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Breaking Best Practices for E-mails: When using large images is fashionable

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In the realm of e-mail marketing, we tend to follow a pretty consistent line of best practices. One of them is to avoid image-heavy campaigns, instead sticking to a more streamlined and functional approach. A large majority of people using e-mail have images blocked. So if your company’s e-mail shows up in the preview panel as a bunch of empty boxes, chances are it’s getting deleted. And on the creation side of things, these e-mails need to be properly built and coded to avoid going into SPAM.

So when, if ever, is using heavy images in e-mails the exception to the rule?

Start with a following.
I’m going to use the fashion industry as an example, because they fit the bill perfectly. When your audience is primarily women who love to shop, online marketing is a goldmine of opportunity. And whether the brand is a “steal this deal” or a high-end type, image-rich e-mails are exactly what the audience wants to see. Editorial-style layouts that emulate glossy fashion magazines. Stylish photos that tug on the aspirational purse strings. When you have a following of devoted fans, it’s simply about delivering an e-mail that balances best practices with well-broken rules.

Speak in trends.
In an industry like fashion, you have the advantage of a built-in demographic with high interest. What’s the catch? If you can’t hold their interest, your e-mail gets thrown away—or worse—the customer opts out altogether. So a key first step is to ensure that the content is reflecting the current trends. Take a look at the ModCloth.com e-mail. This online clothing and accessories store is wildly popular due to its quirky inventory and reasonable prices.

Their e-mail campaigns are fun, conversational and engaging. For this particular e-mail, the TV show “Mad Men” was featured as the fashion muse, citing vintage looks and a celebration of the upcoming season premiere. Along with a behind-the-scenes blog and an interview with the Mad Men costume department, the content of this piece creates excitement about the newest line to hit the store. Fans of ModCloth.com are sure to have their pictures turned on for their weekly dose of fashion.

The other, more minimal example from Charlotte Russe uses the current trend of “boyfriend dressing.” A large, editorial photo with a few lines of clever copy effectively drives interest to the site.

Make them feel special.
Once you have a loyal following of e-mail subscribers, retention is key. By offering list subscribers special deals, exclusive offers and other perks, it cements the value of the e-mails. Charlotte Russe recently sent me a great example of this. For starters, the subject line is to the point and perfect: “30% off TONIGHT ONLY!” The e-mail content is all image, done in an elegant, invitational style. The “Private After Hours Sale” is a clever way to draw in the customer and make them feel appreciated with this special attention and a sale that not everyone is privy to.

Give them something of value.
New York & Company
is an example of a company that really saturates their subscribers with e-mails. Sometimes, it’s a little overkill for me. So what stops me from opting out? It’s their awesome (and consistent) coupons, which can be used online or in the store. Their e-mails can run on the long side, but it’s a good mix of editorial and informational…almost more like an e-mail newsletter. The subject line in this example is editorially focused, with no offer. However, someone that receives these e-mails and looks forward to them will open it regardless.

The coupons are above the fold, along with a print option. A secondary offer of “buy one get one free” is featured. The e-mail is end capped with modules containing tertiary messaging— for earning “Citycash Coupons” a store finder, a store credit card offer and the chance to link up to the store via Facebook or MySpace. It’s a lot of information, but it’s a quick read, very scannable and has the value add of the coupons.

A picture can be worth a thousand clicks.
As a copywriter, it pains me to say this. Sometimes, less copy works better. In the case of this Max Studio e-mail, they combine a large photo, editorial headline and site links. The result is an attractive look, fast read and single-track drive to see the latest looks being featured. When it comes to fashion, using enticing images in e-mails will probably gain more clicks than a lot of text. And when used effectively, photo-rich e-mail campaigns can lasso interest by virtue of their emotional impact.

Is it time for you to break tradition?
So yes, traditionally, using a lot of images in your e-mail campaigns isn’t a great idea. But there are always exceptions to the rules. Having a strong e-mail list and a product that demands to be seen by the people on that list warrants some rule breaking. It’s simply a matter of using smart strategy and good-looking creative to carry your message and retain your audience. You can start by testing image-heavy e-mails against a more copy-driven and simple approach. Just be sure that you’re fully aware of the pros and cons of image-heavy messaging, and let the click-throughs be your guide.