I recently attended a though-provoking panel titled, “Integrating Video into Your Email Marketing Strategy,” at the 2010 Video Commerce Summit in Seattle.Following the session, I interviewed one of the panelists, Mari Strom, Director of Marketing for Holland America and I asked her for to talk to us about best practices for doing video in email marketing, how to integrate video into retailer emails, and I tackle the big question: Is video in email marketing programs really “video?”

Important note: This article has been revised since it’s original publication. Justin Foster, an email video technology specialist and founder of Liveclicker (and sponsor of my coverage of the Video Commerce Summit), was considerate enough to offer some corrections to some of the information as it was originally presented to our viewers.)

Is What You’re Watching In Email Actually Video?

First, we should agree on a definition of what actually qualifies as being a “video.” According to Wikipedia (if you choose to use that as your source):

“Video is the technology of electronically capturing, recording, processing, storing, transmitting, and reconstructing a sequence of still images representing scenes in motion.”

So if we agree on that definition of what’s a video, then the next step is to understand the technology behind a video in an e-mail for mass marketing. (I.e., watching a video embedded in an email, typically with a graphic design of some sort and clickable links.)

GIF Animation In Video Email

Typically, most of the types of email you would receive that display what appears to be an embedded video that plays right in the email itself,  is actually an animated GIF or series of animated GIFS. GIF, standing for “Graphics Interchange Format, is a lossy file format that can massively reduce image size (and down to 256 colors or less). Before the days of Flash being so widely used, GIF was the primary choice of animation on websites – largely for their fast download times and easier integration with server technology, but the trade-off was a very crude and limited display for viewers.

So why do animated GIFs when we have high-res video today? That’s because GIFs don’t run afoul of email filters, like most video file formats would. Email filters on both the general consumer and business level tend to strip out large file sizes (typical of video), flash or anything with a script in it – which is rather commonplace in a lot of video today. So while we’re now used to high bandwidth and high quality video on our web browsers, email is still very much geared for low-level bandwidth. (You could argue that’s actually a good thing – can you imagine with all the e-mail spam we receive today, if they were also attaching and embedding actual videos there as well?)

GIF Animation – Real Video?

Now, we need to first consider the definition of an “animation,” which Wikipedia offers as such…

Animation is the rapid display of a sequence of images of 2-D or 3-D artwork or model positions in order to create an illusion of movement. It is an optical illusion of motion due to the phenomenon of persistence of vision, and can be created and demonstrated in a number of ways. …

There you have it – animation is artwork that creates the optical illusion of movement. So if we go by comparing these two terms of “video” and “animation,” I would be hard-pressed to call a GIF animation an actual video. But I’m a novice in this area – how do the experts weigh in on this one? Well, all of the panelists at the Liveclicker session were in agreement that “video” in an email, isn’t really video per-se. Instead, it’s the perception, or illusion, of watching video. (Watch my video with Mari Strom to hear more of her take on this.)

But could a GIF animation could actually ever meet the technical requirements of what defines a video? What if, say, you were able to capture an original video source, and then be to do a direct conversion from that original video file into a GIF animation (and not have to manually stick individual image files and possibly audio together), AND if it was able to play in a standard video player – would that then qualify? Well, according to Justin, Email marketers aren’t manually creating animated .GIFs. ” The crudest of the bunch are outputting .GIFs straight from FinalCut or other video editing software.” he shares.

What Else Can You Use Besides GIFs?

I’ll admit here that I didn’t go into a survey of email providers on this one. However, Justin shared with me that his own company, Liveclicker, is able to create and deploy HTML5 video, animated .GIF video, animated .PNG videos, and static images from a single source video asset. Here’s how he explains it:

“The source video is uploaded to the system, the system creates all the different versions of the content, spits out a piece of HTML code, and the marketer copies/pastes it into their email.  The Liveclicker system automatically detects what mail client is in use and renders the “best possible” version of the video… In 5 minutes an email marketer can upload a video and be delivering all 3 formats, falling back to static images where HTML5 video or animated .GIF videos aren’t supported.”

Here’s an example that Justin shared of an email file with an HTML5 video. (Note: I originally mistook this for a an example of GIF animation in an email, hence the title. I’ve since added the annotation and title to show that this is an HTML5 video, and not a GIF animation.)

Tips For Video In E-mail Marketing

The panelists shared the following tips:

  • Don’t use Flash. Email filters strip out anything with a script (e.g., Flash) which could be a virus or malware.
  • No automatic audio playback. “Audio in email is not considered a best practice, as the unexpected sound may be unwelcome and inappropriate for a user’s surroundings, e.g., reading personal email at work.” Says Melinda. Also, Justin mentions that with GIF animation, its not possible to embed audio in the file. (I should have know that after many years of GIF banner ad design – doh!)
  • Include multiple platform links. It’s strongly recommended to at least a link akin to “view as a webpage” functionality.” Since many people check their email on their cell phone or other mobile device, you should also have a link to a mobile-friendly version of your video.
  • Use images that tell a story without sound. “Don’t always rely on the audio being there,” says Melinda. “The video will loop, so the story must make sense regardless of where it starts.”

  • Include graphic links for better display of calls-to-action. Melissa has an example of a video in an email with the  “click to hear audio” and “see full video” buttons, featured below.

  • Proximity to top of page. Place your video as close to the top as possible, above the fold.
  • Test it out on multiple assets. Not just a desktop email software, but also the iPad, iPhone, webmail client, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Lotus Notes, etcetera.
  • Do multivariate testing. Melinda recommends using the 10/10/80 approach: “10% of the recipients receive version A, and 10% receive version B. Then a winner is determined and sent to the remaining 80% of the file.
  • Save it for a compelling story. Aaron strongly advocated not using video in every single one of your emails. “I think it should be saved for special circumstances, when you do have a compelling story to tell.”