Email Images: How Many & When to Use Them

By: Kevin Gao, CEO & Founder of Comm100

In many marketing departments, the use of images in email newsletters and marketing emails is a hotly debated topic. Designers and traditional marketers want to include a heavy use of visuals and images for both aesthetic and brand purposes. Email marketing specialists want to minimize email images for deliverability and display reasons. What should you consider when designing email templates that use email images? What are the pros and cons of using email images? What are the best practices for using images in an email template? In this section, we'll explain the how's, why's, and why-not's of images and email.

The Truth: Email Images Sell Products and Services Email Images

Images and visuals are absolutely a critical part of marketing your product or service. To send an email with no images would be both a branding and conversion error. The trick with email is to find a way to use images in a way that will benefit your email's performance rather than detract from it. And yes, email images can absolutely detract from your email's performance in many ways, which we will discuss within this chapter. However, as you begin to think about using images in your email, remember this: email images are important and should be included in your email template design.

Remember: An Email is Not a Print Mailer or Brochure

One of the most important things to remember when designing your email template, particularly when it comes to the process of determining how and where to use image files, is that your email template is not a print mailer. It does not have the same flexibility of design that a print mailer would. Users will not navigate an email communication in the same way that they would a printed communication, both in how they respond to it and in how their eyes track through the design. Finally, email has many other usability factors to consider that a print marketing piece would not. Encouraging clicks, the need to sell subscribers on reading the email in less than two seconds within a preview pane, and actual inbox deliverability issues all regulate the use of email images. You cannot approach designing an email as you would approach designing a print marketing piece. That means that your design team, and even some of your executives, may be frustrated that your email can't "look as good" as a catalog or print mailer. However, at the end of the day, while your email certainly does need to look good, it needs to drive results. In fact, driving results is certainly more important. As you begin designing your email templates, remember that you are not designing a printed piece of marketing collateral. You are designing an electronic mail that has usability limitations.

Remember: Not All Email Service Providers Will Display Your Email Images

One reason that you do not want to rely too heavily on using email images to convey the message within your marketing email is that not all email service providers display images by default in your email. Gmail and Hotmail both default to turning email images off and relying on users to proactively download images in order to see them. The reality is that many users will not download the images, so if you're relying on a picture or graphic button to convey an important message within your email template, then more than half of your subscribers may never see that message or request. You are including images in your email for the fifty percent or so of subscribers who see the images. Your email template, however, needs to be designed to appeal to your entire subscriber base, including those who do not see the images.

Remember: Images Can Send Your Email to the Spam Folder

A third important thing to remember about using images in your email template is that the use of images can result in your email going to the spam folder. It's not the use of images exclusively that can land you in the spam folder, but overuse, bad use, and certain other triggers when combined with your overall sender reputation and quality score can mean that emails hit the spam folder instead of the inbox. In fact, if you have started experiencing an inbox deliverability problem, then one of the first steps that you should take is to remove some of the images from your email.

With All of Those Concerns About Images, How Can I Possibly Use Images in My Email Newsletter or Marketing Email?

Did we scare you off from using email images with the above information? If so, that wasn't our intention. However, one of the most common mistakes in email template design is the overuse of images or treating the email template as though it is a replica of a printed piece of marketing collateral. But given all of the information above, how can you use images effectively in your email template? It's actually much easier to craft an email template with images that work in favor of improving conversion instead of causing email problems and issues than you think. Below, we've given you the best practices for including images in your email template. If you simply follow this list, you'll include enough email images that are compelling to subscribers who see the images while also crafting an email template that appeals to users who don't see the image files.

Also, remember that, while you may need to minimize your use of image files, there are many things that you can do with formatted html within an email that will lead to an exciting design that compels opens, reads, and clicks. We'll discuss those best practices in an upcoming chapter.

Best Practices for Using Images in Emails

We promise that, if you follow this list, you will create the most optimized email template possible that also uses images! Print this list out and hand it to your designers! If your email sending solution offers premade email templates, such as Comm100 does, chances are that they meet all of these requirements. If you are designing your own template or modifying a premade template, you'll want to follow these basic rules.

1. Limit the Use Images in the Top Two Inches of Your Email TemplateActive Customer In the majority of cases, your subscribers will scan your email for less than two seconds before they decide if they want to bother reading it. Most of that scanning will happen within the email preview pane. The typical email preview pane is horizontally aligned (Outlook offers an alternative vertical one) and less than two inches in height. That means that you have approximately two inches of space to convince a subscriber or user to continue reading your email. There's nothing wrong with using an image within the top two inches of space. In fact, we'd recommend it because it will have a positive impact and result on users who load email images automatically in their email browser. However, because so many subscribers and users will not automatically, or possibly ever, see the email images, you need to be sure to get compelling text into the top two inches of your email template in order to engage them.

The most common way to address this issue is to use an email template header graphic, typically about 700 pixels across and no more than seventy-five pixels in height. The header graphic can be the same for every email send or can be different for each send. There are many other design solutions for incorporating a small but engaging graphic in the top two inches of your email template.

What's the most important thing to remember? You want to be sure that there is enough space in the top two inches of your email template for engaging and visually formatted text. Don't sacrifice that need for a bigger, brighter image.

2. Don't Send an Email That Is One Big Image or All Image Files

How many times have you opened an email that a company sent to you, and the entire thing was a blank white screen asking you to download email images? That single image (or a series of smaller images built together using an html table to form a larger image), may be visually amazing. It may an exact replica or a piece of print marketing collateral that your design team spent months developing and that the entire company is proud of and excited by. It might be an image that promotes and offer that is so incredible that you're expecting to run out of stock because the offer is unmatched anywhere else. However, it doesn't matter how many of the previous things are true of your image. The only true fact that you need to worry about is that half (or less) of the people who you sent the email to never saw the graphic or message. Not only did the image not load when they opened their email, but also because there was no text in the top two inches of the email to tell them why it was important that they download the image, they never bothered to explore the email at all.

We've said it before, but an email newsletter or email marketing offer is not a print design piece. Your design team will need to create an alternate treatment of campaigns that relies more heavily on html and text and less heavily on a layered image file. If you send an email that is only images, then your email marketing results will be dramatically reduced.

3. Don't Trap Important Messages or Links in Email Images (ie: The "Click Here" Graphic Button Does Not Belong in an Email)

Similar to the reasons that you'll want to avoid sending emails that are entirely image files, you'll want to avoid "trapping" any messages that are critical for your users to get from the email in image files that they may never see. For example, on a webpage, using a graphic button to indicate that a user should click to "buy" or "read more" is highly effective. However, in an email template users may not see those buttons and may be confused about where they should click within the email. Links in email templates should always be formatted text links. If you really want to use a graphic button to indicate a place to click, you should always include a text link below it.

Another example is messages about sales or discounts. If your email is promoting a sale or discount, then you want to ensure that the message is both indicated in a graphic and a text headline. For those who load email images, the graphic will certainly be the first visual stimulation that gets them excited about the discount. However, for those who don't load email images, you'll need to be sure that they still know what the offer is. The only way to ensure that is through a strongly formatted text headline.

What's the basic rule? If it's something that your readers or subscribers absolutely need to know, it needs to be in text, even if that text is in addition to a graphic.

4. Always Provide Alt and Title Text

Alt text is the html coded text that appears when an image doesn't load (it's short for "alternative text"). Title text is the "hover" text that appears when a user passes their mouse over an image. However, in some web browsers, such as Firefox, title text is used in the same way that alt text is. Why are alt text and title text important to you? As we keep mentioning, at least half of your subscribers and users will not see your image files. For those for whom email images don't load, seeing an alternative piece of text that describes the image means that you have not wasted the space in your email template. You've used the space to convey an important message even if the image didn't load.

Of course, what you write for your title and alt text is equally important. If your email is an email asking people to donate money to help save the world's tiger population, then it's likely that you've used an image of a tiger within your email. Don't make the alt or title text (they can be the same content) say, "Image of a Tiger." Have it be a call to action to enhance the message of your email such as "Click the links in this email to instantly donate to save the tigers." Remember, if the email images don't load, you are losing one of your most powerful methods for inciting action in your readers. You'll want to try to compensate for that with good, strong call-to-action alt and title text.

Some email marketing specialists like to use the alt and title text behind an image to ask users to download the images. That's certainly a valid technique. However, it's our belief that, given the speed with which users will scan your email, that you'll get better results by using the alt and title text to try to incite direction action.

5. Thirty Percent is a Good Rule

What's a basic, good rule to follow when designing an email template? Only use about thirty percent of your available space for images. A good design team can use even less than that and still make email images effective. However thirty percent means that you'll still have enough images to entice users but you won't be in danger of either creating spam problems for yourself or presenting large, blank emails to people who don't use email images.

For many designers, only using thirty percent of your available space won't feel like enough. That will mean that you may need to vary from some of the brand presentation that you use both in print and on your website. For example, navigation to sections of your website from the email itself should probably not be done using images, even if the navigation bar on your website is entirely image driven. Again, the important thing to keep in mind is that email neither operates like a print collateral piece nor like a pure webpage. It has usability and functionality issues that require design adaptations.

6. Do Not Make Images Files Too Large

Finally, for the email images that you do use in your email template, avoid making the files too large. This is not only from a space perspective, but large image files can create significant spam and email deliverability issues. Small, compressed, well-formatted images are the key to successful use of email images.

In summary, remember all of the following key points when designing the use of images in your email templates:

  • Do not overuse images in the critical top two inches of your email template
  • Do not send emails that are entirely comprised of images
  • Important messages and critical calls to action should not be "trapped" within images
  • Always provide Alt Text and Title Text for your images
  • Do not devote more than thirty percent of your email real estate to images
  • Keep image files small, compressed and optimized

Images are an important part of a successful email template. Simply follow the best practices above and you'll be sure to find the middle ground between images that enhance your email template performance and images that create email deliverability and performance issues.

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