Monday, March 01, 2010

HTML email campaigns - is sending them a waste of your time?

One of the things in our series of tasks of running a business is marketing ourselves. And part of that marketing is sending out email campaigns. Specifically our email campaigns are used to tell users who've signed up for accounts that some new important stuff is available to them.

Don't those HTML emails that you get from places like Apple and 37signals look awesome?

Don't the HTML templates and wizards from MailChimp, CampaignMonitor, MadMimi make it look like you can have something gorgeous too?

Don't you assume that "man, if my emails look gorgeous, we'll get more potential customers to pay attention and convert to actual customers?

I bet. I know I expect those things.

The problem is those HTML emails are tough to create. The mailing tools might have some decent wizards now to make them, but they still require testing to make sure they look ok. But with soooo many email clients, there's soooo many things that can go wrong with your email. From images turned off, to how styles are applied.

Making an HTML email can take a long time and end up costing you some good money.

So are they worth it?

Over the years of helping run Inkling I've been becoming a non-believer in HTML email so I set out to prove it to myself.

My hypothesis was that most HTML email looks like spam or maybe something more benign, but still stuff you can easily throw out without missing a thing. My hypothesis also was that a short plain text email might catch your eye because it looks less automated.

So we setup a split test with MailChimp. They've got a pretty good split testing feature (but split testing completely different designs was some additional pain).

tgethr, our web and email-based project management software got a pretty cool and important new feature lately that we thought people should be updated about. For our test, we crafted up a pretty HTML email as well as what looked like a plain text email, but was really HTML so that MailChimp could track opens and clicks.

We sent this test out to a fraction of folks who own tgethr groups. Group A got the pretty email.

Group B the plain text looking one.

Here are the results:

What do they say? Statistically it is inconclusive that either Group A or Group B is better. Conversion in my test being "a click" over to tgethr, our blog, or our survey. The plain text looking email got 11.3% conversion and the fancy email got a 9.3% conversion.

So if there is a tie here or rather the results are inconclusive and would take thousands of more clicks just to tell if there is a better click through rate for the fancy email, is making the fancy email worth it?

Doesn't seem like it to me. While I know there is something more to sending out a pretty email than just getting clicks -- maybe more of those clicks end up turning into customers down the road, or perhaps people remember you more because of that beautiful design.

But I'm not convinced. And the most important metric in these emails is probably whether or not anyone bothers to click back to your site. Since that didn't improve with the effort of making our email fancier, for this campaign, I'll likely send the remainder of users the plain text email.

I will continue to test campaigns like this for ourselves. Because, you could argue that it's possible the single screen shot in the HTML email explained the feature enough and people didn't feel like they still needed to click. And of course there's the argument that people don't like the word "Hello" in the image header, and changing those things would actually lead to better results.

All this is true, and just means you should test and not take this stuff for granted. But I think there's some evidence here that should make you real cautious with just assuming that you need to be sending out pretty HTML email campaigns.

If you are Victoria Secret, you probably NEED to show pretty emails. And obviously Apple thinks they do too. But I'm curious, would Apple have much better click throughs in their emails if instead of showing me a picture of a new iPad, maybe its a three sentence email "from Steve" telling me to check out the new iPad in the Apple store? They should probably test it.

You should test this stuff yourself too. I expect many of your competitors are wasting time on HTML emails. Time better spent on building stuff or marketing in some other way.

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