How to help ensure your email's images won't be blocked

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blocked imageIn a previous post I wondered why some big brands still send out emails made up almost entirely of images. The theory is that many webmail services and email clients block images by default, so an image-rich email would display badly.

After much musing, I suggested that if you had...
  • brand pulling-power
  • a visual buying experience, and
  • clever use of text and alt-tags probably encouraged people to actively download images in large numbers, overriding any default blocking options. Making the image-rich approach a viable option for senders like big fashion brands.

Or maybe it's much, much simpler than that?

Consider the lowly and much-maligned open rate.

One thing it tells us is that anyone who "opened" an email...
  • is not using a service or software which blocks images, or
  • turned off image suppression for emails with our sender address, or
  • is at least willing to download images when our emails turn up
...otherwise the open would not be recorded (see here for an explanation.)

So here's the theory...

Do you need to design your email for image blocking when sending to someone who has opened your emails in the past? No, because they've already demonstrated that they have images enabled.

Anybody wanting to try image-rich emails safely could simply pull out a list of "people who previously opened at least one email from us" and send this group the image-rich mail.

New subscribers and those with no open yet recorded get a "safe" design with a nice balance of text and images, etc.

I can't see a flaw in the logic, but it seems so painfully obvious that I'm sure there must be.

Anyone tried this already? Anyone disagree with the logic?

(Update: be sure to read the comments for counter-arguments to this theory.)

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Permalink | January 11, 2008 | 15 comment(s)
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Sorry Mark, but I can't agree with you on this one. Your assumption that because I opened one email and turned images on means that I always have images displayed or I will continue to turn on for all future mailings.

You also assume the ISP doesn't make user interface changes after the first email I've received from you. Email clients change all the time and image block settings keep changing too.

I do agree that large brand and image important products can get away with image rich emails (Victoria Secret is all about the images and emails surely wouldn't perform as well in text format) but the average sender/product doesn't have this kind of appeal and shouldn't attempt it.
By Blogger stefan, on 11 January, 2008  

Thanks Stefan. I actually agree with you. Which may sound odd, but let me explain.

Yes, there are assumptions in there. And I fully agree that some of those past opens will:

1. Choose not to download images next time
2. Switch email client
3. Use an ISP that changes default image blocking options

But I would suggest that the number of previous opens who then do not have images enabled will still be relatively small and not big enough to make the exercise a waste of time.

For example, do people really change email client that often?

At any rate worth a test, no?
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 11 January, 2008  

You're gonna have a few "catches" here and there, but that's email marketing for you. i think it's definitely worth a shot. Thanks for the tip Mark.
By Anonymous MailChimp, on 15 January, 2008  

The biggest catch I see is the need to do a "light" (safe) design as well as the "heavy" design. Double work, double segmenting, double reporting,
By Blogger James, on 15 January, 2008  

That's a fair point James. If you're not normally sending different designs to different segments, then it's extra work. So you need to be able to justify that, i.e. there must be some good reason for wanting an image-rich email. Some benefit from the image-rich version that you don't get with the "safe" version.

Examples might be where the visuals are a key or main element of the message. Greetings cards strike me as a good example. Or promotions for home furnishings where you want a big gorgeous image of the products as they'd appear in a room...
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 15 January, 2008  

Two things that come to mind:

1. If you're going to do this, you'd better do it as early as possible for each subscriber.

Subscribers form expectations based on their experience with your emails. If they get used to receiving "light" emails, which they open/read, and you switch them after a while to "heavy" ones, will the change turn them off? (Or, I guess, how many of them will it turn off?)

The sooner you made such a move with subscribers, the less likely that you'd be contradicting their expectations.

2. What do you do with readers who you switch to the "heavy" campaign, that then stop recording opens? Do you switch them back to the "light" campaign after X number of non-(recorded)-opens?

I'm thinking about people who might turn on images for one email, but not for all emails (I personally do this in Gmail with most of my subscriptions), or people checking email on multiple platforms (Outlook and Blackberry, for example).

I like the idea in theory, Mark, but it's clearly not for everyone. Worth testing for some, though. (Like the guys at MailChimp say, that's email marketing!)
By Anonymous Justin Premick, on 16 January, 2008  

Good points Justin. Thanks.

Clearly there is more to this than meets the eye.

How about tracking "welcome email" opens and then using that to decide whether to start people down the image-rich or "safe" route?

The safest approach might be to do it on a one-off basis for those image-rich emails where there is a clear (to the recipient) reason for doing something different. Like the pretty birthday greeting. Or a beautifully designed sales notice or printable coupon?

Not sure about how you then treat non-opens...hmmm...somebody needs to do some serious testing!
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 16 January, 2008  

Hi Mark:

Interesting thought, but... opinion is that this won't necessarily work because of spam filters. An e-mail with a large images-to-text ratio will be very probably flagged as spam by most filters in the market. In the extreme case, if you receive an e-mail with only a 'img' tag in it, what would you think?, what a spam filter would infer?

I think it will be a positive for spam.

You got to the recipients in the first case because your e-mail was a "normal" one, with text and some images, and the right content to not be considered spam. But in the second chance, when you send your e-mail full of images it will be considered spam by most filters and you will only get to those recipients that don't have one of these spam filters.

This is just my opinion.


By Anonymous José Manuel Alarcón Aguín, on 10 March, 2008  

Thanks JM. Yep, spam filtering is a potential problem. This whole issue is not a cut and dried case. Seems like plenty of arguments for and against!
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 11 March, 2008  

Sorry guys but what the hell are you talking about? How about a simple explanation for idiots like me. I will appreciate it very much cause i do have problems opening some images
By Blogger serf, on 10 August, 2008  

Serf, are you having trouble opening images in email you receive?

If so, that's not what this is about, which would explain the confusion. This post is for businesses and organizations *sending* commercial email.
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 10 August, 2008  

Hi guys,
Haven't found an answer to my very burning question anywhere on the net yet, thought you might be able to help out. I'm creating a newsletter for my company, but when trsting the images appear as a grey block. I'm using full URL of ocurse, and it's html designed. Why are the images not showing in the email?
thanks in advance
By Blogger AGI, on 05 September, 2008  

AGI, where are you viewing the test emails?

It might be something as banal as you using an email client or webmail service that automatically replaces images with a grey box, like Yahoo Mail does. So your coding is fine, just the end-user's browser or software is not displaying images in emails.
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 07 September, 2008  

Hi Mark,
That's a pretty late reply from my side, sorry.
As you said, I check the email in yahoo mail, where all images are grey boxes. Sounds like nothing to do about it?
By Blogger AGI, on 29 January, 2009  


No problem. There's quite a bit of literature on the image blocking problem and how to deal with it. Check this article, and then the links here.
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 29 January, 2009  

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