying to create a familiarity between the 2 different mediums. I always say it’s bridging web and email. It creates continuity — I open the email and click through to the website, and I don’t feel like the experience changed. In the early days of our email program, there was a huge difference in terms of email and website design, and at times it created a disconnect for anyone clicking through.

And there’s always going to be a difference between email and web; to some degree, it probably should be that way. But you can do a lot more to bridge that gap now, and some of the more subtle interactive elements are a great way to do that.

What do you see as the future of interactive email? Do you think it will ever replace email as we know it?

I always see people in marketing light up when they see a Checkout or Add to Cart feature in an email, and I definitely get it — it’s a very alluring thing. But the support is minimal. And as I mentioned, the average email view time is very brief, so it’s hard to justify spending that much time on the development of an interactive feature that might go completely untouched.

The example I’d give is an interactive email I worked on for a client’s 12-days-of-Christmas sale. I built a functional advent calendar where you’d click on that day’s box to reveal your prize. And riddled throughout the email were hidden Easter eggs, like if you clicked on a day too early you’d get a message that said, “No peeking!” There was even an extra discount hiding in a small Christmas tree in the email’s footer.

And yet nobody ever claimed that extra discount. In fact, there was a dip in engagement with that email overall, in terms of click-through rates. Was it the interactive elements? Should I have given them better instructions on what the email could do?

It’s a hard thing to say. But it really drove home the point to me that content was the main focus, and everything else is secondary. My advice: Let the message shine.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Go Interactive

1. Who is my audience?

“Audience always factors into what works and what doesn’t,” Woodall says. “A younger audience, for instance, is going to be more likely to play around with an email and click through.”

Use the data you have on your audience to determine what’s most likely to hold their attention. And don’t forget to test. When you pay close attention to what your audience interacts with, you can teach yourself what works.

2. Is the interactivity in service of my message?
Whether your interactive element is as simple as a hover effect or as complicated as an online checkout function, it better not confuse what you’re trying to say. “Remember what your email’s purpose is,” Woodall says. “Are you just sending people information to digest? Or do you want them to take an action? The interactivity should always take a back seat to the content.”

3. Do I know what my fallbacks are?
You might have a great plan for an interactive feature, but it’s never going to work for 100% of your audience. That means your fallbacks better be able to pull their weight. “You have to have fallbacks that convey your message and don’t break the email,” Woodall says. “There’s nothing more irritating than getting an email with no content, or that’s all wonky-looking because something doesn’t work.” Always have a plan in place for when — not if — the interactivity doesn’t work.

Illustrations by Jess Rotter, a Los Angeles-based artist whose illustrations have appeared on public murals, album covers, and a whole lot of tee shirts. Her first book, I’m Bored, was released in October of 2016.

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