Carsen is a digital marketer by day and a digital DJ by night. He has a great love for travel and adventure, connecting with new people, and spinning out only the funkiest of beats. No matter if he's marketing or DJing, Carsen has a talent for making people smile.

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Why is Email Marketing So Hard?

Email Marketing is so easy a monkey could do it, right?



HTML email design has paved the way for stylish and effective email marketing, but this is not without its own set of problems. With the shift of email opens to mobile and the advent of responsive design, this channel has become increasingly complex. Today I will talk about the most common uses of email marketing and I’ll also explain why it is so difficult to execute high quality HTML email campaigns effectively.

Why Even Bother?

Email marketing has been around for quite some time and consistently proves to be one of the most effective marketing channels available. In fact, 59% of B2B marketers cite email as their MOST profitable channel with an average ROI of 40:1. Globally, there are 3 times as many email accounts as Twitter and Facebook combined, and roughly 72% of people check their email 6 or more times a day. These numbers translate into significant opportunity for those that are savvy to email marketing.

Getting Started

Not sure where to start? The most common email campaign types are eNewsletters, as well as drip and trigger campaigns.

eNewsletter – The eNewsletter is an email you might send out each week or month with product updates, offers, sales, and/or with interesting content. For example, Vovia sends out a monthly content based eNewsletter (that you’ve all subscribed to, right?). This campaign type has been the heart and soul of email marketing since the mid 90s, but still proves to be an effective and integral component of contemporary marketing strategy.

Drip Campaigns – Most often, drip campaigns will begin with a prospect entering their contact information into a website. Drip campaigns can also send notifications to sales people so that they can take action at the exact moment when a prospect is ready to convert. Drip campaigns are often designed to advance prospects along the sales funnel by sending them predetermined messaging in accordance with predetermined time intervals; however, there are several types including:

  • Top of Mind – Keeping your brand in the consumer’s mind by sending constant, but not spammy, communication. This method works well when there is a lengthy sales process.
  • Educational – Providing relevant information to prospects and existing customers to effectively add value or context to your service offering. This not only shows expertise in your space, it shows people and prospects that you are committed to their success.
  • Win-Back – Designed to “win back” the interest of prospects that did not convert or whom had turned cold. This method is often paired with promotions and offers in order to provide incentive to come back.
  • Promotional – Engage prospects and current customers with irresistible offers. Also, if you have a subscription or ecommece site that requires a user name and password, you can gather information on past purchases and preferences for each user to make your promotional drips highly targeted and super effective.

Trigger Campaign – These campaigns are  ‘triggered’ by your audience’s behaviour and can be setup and customized with almost any parameter. For example, you might have an email trigger when a customer abandons their cart with a special offer to bring them back. You might also send a monthly “you might like” digest to your customer based on past purchases. No matter the intent, trigger campaigns can be very influential and will help you to stay top of mind with the consumer. If done correctly, a truly personalized (yet paradoxically automated) customer experience is the result.

Sounds Great! So, What’s the Issue?

The issue with email marketing, and the reason that it is so difficult to pull off professionally, is a serious lack of industry and coding standards. Meaning, each email client, each browser, and each mobile device is essentially speaking its own language and using a different interpreter. This obviously causes design and display issues when lost in translation. Here’s the scoop on the filters and rendering engines each email must pass through before it hits your inbox.


Before an email can be viewed, the email client forces it through a filter called the “pre-processor”. This pre-processer strips away any code that it thinks could be harmful to the email client itself. As such, this filter is slightly overbuilt and can potentially strip away important elements from your email; like style blocks, for example, or object and embed tags.

Render’s Game

Once the ‘clean’ HTML leaves the pre-processor, it then must pass through another layer of filters called the “rendering engines”.

Browser Rendering Engine – If you are using an online email client (like Gmail or the online version of Outlook), the browser now must interpret the newly stripped HTML email. To do this, it needs what is called a ‘rendering engine” to get the job done. The four most popular browsers are: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, and each (with one exception) uses a different system to render the email. Explorer uses a rendering engine called “Trident”, Firefox uses “Gecko”, Chrome and Safari use a system called “Webkit”. Due to these different rendering systems, each browser will interpret the HTML differently and, in turn, will display it differently. Often these will be simple style adaptations, like using a slightly different, but closely related, font family; however, occasionally the rendering engine will not display entire style blocks and even images in the intended way… This is obviously a problem and, unfortunately, the only way to fix this is with robust testing and customized HTML coding.

Desktop Rendering Engine – Just like web versions, each desktop client uses a slightly different system to interpret HTML. In fact, even different years and versions of the same desktop email client use slightly different systems to render the processed HTML.  Here’s the quick list of desktop email client rendering engines

  • Outlook 00-03 & Lotus Notes – Internet Explorer & Trident
  • Thunderbird – Gecko
  • Apple Mail & the Mac version of Outlook – Webkit
  • Outlook 2007 (and newer) – Microsoft Word

The takeaway here is that you don’t actually have to test EVERY email client if you make sure that you test each rendering engine.

Mobile: The Final Frontier

Last, but definitely not least, mobile email clients present yet another layer of rendering to consider. Due to differences between device manufacturers, screen sizes, operating systems, and the specific email app used to open email on the device, each combination of factors will produce a slightly different rendering result. Crazy right?

Luckily, the Webkit rendering engine is one of the best and is most widely used; iOS, Android, and Blackberry all use this one for their native mail apps. Even so, each OS will still have subtle differences in how it displays the email. Again, these differences are usually very subtle; a slight style smoothing or a nearly unnoticeable font variation; but these changes can still affect the overall appearance of your HTML and therefore must be taken into account. Put plainly, mobile-email marketing is extremely complicated and takes rigorous testing and knowledge to nail it.

So, What Now?

Don’t be scared! Email marketing may be complicated, but it is highly effective. With the advent of marketing automation and email service systems that adapt and learn based on consumer behaviour, there has never been a better time to get started. This is the most highly targeted form of marketing available and also carries the highest ROI in the industry. What’s not to love?

Interested in Email marketing, but not sure where to start? Get in touch, we offer an array of email marketing services that will get your bounce rates dropping and your campaigns rocking!