What’s the Key to More Email Conversions? It Might Be Your HTML
How’s email marketing going for your small business?
If hardly anyone on your list is opening your emails and even fewer are clicking through, you’re probably wondering if your subject lines, copy, and images need work. They might.
But there’s another possibility: You may need to improve the code that makes your emails work. Without the right code, your emails can show up in your subscribers’ inboxes as a jumbled, hard-to-read mess or a blank page, even if you’re using an email template.
Of course, most small businesses don’t have an email code expert in-house to fix their issues. So I reached out to one to learn more.
Anne Tomlin is the founder of Austin, TX-based Emails Y’all and a self-described email geek whose enthusiasm for her work is contagious. She shared her knowledge about what happens when code goes wrong, why off-the-shelf templates work until they don’t, and how small businesses can diagnose, fix, and avoid some common email coding issues.
Look Good or Get Deleted
The first thing to know is that email marketing is challenging because not everyone receives your emails in the same way.
Different people use different devices to read their mail, and they may be using a variety of email clients that all have different rules about things like downloading email images. Most businesses know they need to use responsive templates for proper display on mobile devices, but the range of email client rules can trip them up.
“A lot of email clients don’t download images automatically,” Tomlin said, giving Outlook as one example. “You can work around that, but a lot of businesses send emails that feature one big image. When those emails are opened with those clients, they’re just blank.”
Consumers won’t tolerate that. Tomlin said she recently heard a conference presenter say that about 30% of Millennials immediately delete emails that don’t render properly.
Those recipients won’t follow a link to “view this email in a browser,” wait to see if images load, or try to figure out how to read it on their screen. They just delete your carefully crafted message or decide they don’t want to hear from your business again.
This is high-stakes stuff in terms of conversions and subscriber retention, but Tomlin says “even major retailers make this mistake.” One clothing retailer sends her emails that are blank, because “the email content is one big image with no live or alternative text” and Outlook doesn’t show it. Another apparel chain sent an email with lots of images that didn’t display, “and the alt text for every image was ‘turn on your images.’”
What’s the workaround when you’re sending image-heavy emails? “A good coder can style alternative text to match your brand. Stitch Fix uses alternative text really well, and it’s stylized to fill the image space if the images don’t load. With proper coding, using live text or well-designed alternative text… maybe the recipients will download the images.”
Pros and Cons of Off-the-Shelf Email Templates
If major retailers are tripped up by email coding, you can bet smaller businesses are, too. I asked Tomlin whether pre-made HTML templates from email marketing services can help SMBs avoid these email rendering pitfalls.
“Most off-the-shelf templates work just fine” for businesses that are starting out with an email program, “but they might not work for every audience.” Tomlin mentions accessibility for customers with disabilities as an example. “Most templates were developed a while back” before accessibility for people with low vision, hearing loss, and other issues was given a lot of attention, and many “aren’t up to date yet with accessible code.”
Another potential issue with pre-fab templates is simply the pace of change in the email industry. “Things change weekly, sometimes without any notice. Say Gmail decides to change something on their end, and that may totally screw up the rendering of your emails on, say, a certain type of phone,” but senders don’t realize that’s now a problem. “
Any good developer will keep tabs on the latest changes, notify clients, and update the code” as quickly as possible.
Best Practices to Avoid Email Coding Issues
I asked Tomlin what steps small businesses can take to avoid code-related email issues. The first is to format your emails to look good with or without images. “Using one big image with text” in your marketing emails “is not good practice. A properly coded email will have live text that shows up whether the image loads or not.”
Other best practices include:
- Test your emails before you hit send. Most email marketing service providers will show you how your emails will look on a variety of devices.
- Know your audience’s email habits and clients. “Use those analytics that your email marketing service provider collects. For example, if people aren’t opening your emails in Outlook, you can code some crazy awesome stuff to reach them” or hire someone to do that for you.
- Know when it’s time for professional coding services. Tomlin cites three scenarios.
- “When your conversions plateau or drop” or if your email program just isn’t hitting the targets you set, it’s time to look under the hood to see if rendering issues are part of the problem.
- “When you gain a larger, more diverse audience, say, new customers from other countries,” an email code expert can ensure your new audience sticks around and opens your emails, regardless of the many devices and clients they use.
- “When your emails don’t look right” even when you’re using a template. For example, Tomlin sometimes sees text-heavy emails with badly aligned columns or copy that gets truncated because it’s too long for the template.
When you decide to hire a professional, Tomlin suggests careful vetting. Look for developers who ask lots of questions about your audience and who share information to help you reach your goals. Email coding isn’t just using off-the-shelf templates. “A good coder will build your emails from the ground up and tailor them to your needs.”
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.