Saturday, March 1, 2008

A best-practices approach to email branding

Concerns to keep in mind when using images

Certain special considerations need to be taken into account when including images in a signature. The best option is to keep any image small, both in terms of file size and physical dimensions. Nobody wants to have to download and store a large company logo, especially if on a smartphone or other lower-bandwidth connection.

If communicating with potential new customers, bear in mind that many people don't open the message, instead they read it in the preview or reading window. If the first thing they see is nothing more than a large logo, there is a strong chance the message will be deleted without the content ever being seen.

Only the first few lines are visible in the message preview, so use those first few lines carefully, particularly if it's a sales message, and don't waste them with a large image at the top of the page.

Additionally, make sure that the message doesn't look awful if the images are not there; the modern versions of Outlook default to not showing images without the reader's consent.

Lastly, be aware that some of the less intelligent spam and anti-virus filters may be configured to reject messages with particular attachment types.

Animated GIFs are subject to the same issues discussed above, with the additional consideration that some email clients may not display an animated GIF and instead will show only the first frame. This is particularly true of Outlook 2007.

Also, the fact that animated GIFs contain multiple frames means that they will be much larger than a static GIF. It is important to also be aware of the distracting nature of an animation and ask whether it really is appropriate for a business email. In most cases, you should avoid animations.

Maintaining branding across email clients

Although it can never be guaranteed that signatures will be readable and maintain brand identity across a variety of email clients, communications between most HTML-capable email clients such as Outlook (at least, before Outlook 2007) and Outlook Express will generally reproduce the branding and signature exactly as the sender intended.

However, as replies are sent back and forth, and depending on how the respondent's reply separation is configured, pretty email stationery may well gradually become distorted as the images move down the page and get indented with each response. Additionally, some clients may be able to see only the plain-text version of a message, so keep this in mind when designing the signature.

Outlook 2007 provides its own unique challenges. It uses a different HTML rendering engine than all the Outlook versions before it. Contributing Editor Bill Mann wrote a detailed study of this issue in Troublesome changes to watch for in Outlook 2007.

General guidelines

Here are some best practices approaches to email branding and general guidelines for making implementation and deployment successful.

  • Keep it simple. By keeping it simple, there is a much greater chance of the recipient seeing what was intended, and much less chance of the message being falsely identified as spam. If a complicated design must be used and it is a sales message, ensure there's an embedded link allowing the recipient to open the message in a browser in case the email client renders it incorrectly.
  • Make sure it looks good in plain text as well as HTML. Send yourself test mailings and view the message in as wide a variety of email clients (applications and Web-based alike) as you can.
  • If possible, code the signature by hand. Tools like Dreamweaver and Word can make the code more complicated and bloated than necessary.
  • Use inline CSS rather than embedded or linked CSS.
  • Avoid scripts as they are almost certain to get blocked by an antivirus program.
  • Avoid Flash animations since not everyone installs the Flash player. And, again, Outlook 2007 won't support them.

Email branding can be important for your company. If you follow these guidelines, your email can reinforce your brand.

Rick Robertson is the president of Exclaimer. He can be reached at rick.robertson@exclaimer.com.