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10 Emails with Images-Off

Here's a great review of 10 HTML emails from 10 different retailers, and how they all looked with images turned off:

Most of us know that when you receive HTML email, the images are turned off by default. You have to click a button to display them. But I'm surprised by how many new email marketers think that won't apply to them for some reason.

They call us up and ask us, "Before I join MailChimp, how can you guarantee that all my images will display, so that I don't have to click some button?"

Or, after they send their first campaign, they call us up with a frantic tone in their voice, and ask us why all their images are broken in their email program.

"Well, you know how you have to click the Show Images button for all the other emails you receive? Same goes for yours."

Images-Off is a real bummer for the new email marketer.

There are ways to deal with image blocking:

1. Get added to your recipients' address books, or "trusted senders" lists. This is otherwise known as "getting whitelisted"

  • When people opt-in to your list, ask them to add your email address to their address books so that your future emails don't get accidentally spam filtered.
  • This requires that you setup an email address for your newsletters, and that you stick to it. Don't change your reply-to address often.
  • This also requires that your email campaigns have good, relevant content (make it worth their time to whitelist you)

2. Pay for email certification.

  • If you're Goodmail certified, images are displayed ON by default in AOL, Yahoo, and more. Details at Goodmail
  • If you're SenderScore certified, images and links are ON by default in Hotmail
  • Certification in general requires that you send from your own dedicated IP address (so that emails from other businesses don't influence your reputation). So long as you have some good sending history under your belt, and pay the monthly fees (based on delivery volume), your IP gets added to a global "trusted" list.
  • Typically, email certification is too expensive for most small business.
  • More info on email certification

3. Use alt-text effectively.

  • Alt-text is the description you add to your images when you code web pages. They get displayed while an image is loading. Because they're usually a "web-page-thing" they sometimes get ignored in HTML email. Big mistake. Always include alt-text, because it tells recipients, "Hey, there's an image here, and you should really want to see it" Here's an example from a recent Gap HTML email.
  • Use CSS on your images to make alt-text look huge and colorful. It's a hack we detailed here.
  • We've seen some marketers use paragraphs and paragraphs of alt-text on a single 1x1 pixel transparent .GIF at the top of the email. Once images are turned on, the image goes away, along with the alt-text. It's a hack, and we wouldn't go too far with it (spend more time on quality content, please) but it's an idea that might be useful for one of your campaigns. Keep it in your back pocket.

4. Don't worry too much.

  • Images being turned off is a fact of life now. Most people are trained to click the button if they want to see your images (just make sure they know that there are actually images to be turned on).
  • Always include a link to "View this email in your browser." MailChimp makes a copy of your newsletter, and links to it automatically for you. It's consistently in the top 3 most clicked links in all the campaigns we send to our own customers.

No matter what: always be relevant. Make it useful, and they will open. Send useless stuff, too often, and you'll start to be ignored.

July 16, 2007 in Email Design | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

HTML Email on Apple's iPhone

On Friday, our main engineer (and self-proclaimed Mac freak) Mark Armstrong went and got himself an iPhone. Forget that our whole company has a T-Mobile corporate account. The rogue has gone off and joined AT&T.

Anyways, we've been testing how HTML emails render on the iPhone, and so far it's been great. Follow the link to see the video, and some notes for email marketers...


Related: Mark Brownlow's scoured YouTube and found lots of other cell phone videos here.

July 2, 2007 in Email Design, Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

HTML Email Mistake: Image-based unsubscribe link

We've already talked about some of the dangers of image-based HTML email (See: Common HTML email design mistakes).

I'll say it again, though. All-image HTML emails look like spam, so they trigger spam filters. Even worse, most of them display with the images turned off by default, so your recipients don't always see your message (which is why you should always test your campaigns before you send them).

All this time, I've neglected to mention that it's a bad idea to make your unsubscribe link an image. Kinda thought that was common sense.

Well here's an article from Ken Magill at DIRECT magazine about a woman who reported a marketer to the New York attorney general’s office, because her email program never displayed the unsubscribe image:

It even suggests that you might be breaking CAN-SPAM law if you send email marketing with an image as your unsub link.

One tip the provide is to also include the full URL of your unsubscribe link, just in case your clickable hyperlink doesn't work.

MailChimp users: the built-in templates we provide for your campaigns already have a text-based, one-click unsubscribe link embedded. If you want to display the full path for the unsubscribe URL, insert it with this tag: *|UNSUB|*

June 27, 2007 in Email Design, Spam Topics, Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Zeldman's Rant Against HTML Email

When someone pointed out Jeffrey Zeldman's rant about HTML email to me a couple days ago, I thought, "Great. Another nut-job like this guy over here."

See, when we first started MailChimp back in 2001, anybody who Googled "HTML email" would get a link to our free email design guide for web designers---after the link to that nut job who proclaimed HTML email as the work of the devil. It bothered me back then, because we really saw HTML email as a potentially useful tool for business. The fact that people saw his page before ours pissed me off to no end. I tried everything to get my page ranked higher than that guy. I even tried making a page called, "7 reasons HTML email is a good thing" where I tried using the same META-tag tactics, but sort of in an opposite-dimension kinda way. Didn't work. Thankfully, Google (and Father Time) decided that guy's web page is no longer relevant (kinda like Zeldman's rant) and that content showing people how to actually do it right and get work done should float to the top. Oh yeah, and the invention of Google AdWords helped, too. Anyways.

Some people have pointed out that Zeldman's rant was a bit ironic, considering MailChimp had an ad running right there on his website. I got an email asking me if I was mad about the whole thing. Meh, we enjoyed the traffic. Truth is, we saw an uptick in signups from web designers who wanted to learn how to properly code and then check their HTML emails. I even got a few emails from people who were thankful for the rant, because that's how they discovered MailChimp. So all in all, the post was good (and a big thumbs up to The Deck).

Zeldman has since posted a followup, but it's not really worth reading if you're experienced in any way with email marketing. Basically, "Don't spam." And if you're a good designer, there's nothing new for you, either. Basically, "Don't do useless stuff." If you're a web designer, and you're interested in seeing some common mistakes that web designers make with HTML email, read this instead.

For what it's worth, I've had my own "nut-job" moments. There was a time, long ago, where I called any designer who used Flash in any way whatsoever a "Flashole." To my defense, back then Flash was primarily used for those annoying website intro pages (which I still believe was the single cause of the dot-com fallout). Nowadays, I quite like Flash, because it's being used for all kinds of useful stuff. I hate to admit it, but I'm even reading "Flash for Dummies" in my spare time.

I also called CSS a "pipe dream" back when it was first introduced, because it didn't work in all the browsers, and it was more work coming up w/hacks than just using friggin' tables and font tags. And I don't care what you say, but having a CSS file that's hundreds of lines long is not gonna help you maintain a website any faster, or save you time on redesign. Nowadays, I quite like CSS too (I still suck at it, but I like it). I should probably get myself a copy of Zeldman's book (cough).

If we've learned anything from all this, it's that posting silly rants only results in: 1) web traffic, and 2) showing people what an angry old fart you've become.

But XML---that's just plain stupid. Mark my words. It'll never, ever, ever catch on.

June 13, 2007 in Email Design | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Image-based Spam On The Decline?

An article from PCWorld that suggests image-based spam might be on the decline.

At MailChimp, we're still shocked at all the designers and marketers who are sending HTML emails that are nothing but big images. They don't seem to realize that an all-image legit email campaign looks the same as an all-image spam campaign.

Related: Stupid Email Design Mistakes

May 29, 2007 in Email Design, Spam Topics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Welcome Email Ideas

Spotted this "welcome email" design from MailChimp user

It's a nice idea that's not too hard to implement: when people subscribe to the RealTruck email newsletter, the welcome email contains a $10 off promo code:

Realtruck welcome email

How many of you actually took the time to customize your own welcome emails this way?

Do your welcome emails have nice gifts like this for your new subscribers, or do you just have the boilerplate, "welcome, this is the info we have on file, and click here to unsubscribe in the future, blah blah blah."

When I saw this welcome email, I got a little self-conscious of my own welcome emails for our MonkeyWrench newsletter. I went back to look at what I did, and boy was I embarrassed...

Here's what my own welcome email looked like:



I guess I was more excited about customizing my beautiful HTML email templates and signup forms, so the poor little welcome email got no love.

I used the example from Realtrucks as my inspiration, plus these ideas from Mark Brownlow to totally redesign my welcome email (click for full screen):


The main thing I added (besides some color!) was a link to past issues of our newsletter. MailChimp makes that really easy (details here). 

Then I got to thinking - one reason I kept my welcome email so plain (besides laziness and stupidity) is I thought that cramming too many images and links into a "transactional" email would get it blocked by more spam filters.

So I ran my welcome email through our Inbox Inspector tool. It made it through every single spam filter, except---you guessed it---Postini. Postini said that it looked like "make money fast" spam. Here's my spam filter report:


Hmm, Postini thinks this is "make money fast spam"? I looked at my copy and noticed this line:


Maybe that is a little too spammy.

I removed that line, ran another Inbox Inspection, and it passed Postini!

I never would have known about Postini, let alone been able to get past it, without the Inbox Inspector. Unless, of course, I purchased my own Postini server for email testing. Big, big thank you to the geniuses at ReturnPath for coming up with this technology.

Do your welcome emails need some love? Are you missing out on the best opportunity to make a great first impression with your new subscribers? Do you know if your transactional emails make it past spam filters?

May 17, 2007 in Email Design, MailChimp Customers, Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Background Images in HTML email

One of our customers recently designed a really nice email campaign that had a blue background, with white "title" text on top.

Here's a snippet of their design in Gmail:



Even works in Outlook 2007:


But here it is in AOL 9:


Here's what went wrong...

For the title (MAKEUP LOOK OF THE WEEK!), they used an image composed of white text, and a transparent background. Besides the problem of "images turned off by default," this is risky because it depends on a dark background actually working, and showing through. And in HTML email, you can't really depend on anything working properly.

For the blue background, they used a tiling background file. Background images don't always work in HTML email. Furthermore, they specified the background image in their embedded CSS:

#content { background: url("images/email_bg.jpg") bottom left repeat-x; }

Embedded CSS is not very trustworthy anymore, especially in webmail clients (inline CSS is safest now).

To make matters worse, the url they used for the background image didn't use an absolute path, pointing to the file on their server.

Instead of:


It should've been:


So even if the embedded CSS worked, the image still wouldn't have been downloaded.

Fortunately, they designed the email to degrade gracefully, by assigning a solid blue bgcolor to their table:

<table id="content" bgcolor="#79C0F6" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" border="0">

Unfortunately, AOL 9 didn't accept the blue bgcolor, because the CSS (id=content), with the broken image path, appears to be overriding it.

By the way, same thing broke in, Hotmail, Comcast, Outlook 2003, Outlook Express, Yahoo, Thunderbird, and on and on. In fact, according to their Inbox Inspector report, the blue bgcolor only worked in Gmail, Outlook 2007, and---get this---Lotus Notes.

We re-ran the report after fixing the absolute path, and it rendered properly in all the email programs. If the background-image wasn't accepted (as with Outlook 2007), the bgcolor was properly swapped out.

May 14, 2007 in Email Design | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Showcase: Crickskipper Email Newsletter

Thm_crickskipper I can't stop staring at these illustrations. They're spooky, but cool.

Aaron Nather, aka Crickskipper, uses MailChimp to update subscribers on his latest artwork. He's customized our 2-column built-in template to match his very unique style.

From Aaron: "You guys have a great product that's far exceeded my expectations.  I'm blown away by the fact that I can manage all of this myself with about two hours of prep time per email."

April 27, 2007 in Email Design | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spam Filters Need Spam Filters Now

By now, most email marketers know you should avoid using "spammy" phrases like "FREE! CLICK NOW!" or the spam filters will trash your message.

But did you know that before your email even gets to a spam filter, it has to get through a gatekeeper? Yep, spam is so bad, that spam filters now need spam filters to help them.

These gatekeepers kinda look like this:


Looks vicious, doesn't it? They're all over the place. ISPs use them. Large corporations use them. Small businesses are starting to use them.

What's really scary is they all talk to each other. It's how they learn what "spam" is, and who should be blocked (Gulp - are they talking about you right now?).

That's a picture of IronPort's Email Security Appliance. If it thinks your email is spam, it'll gobble it up and fart its remains into cyberspace before your recipient's puny little spam filter even gets a chance to look for the word "V1AGRA". It won't even waste the energy to tell anybody about it (like in a bounce report).

Ever send to your email list and wonder where 5-10% of the emails seem to disappear off to? Ever wonder why the numbers don't seem to add up in your deliverability reports? It was probably one of these big, mean appliances (ReturnPath says its closer to 20% in this PDF Report).

If IronPort thinks your email is "not spam" then it lets your email through (but it'll still get analyzed by a content-based spam filter). And that's when your "avoid spammy content" tactics finally come into play.

To learn more about how IronPort works, they've got an eyebrow-raising demo you should watch. Click the tab at the bottom of the movie, to skip to the "anti-spam" section. Watch the demo

How the heck does this server know what spam is? Your own recipients teach it. When you send an email to your list, and someone on your list thinks it's spam, or doesn't remember opting-in to your list, or if you purchased a list from someone, that person can report you to SpamCop (which was purchased by IronPort in 2003, and is now called "SenderBase"). Get enough SpamCop complaints, and they'll propogate your data to all the IronPort servers around the world, letting everyone know you're a spammer:


Incidentally, your email service provider should be registered at SenderBase, so they can properly investigate every single complaint generated in response to their users' campaigns. At MailChimp, everyone on our staff personally receives copies of any complaints that come in, so we can go suspend the sender's account and investigate immediately.

IronPort is only one of many, many email firewalls, gateways, and security appliances you, as an email marketer, should learn about. Also see:

All of those big, mean, ruthless "gatekeepers" rely on "reputation" scores to block emails before they even get to the content-based spam filters.

So you really want to make sure your reputation is good. How can you do this?

  • Never send spam.
  • Don't buy lists. Don't use lists that other people gave you.
  • Only send to lists of people who know you, and requested emails from you. Otherwise, if you want to get the word out about your company, pick up the phone and call your prospects, or pick up a pen and write them. Or, email them one at a time (see "Definition of spam" and specifically the word "bulk"), from your own email program.

Assuming you're not sending spam, your email design is a huge factor in getting you blocked by one of these gatekeepers:

  • When you send emails, always include a "How we got your email" reminder. MailChimp's built-in templates include that information for you, with our *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|* tag. This tag is automatically replaced with the survey information that you provide each time you setup a list in MailChimp.
  • Your email designs have to be reputable looking. Get sloppy, and people won't trust your opt-out link, and report you instead. See how one designer got blacklisted from his design.
  • Always include a one-click unsubscribe link in every campaign you send (MailChimp adds this for you when you use our built-in templates. If you use your own designs, we'll give you a code snippet).
  • Haven't contacted your list in a while? Or is this your first campaign? Send an introduction email. Remind them of who you are, or you'll get a big surge in complaints, and wind up on all those ugly blacklists out there.
  • Sometimes, you're not the one who got you blacklisted. It was someone else on the server that you used. If you used a shared email marketing service like MailChimp, where thousands of people are sending emails from the same IP, you're at risk. That's why MailChimp has lots of IPs that we send from, but more importantly, we have a human staff of reviewers who pre-screen all new users before they're allowed to use our system. If a user still manages to generate spam complaints, our abuse desk can shut the user down immediately, and re-route email to our other IPs, while we deal with the blacklist service. This is how we manage to send millions of emails every day from our system. If that still sounds too risky, or if you hate sharing, get your own dedicated IP address from MailChimp.
  • But if you think you can send junk, get reported, then switch to a new email server, you are sadly mistaken. Once you get reported, your company's name and domain name are on the lists. They'll know to block ALL emails with your name in it from now on, no matter who sends it, or where it came from. This is why affiliate marketing programs can be so risky. Imagine thousands of sloppy email senders (your affiliates) buying lists and sending emails with your company's domain name in them.
  • Still want to make absolutely sure your campaigns won't get blocked? Consider our new Inbox Inspector feature. It checks the most common spam filters, plus MessageLabs, Postini, and IronPort.
  • Want to continually monitor your reputation? There are services for that (ReturnPath has their SenderScore Reputation Monitor).

Want to find out what your (or your client's) reputation is? Here's one way:

Plug your domain name into this lookup service

They'll tell you if it's on any of the blacklists that they search. If it is, then follow instructions on how to get off their lists (tip: you are guilty until proven innocent, every email you send them will probably be posted on a public forum, and you will be asked for proof of opt-in for each complaining recipient).

Thanks to these big email appliances, it doesn't matter what email service provider or email server you send from, or whether or not your content has spammy words in it. If your name is on these lists, your email won't even get delivered.

Nowadays, it's your email reputation that precedes you.

April 12, 2007 in Email Design, Emarketing, Business, Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Inbox Inspector: One Click Email Campaign Testing

Spamfiltercheck Last week, we launched a new feature in MailChimp (in "stealth mode"), and asked a handful of our customers to try it and give us some feedback. So far, this is what we're hearing:

"It's Christmas in April"

"This is cool as sh--"

"Passed the spam filter check by 100%! Yippee!"

What is the MailChimp Inbox Inspector?

It lets you check your HTML email campaigns in all the major email programs, spam filters, and server firewalls in one easy click...

Basically, whenever you send HTML email campaigns, you have to check it in a lot of email programs to make sure that 1) it rendered properly, and 2) it made it past the crazy spam filters.

Kind of like how you test web pages in different browsers. But 10 times worse. You have to download, install, and maintain Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Lotus, and you have to go sign up for accounts with Yahoo, Hotmail,, and you have to pay for accounts with Comcast, Earthlink, Bellsouth, and on and on. Then there's the server firewalls, like Postini, Spam Assassin, MessageLabs, and more. Oh, and Gateway servers, like Ironport. If you're lucky enough to have the budget for all that (about 8 grand, then 1 grand a year to maintain) then you send yourself lots of test campaigns to all those accounts, then repeat the process until your email works the way you want.

Yeah, it's a real pain. It can take hours to properly test an email campaign. In fact, a lot of people just design their email, click send, and pray to the email gods that it makes it through.

Now, you can click one button, and MailChimp will do all the testing for you in minutes:


Lots more screenshots at:

We did this by partnering with ReturnPath, one of the most trusted names in email marketing and deliverability. These guys have a solid product, and more importantly, great customer service (why we chose them). And they're constantly adding more email programs and spam filters to check your emails (they've just added 15 more screenshots that we've got to integrate---slow down, guys!).

Inboxinspectorbutton When you click the new "Inbox Inspection" button in MailChimp, here's what kind of reports we'll generate:

  • Screenshots of your campaign in 17 major email programs
  • Zoom-in views of where your email scrolls on a 1024x768 screen (you'll be shocked how little your recipients see before scrolling)
  • Spamminess scores, but not just based on simple keywords. We all know that "CLICK HERE!" is risky. Inbox Inspector actually passes the email through real filters and  server firewalls, so you can see how their complex algorithms truly score your emails.
  • Content assessment reports (we look for broken code, typos, etc)
  • Printable report that you can send to your client or designer

Anyways, we'll be launching it sometime this week, so look for it in under your MailChimp Account Tab, in the "Add Ons" section.

It'll save you TONS of frustration, prevent embarassing mistakes, and best of all, it's cheaper than what you'd charge for one hour of your time.

More Information at:

Try MailChimp free at:

April 9, 2007 in Email Design, MailChimp News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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