Fewer Clicks, More Dance: The Power of Interactive Email

Mark Robbins didn’t set out to revolutionize email. He just wanted to find the edge of what could be done.

The only trouble is, after years of testing and experimentation, it’s still nowhere in sight.

“With email, there’s so much opportunity,” Robbins says. “It seems to have been neglected for a number of years, and while the rest of the web has progressed, email has stayed pretty static. But now we’re finding all these new possibilities, and if you do enough testing, you can discover something new every day. We are creating these new techniques and at the same time writing new standards and best practices.”

Robbins is arguably the world’s leading expert in interactive email. Though he makes his home in Brighton, England, professionally he works for the New York-based Rebelmail as an experimental email developer. His speaking tours take him all over the world. At the heart of his work is a simple question: What can you do that you’ve been told can’t be done?

“When I first started coding emails, I constantly got feedback on what I couldn’t do. ‘You can’t use list items. You can’t use background images.’ But then I realized, actually, yes you can do these things,” Robbins says. “So I started to experiment, and it grew into a project to push email as far as I could. And it turns out there is some support for just about everything — everything I’ve set out to do has pretty much come off.”

The kind of interactive emails Robbins and Rebelmail build are pushing the boundaries of what email can do — like, say, recreating a classic 1st-person shooter right inside an email.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein

Developing games was Robbins’ 1st passion.

“Games are a bit of fun and something interesting, but they offer some unique puzzles,” Robbins says. “The 1st game I built was a version of Whack-a-Mole. Most recently, I built Wolfenstein 3-D. It’s pretty stripped down — just an S-shaped hall and 2 baddies to shoot. But taking on a challenge like that pushes me to code smartly.”

A “fallback” is a contingency plan for email clients that don’t support interactive emails. When an interactive element isn’t supported, a fallback keeps the email from looking incomplete or broken. In practice, that means the team at Rebelmail designs emails that, in their words, “gracefully degrade” depending on the limitations of the client.

“Some email clients strip out a lot of features from the code we write,” Robbins says. “When we create an email, it needs to function at 3 levels. First it must function as a static email — that would be for something like Outlook, which doesn’t support any interactivity. The next level is for clients that support limited interactivity — that tends to crop up with things like Yahoo! and AOL, or older versions of Android clients.”

“Gmail used to be grouped with the limited clients,” says Robbins. But Google’s September update nudged Gmail forward, at least a little. Gmail supports responsive design but has stripped back support for interactive email.

“And then there’s the last level of fully interactive clients — things like iOS, AppleMail, and the newer Android clients. At that level, you’ve got pretty much exactly the tools you would with a web browser, apart from a few very small differences. That’s what we take as our starting point — we create an email to be fully interactive, then start working on fallbacks for the other clients by stripping back.”

A lot of work goes into crafting interactive emails that can function at all 3 levels. But as the analytics bear out, it’s well worth it.

Fewer clicks, happier customers

Let’s pause a second here. Aren’t all emails interactive? When you include a link or a button, aren’t you, by definition, asking users to “interact” with your email?

“When we talk about interactive email, we’re discussing actions within an email that trigger an event in that same email. It may be as simple as a hover function, or a photo gallery that changes the image when someone clicks a picture,” Robbins says. “Those are all simple interactions. But it can also include leaving a product review or making a purchase — things we traditionally associate with a landing page.”

While a static email may drive all traffic toward a landing page or website to perform an action, interactive email removes that step. It simplifies the user experience and removes friction from the process of completing an action.

“The goal is really to bring the landing page into the inbox,” Robbins says. “Every click a user has to make is an opportunity for them to drop off the conversion funnel. If you can bring the landing page directly into the inbox, you remove some of that drop off. It creates a faster journey and also a much smoother one for the customer. It’s a much better user experience.”

And here’s where the engagement spikes: Delivering interactive elements straight to users’ inboxes makes them more inclined to act.

“Generally, we see engagement go up pretty much across the board with interactive elements, whether it’s shopping or conducting searches or browsing images,” Robbins says. “The most surprising was the spike in reviews. We’ve had clients that wanted to collect more reviews for their products, so we developed an interactive element that could accomplish that within the email. It doubled the conversion numbers for product reviews, which was pretty shocking.”

Allowing users to post a review with 1 fewer click doubled the conversion rate. No wonder e-retailers are paying attention.

I see what you did there

Another reason to pay serious attention to interactive email is the depth of analytics it allows. Because of the number of engagements a user can perform, it’s possible to study their behavior at a much deeper level.

“Say you send out an interactive email to advertise your company’s new line of shirts, and you’ve designed the email so that a user can select things like color and size,” Robbins explains. “Now you’ll know straightaway that your customer is interested in the small red version, perhaps, and you can follow that up with a more targeted campaign based on those interactions, track every click, and see exactly what the user has looked at and what they have not. It allows you more ability for retargeting users.”

Even with all these moving parts, interactive emails can still be refined through good A/B testing — which may result in the creation of C.

“One of the things we track in testing is which version of the email each recipient receives, be it a fully interactive experience or a fallback,” Robbins says. “Potentially, you could have a situation where the static A performs better than static B, but the reverse is true of the interactive email performance. In a case like that, our clients could put the best performing elements of each together and try to develop a 3rd, optimal version.”

All of this adds up to a pretty powerful case for interactive email, right? Better analytics, higher conversion rates, and a better user experience. But those results, Robbins says, come about through careful forethought and thorough testing.

“Testing is key. With interactive email, you need to do live testing to make sure that the functionality works as you’d expect, especially with email clients offering interactive email,” Robbins says.

“And always consider what you’re trying to achieve. What’s the purpose of your campaign, and how is that purpose enhanced with interactivity? It’s not something that should be in every single email you send. But when it can enhance your purpose? Push it where it can be pushed.”

3 reasons to use interactive email instead of apps

Mobile apps are sleek and sexy. Email is old and boring. That’s probably what your clients think, anyway. But sometimes there’s more to a digital marketing tool than meets the eye. Here are 3 great reasons to pitch interactive email to your clients instead of apps.

1. Apps are already losing popularity.
When apps were a novelty, they were also a lot more fun. But as they’ve become commonplace, users are less inclined to give them a 2nd look. “It’s quite a commitment to download this large file and install it on your device,” Robbins says. “App downloads are decreasing rapidly, and the average number of apps being used each month is just 21.

Unless the app your client wants to develop is something truly striking and unique, it’s most likely going to get lost in an increasingly crowded market.

2. Apps require more clicks.
It may not sound like much, but the process of installing, launching, and learning a new app can be a deterrent to your client’s customers. If they’re trying to promote a new product or service, why ask the customer to do more work?

“With interactive email, you’re delivering the experience directly to your customer,” Robbins says. “You don’t have to get them to visit your website and download an app. You’re putting the functionality directly in their inbox.”

3. It’s just as good on mobile.
We tend to think of apps as a solution that works especially well for mobile devices. But interactive email is just as well suited for mobile — without all the data baggage.

“Interactive email has a much lighter footprint on mobile devices, while still offering a very personalized experience for your user,” Robbins says. “And because mobile devices are a newer technology, their email clients are generally more advanced and can support interactive email functions very well.”


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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.