“Interactive email” and “AI” (artificial intelligence) are all the rage in email these days because they offer lots of promise to keep email’s future bright. But, they’re tops on my list of overhyped trends. So let’s step back for a moment and look at where we are now and where we should go with them in the future.
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t get excited about either trend. Rather, we should look at the practicalities and implications of both and eliminate the confusion about what they are and how to use them in email.
1. Interactive email
“The rise of interactive email is upon us!”
This has been a major prediction for at least the past 2 years. Interactive email has a lot of promise as a tool to keep people engaged inside the inbox. The trouble is that people are often confused about what an interactive email is and how and when it should be used. So first, let’s agree on the definition of an “interactive email.” I like how Litmus defines it as an email that has “the functionality for users to take an action within the email that triggers an event within the same email.”
Interactive or something else?
Animated GIFs, countdown clocks, embedded Twitter feeds, and other real-time devices that make email come alive – are what many people use to define interactive email. All of these have been around for several years in email code, and none of them are interactive.
A true interactive email keeps your customer in the inbox, interacting with your message in meaningful ways without necessarily having to click through.
Kordek’s 5 S’s of interactive email
Before any organization invests in interactive email, they should consider the following five elements:
- Sensible: Does it make sense to use interactive elements in this email?
- Subtle: Is it a natural part of the email, or is it in your face and distracting?
- Situational: Most of the interactive emails we have seen at Trendline are situational, meaning they apply to that email alone.
- Simple: Your interactive element must be simple enough that your subscribers can easily figure out how to make it work. Don’t expect them to fiddle around with it if the direction isn’t clear, either.
- Sustainable: This is the most important quality for interactive email, whether it’s a carousel of product images, an interactive banner, a hamburger menu, or another element. You need to train users to interact with your email. That’s why keeping it intuitive and simple is the way to go.
Sustainable versus situational
Situational: Situational elements apply to just one campaign or email. Maybe it’s an arrow next to a product image. When you click or hover over it, it reveals details for only that product. They’re cool; they serve a purpose, but you’re utilizing resources to create something for one email only.
Sustainable: Sustainable elements are in every email message you send.
At Trendline, we designed an email for our client AARP with two interactive elements. One was a hamburger-style menu that, when clicked, opened a drop-down menu with links to key destinations on the client’s website. This menu replaced the navigation bar that usually ate up a big chunk of prime real estate on the email.
The second element was a side-scrolling list of news headlines with directional arrows pointing left and right. The user can easily scroll through the headlines without moving the entire body of the email.
These elements are in almost every email we create for this client. They’re simple and subtle, and their repeated use trains subscribers to use them. These attributes make them sustainable.
A good example of an interactive email
Nest is one of those companies at the cutting edge of interactive email. They created a Black Friday email that allowed users to add items to their carts inside the email, even to specify quantities and colors. The email was truly interactive because it kept users in the inbox until checkout. Then, the email sent users to their own checkout pages with the form fields already populated.
It was wicked cool, but, unless you put this kind of interactivity into every one of your emails, it’s still situational.
What marketers must understand
Some marketers need to get away from the goal of creating something cool just because they can. They need to create something that’s long-lasting, serves customers’ needs, and has a long tail for ROI.
Does it work?
It can be hard to determine whether you’re recouping the time and effort you put into creating an interactive email. That’s why sustainability is key. The evolution of your interactive email must line up with your organizational goals.
Can we measure it?
What are your KPIs, and how would you use them to understand the true impact of your interactive email?
Leading-edge marketers tend to chase the light, to keep looking for innovative ways to get the message out and connect with customers. It’s a challenge to pull off. Go ahead and chase the light, but have a clear notion of what you’re getting into and what you need to get out of it.
One and done
Coding for the Nest email was hella complicated. Think about the resources that went into creating that one email. How can that process evolve? We need to experiment with sustainable interactivity.
Focus on sustainable elements that use coding resources wisely instead of creating new elements over and over. Then, train subscribers to use the email the way you want them to.
If we want this trend to take off, email marketers need to find a way to make a long-term commitment to making it sustainable. It’s time to stop talking about this as a trend and start taking it mainstream.
2. Artificial intelligence
In recent months, I have written quite a bit on AI and its practical application in email. As a reference, you can find the posts here and here.
AI makes people’s ears perk up. It’s like the term “blockchain,” one of those abstruse concepts that everybody’s talking about but most people don’t understand.
Recently I was a guest on a webcast that discussed the introduction of AI in email. Two key questions from listeners told me what most people think about when it comes to AI: “How do I get AI?” and “How do I turn AI on?”
That’s not how it works, folks. We need to take a step back here before we all start announcing to the world, “We have AI!”
Machine Learning and AI
I’m super excited about AI and its integration with email. But we’re already using it. We don’t have to turn it on because it’s already working.
Dynamic elements like copy and images that change according to user data, subject-line, and send-time optimization tools, and others like them use machine learning, which is a subset of AI.
Get your data house in order
As with interactive email, we need to figure out what the evolution will be – how to evolve AI for practical things in email instead of just saying, “We have AI in our solution.”
Here’s the catch: We need data to make AI work. We have plenty of data, but it needs to be in one place to leverage it. I still see companies doing this on spreadsheets and exporting the data to make the magic happen.
We’re talking about using AI, but we’re still tied to antiquated technology for day-to-day work. How are we going to persuade email marketers who are still focusing on challenges from 10 years ago to begin to use AI sensibly?
Moving beyond the hype
The future is full of unexpected challenges. But, we can’t keep talking about the future if we haven’t caught up to the present.
I’m not dissing either trend just because the hype is in hyperdrive. I’m excited to see how both interactive email and AI will support the progress of email.
But, we need balance. We need to be practical. Let’s start talking about how we identify and understand the technology, who the key players in each field are, how to forge a path to try them out, and how to test our uses of these technologies to be sure we’re getting the most out of them.
Let’s work together as professionals to educate ourselves about the practical aspects of AI and how it can help organizations communicate better with their subscribers. Instead of pumping up the hype, let’s show everyone what interactive email and the practical use of AI have done that go beyond one, two, or five uses of these advancements. Let’s be inspirational and educational. But, most importantly, let’s be amazing stewards of our craft.
If you have a great story to share about AI or a great campaign in interactive email, drop us a line.