Mythbusting: Video In Email
As a Creative Director, my workday often revolves around crafting and optimizing email communications for big brands. So, I’m always intrigued when new technologies come along that allow me to put another tool in my kit.
One of the most exciting developments to come along recently has been the use of video in email. Not the spoofed playback buttons overlaid on a static image, or even animated gifs that simulate video, but honest-to-goodness sound and motion video played directly in a recipient’s inbox.
Why is this development so exciting? Well, email is a very brief and fleeting medium. Grabbing a user’s attention and convincing them to take action requires the skill to captivate and activate in 3-5 seconds or less.
And, nothing helps people connect with content’s purpose as quickly as video. It’s easy to understand and people instantly emotionally engage with it in a way they don’t often do with text and static images.
Motion Makes Email More Engaging
Rigorous testing of content has indicated that using motion in an email message is a very effective tactic. Even adding simple animations drive increased engagement and higher conversion rates. And, there’s mounting evidence that a richer experience pushes those metrics to even greater heights. That alone makes video in email a technique worth exploring.
So, if video in email is potentially so effective, then why haven’t more brands been using it? Well, up until fairly recently delivering video directly to the inbox posed a few problems. Big problems, in fact. So much so that I bet if you’ve been in the email sector for a while, you gasped when you read the headline “Video in Email.” Why such a visceral reaction?
The Deliverability Nightmare
Previously, video playback required the use of a 3rd party plug-in, like Flash or Quicktime, and email clients abhor 3rd party plug-ins. Plug-ins are a significant security risk to email clients as they can allow viruses and malicious code to sneak in and wreak havoc.
This meant that an email containing video that depended on a plug-in was likely to get sent to the bulk folder, or caught up in a spam filter, preventing the message from even reaching the inbox. Poor deliverability has been the source of many an email marketer’s nightmare. Even with the plug-in installed, and the email delivered, rendering support was spotty, meaning that the user experience was often disappointing.
But, Video Is Too Big
Another major issue had been file size. Lighter emails mean faster downloads, and video files are not light. In fact, just a few seconds of video can easily top out of 10 MB or more. When best practices recommend the use of files sizes of 101 KB or less, a file that is over a thousand times that heavy seemed like insanity. Who would wait minute-upon-minute for an email to download?
All in all, video in email had acquired a bad reputation as mad, bad and dangerous to send. Most email marketers decided to hunker down and play it safe by sticking to images and text, and including links to video hosted on landing pages when needed.
But then, something started happen in 2012. Major brands like Avon, Barney’s, Bloomingdale’s, Brookstone, Discovery, Disney, HP, AT&T, TomTom and Victoria’s Secret slowly started to test the waters again. What had altered so drastically to make video in email less dangerous and more desirable? Primarily, two key advances have changed the game.
1. The Advent Of HTML5 And Its Widespread Support By Email Clients
HTML5 is an open standard which is supported by a shockingly high number of email clients. This means we are able to use a simple HTML5 <video> tag to deliver video to the inbox without the need for a 3rd party plug-in to almost all Web-based, mobile and desktop email clients. No plug-in needed; thus, no deliverability nightmare.
HTML5 also allows us to designate a list of media that can be displayed, letting the email client choose the best-supported format when the email is opened. In that list, we can include references to fallback media, like an animated gif or static graphic for those small number of email clients that won’t allow a video format. No special segmentation needed, no additional versions of the email, just a snippet of code and a few versions of the content.
Though it can be a bit more labor-intensive than using a simple graphic, this technique virtually eliminates the risk of a poor user experiences. When done correctly, it’s almost magical.
2. Use Of Hosted, Progressively Downloaded Video Files
Video files, no matter how small or how short, will always end up heavier than email best practices will recommended. However, with a progressive playback, we can allow users to begin to watch a video without requiring them to download the entire file before it begins. Not only does this mean almost instant access to video playback on a desktop environment, but mobile devices on a 3G+ connection will experience a smooth video experience as well. Pretty cool.
So, with two of the major technical barriers set aside, it’s time to move past the myth that video in email is difficult and troublesome and start learning how to refine its use effectively.
As with most things, the devil is in the details, and wading into video in email does take some research and expertise. The topic may very well warrant a follow up series of how-tos. In the meantime I’ll share a few key resources that I found helpful when I became brave enough to tackle video in email again:
- Excellent primer on the basics of video in email
- Insight into the HTML5 video tag parameters
- Collection of live video in email samples
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