10 ways to make your marketing emails interactive

Despite many evolutions, email still often feels like the electronic version of snail mail: A simple communication channel in which static messages make their way from senders to recipients.

Even the language used—read, open, etc.—reinforces the idea that the medium is passive and one-way. Emails are “sent” and they are “received,” implying that that they cannot change on the fly and readers cannot expect to interact with them.

The truth is that email can be dynamic and interactive. And not just in the superficial ways that are often thought of—like adding an animated GIF—but in ways that truly enable audiences to see real-time information and engage within messages. 

Adding this sort of useful interactivity can help brands accomplish a range of goals, from sparking interest to encouraging purchases. However, to reap these benefits, the execution must be right. The ways in which interactive elements appear (or do not appear) on different clients and devices varies widely and it is necessary to take this into account when creating campaigns. 

How exactly can marketers make their emails more dynamic? Which specific issues should be considered during development? Here are 10 key ways brands can add interactivity to campaigns and what you need to know about executing each effectively.

How can I make my email marketing interactive?

1. Buttons

What it is: Clicking has always been part of emails, but the action has typically involved a simple link or image that led outside the message. What’s sometimes overlooked is that it is possible to incorporate clickable buttons that spark actions within emails themselves.

Example: Buttons have all sorts of uses in emails, much like they do on websites, including revealing content and experiences. They can also help to introduce some fun and whimsy, such as in this “flip the switch” execution from B&Q.

Via: Really Good Emails.

Execution considerations: Buttons in emails can be interactive in a number of ways, like simply adding a hover state to making a click spur an in-message action. The options and limitations will depend on what you are trying to accomplish. This overview covers some of the various things that can be done with HTML and CSS, and also touches on email client considerations.

2. Countdown timers

What it is: Countdown timers are a great way for marketers to convey immediacy and spur people into taking action. Static timers such as those with a set day or time (“Our big sale starts Tuesday”) have long been used in messages, but what many brands don’t realize is that it is also possible to include live countdowns.

Example: This email from IKON Pass which tracks down to the second how long people have to purchase a ski pass before prices increase is a good example of how a countdown can be used to remind audiences that time is limited.

Via: Sendtric.

Execution considerations: Nifty Images is a popular approach for tackling timers because it creates a simple URL and an accompanying animated GIF, meaning it will work across most email providers. We say “most” because some email clients (notably Outlook 2007, 2010, and 2013) only show the first frame of an animated GIF—so you’ll want to make sure that first frame gets the message across to ensure your campaign still displays well if the live countdown is disabled. Another option, on display in the example above, is Sendtric.

3. Image carousels

What it is: Image carousels are beloved on websites and social media by brands—especially eCommerce brands—and with good reason: They are a great tool for easily, conveniently displaying multiple offerings as well as different views of the same offering. In emails, image carousels can serve the same valuable role. 

Example: This campaign from Adidas highlights the power and flexibility of image carousels. In this case, the interactivity allows the sportswear brand to showcase two things—its range of products and its range of current sales—in the same compact email message.

Via: Really Good Emails.

Execution considerations: Image carousels are widely supported across email clients and the ability to build them is often included in email marketing platforms. That said, it is still worthwhile to test across the email platforms widely used by your audience to ensure they display properly.

4. Games

What it is: Games are fun. That may sound obvious, but it is useful for marketers to remember. People like a distraction and the addition of an element of chance tends to intrigue and delight. While games within emails can’t be as complex as on websites, it is still possible to create fun experiences that boost engagement.

Example: Minesweeper was a mainstay of early computers and this concept campaign shows how it can be translated to email. It includes the full gameplay elements, allowing audiences to engage directly in the message itself.

Via: Really Good Emails.

Execution considerations: To execute something like Minesweeper you’ll have to get into things like embedded HTML and CSS, so ensuring email client compatibility is key. (Here’s a helpful guide where you can check the cross-platform compatibility of different CSS elements.) For a simpler solution, keep in mind that there are ways to tease a game but have the heart of the interactivity live on a website, like in this scratch off example.

5. Navigation

What it is: Interactive navigation is so common on websites that we rarely think about it; visitors simply assume that content will be revealed if certain things are clicked on. What’s often overlooked is that many of these same popular user experience features can be included in emails as well.

Example: This email from Smashbox incorporates something more commonly seen on websites: a “hamburger” menu. It highlights how adding interactive navigational elements is an effective way to keep messages short while still giving audiences opportunities to dive deep into areas of interest.

Via: Email Monks.

Execution considerations: There are two important things brands should keep in mind when it comes to interactive navigation in emails. First, there are the usual client considerations with CSS and HTML. Second, navigational elements behave in different ways on different devices and different screen sizes, so it’s important to test on phones, tablets, and desktops.

6. Polls and ratings

What it is: Feedback is immensely valuable to any business and email is a great way to get it. Interactive polls and ratings in campaigns can be useful in all sorts of ways, from determining interest in specific offerings to assessing the quality of customer service experiences. 

Example: This email from Taylor Stitch is a good example of how ratings can be given through various methods; the campaign solicits a wide-range of different feedback about a recent purchase directly in the message and then submits the information to a product page.

Via: Really Good Emails.

Execution considerations: Brands have plenty of options when it comes to feedback in emails. If you want a basic poll you can embed a Google Form directly in a message (primer here), and if you want to get more complex you can use a more sophisticated tool such as Typeform. You can also create the illusion of a poll without adding real interactivity by simply presenting multiple images and tracking clicks (as in this example).

7. Real-time information

What it is: The information included in your emails doesn’t have to be static; it can be personalized and dynamic. In other words you can deliver real-time data—everything from current inventory on products to weather forecasts based on geography—to specific people.

Example: In this example the message from a book seller is both targeted and dynamic: a specific recipient is delivered real-time pricing for a number of different books based on her preferences and the discounts being offered at that moment.

Via: NiftyImages.

Execution considerations: The key here is linking the campaign with the necessary information—which can be a significant technical undertaking. It’s usually done via an API, which connects the data source (or sources) with an email platform capable of creating targeted messages.

8. Scrolling

What it is: Because screens are smaller on many mobile devices, audiences must often scroll when reading brand emails. This is a tedious but necessary part of the experience, something that must be done in order to get through the content. However, with some creativity, scrolling can almost become like a game for the reader—and help you get your audience reading your emails all the way to the bottom. 

Example: This example from Penguin Random House is beautiful in its simplicity: With a bit of formatting, the company makes the email scroll feel like a journey (taken by a very cute penguin in a very cute bus) and compels readers to make it to the end of the message.

Via: Really Good Emails.

Execution considerations: The complexity depends on how it is executed. Adding scrolling can mean simply incorporating static images at different points in an email to give the illusion of movement or it can involve going as far as actually incorporating interactive navigation. The key with any approach is to test on various screen sizes, since scroll behavior varies across devices.

9. Social feeds

What it is: Email and social media often seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former feeling fairly static and the latter feeling fresh and constantly updated. However, this division doesn’t have to be so stark, especially since it is possible to bring social media posts into emails.

Example: This Mother’s Day email from The Body Shop incorporates Instagram and Twitter posts tagged with #GotItFromHer, enabling the brand to showcase real celebrations from the day and making the campaign feel current.

Body Shop email integrating social media feed.
Via: Sendbible.

Execution considerations: The key to adding social media content to emails is making the connection to the live data. This is often done via a pipeline into social networks’ feeds. There is a danger in presenting unfiltered social content, so brands should make sure to think through a process for screening the posts that appear in campaigns.

10. In-email shopping

What it is: The holy grail of email marketing has been in-message shopping. Brands have long wanted to be able to reduce friction and increase sales by enabling audiences to browse and purchase in-email rather than forcing people to leave for a website or app. The good news is that this dream is finally becoming a reality.

Example: In this campaign from JackThreads, the email message behaves like a website checkout page, enabling shoppers who have abandoned products in their online shopping carts to easily complete purchases.

Via: Medium.

Execution considerations: The JackThreads example uses CSS and multiple variations of content, which is effective but time-consuming to develop. However, this sort of rich interactivity is becoming much simpler to execute thanks to things like Google’s Dynamic Email. These new initiatives utilize a component-based approach that make it much more straightforward to add true app-like/website-like interactions to messages (like in this example).

Ultimately, the introduction of Dynamic Email highlights that email is becoming very interactive very quickly. The elements cited in this post are just the beginning; new tools are quickly being added and client support is quickly being expanded, meaning marketers will soon be able to connect with audiences in even more powerful ways.

Key takeaways

Email is generally thought of as a static medium, with the only dynamic elements being an animated GIF or perhaps an embedded video. But as email marketing grows and evolves, more elements of interactivity are possible—and will work on more platforms and devices.

As you begin planning to take the leap into interactive emails, however, there are some key considerations to weigh.

  • Execution is important. While many interactive elements are widely accessible, there are gaps in support. Check how different clients and digital devices display your emails, and make a contingency plan for what emails will look like on clients that don’t display your interactive elements properly. 
  • Interactivity can be big and small. Think about how to make every aspect of your emails more engaging, from more sophisticated navigation and scrolling to countdowns and carousels.
  • Real-time elements keep emails fresh. Utilize elements like current pricing information and social feed data to help with relevancy and campaign targeting. They can also add a sense of urgency, which is always useful in email marketing.
  • More interactivity is coming. Keep a close eye on evolutions such as Google’s Dynamic Email to ensure you don’t miss out new interactive email approaches.
Ayaz Nanji
Ayaz Nanji is the founder of ICW, a firm specializing in content services and social media services for tech startups and established tech firms. He has worked for Google/YouTube, the Travel Channel, AOL, and the New York Times.

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