How Interactive Email can improve User Experience

Mark Robbins from Salesforce focused on customers and the user experience in his talk on interactive email. He explained at the outset that most of the the products and solutions he was going to demonstrate in the talk were developed by REBEL, which was acquired last year by Salesforce.

So, what is interactive email? It is also known by the synonyms “actionable email”, “kinetic email”, and “microsites in emails”, which may mean exactly the same thing or may have slight differences, depending on who you talk to. Robbins provided his own definition of interactive email: “An action taken in an email that triggers events without leaving the email.”



Types of interactions    

Robbins divided the different types of interactions into three categories: “Fleeting interactions”, which are only true for as long as an action takes place (e.g. hover, focus, or active – for as long as the mouse button is held down); “lasting interactions” – more defined, intentional actions from the user (including checkbox that can be clicked on and off, a series of radio buttons where only one can be selected – by selecting a second one, the first one becomes unselected again – and a singular radio button, which cannot be unchecked once checked); and “submit” (forms within the email).

A new feature in terms of interactive email which he mentioned is AMP4email, from the Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) Project, which offers a new way of putting interactions into email. Rather than putting interactions into the HTML, it uses a separate MIME type, the AMP MIME type. It is an open project, so other companies and brands are also encouraged to start using it. At the launch in March 2019, it was announced that it will work in Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook.com, and Mail.ru. The form submit in AMP keeps the user in the email and does not redirect to a website, unlike an HTML form submit. AMP allows dynamic content, and can pull live data into the email interaction. Built from an accessibility-first point of view, AMP4email is still new, but very promising, according to Robbins. He admitted, however, that he had no live examples to share in his presentation. 

Support for interactive email 

In terms of support for interactive email, Mark Robbins clarified that “basic interaction” is supported by approx. 55% of the email client market, while “advanced interaction” – which offers a few more options and is easier to code, but for which there is no support for web mails – is supported by approx. 47% of the market. “Form submit” enjoys particularly good support, in around 82% of the market. Currently, AMP is currently supported by around 35% of email clients, although it is still being rolled out, and is not yet in mobile apps. However, Robbins pointed out that combining interactive HTML and AMP also gives a market share or around 80%.

Marc Robbins explained that in creating interactive email, the default remains the static version. If support is detected, then the email will be enhanced to show interactive code. If AMP MIME type is not supported or the user has switched it off, it also reverts back to the the next MIME type, probably HTML MIME type – which may still be interactive.

Why interactive email?

Mark Robbins went on to explain that while traditional email has the goal of getting the user onto a website in order to start conversion, with interactive email, the goal is simply to get the user to open the email – pulling the conversion process into the inbox rather than having it on a landing page. Sometimes interactive email can cover the complete process, and sometimes it is just used to initiate the interaction, to get the customer invested in the content in some way, so that when they subsequently click through to the website they are already more engaged and more likely to convert.

He went on to give a range of examples which illustrated some of the other benefits of interactive email. The first of these was a simple example of a photo gallery in an email, where the user can scroll through or click on a color selection button to see the image of choice. This has the advantage of not needing to scroll down though a long series of images in an email. Arrows to scroll through the images is an example of an “advanced interaction”, whereas the selection buttons are a “basic interaction”. 

Next, he mentioned the possibility of creating a topic filter. Robbins explained that senders sometimes do not have enough data about the recipient to send targeted emails. If a sender does not have personalized information, they can send a long email containing a broader range of information and products. In an interactive email the user can then set the filter for e.g. topic, price range, etc. It is then possible to detect what the user has clicked on, enabling the sender to create a follow-up campaign that is more targeted. 

A questionnaire could also be built, in order to create filters for targeted communication: simply asking the recipient, “What are you interested in?” The response buttons and the submit functionality are then directly in the inbox, rather than requiring the user to click through to an online survey.

Furthermore, in a traditional static “hotspots campaign” email designed as a birthday or Christmas surprise with offers hidden behind gift boxes, the user is required to click through to website to discover the hidden prize or gift, then go back to the email, click through again for the next offer, and so on. In interactive emails, it is possible to create hotspots which reveal these products directly in the email, avoiding the need to click back and forth. 

He went on to explain that it is important to use design conventions that users recognized, so that they understand how to interact. This is new technology, which users are not yet used to seeing in their inbox. Therefore, recognizable link buttons, gallery selection buttons, scroll buttons, etc. are useful to encourage interaction. Hotspots are less common, but it is possible to add an explanation on how to interact with them, and they can also be designed to pulse, for example, to draw the users’ attention.  

Interactive email also offers the possibility for “Contact Me buttons.” For example, in an email on available rental properties, the recipient could set the button for those properties that are of interest, and then at the bottom simply click on “submit”. The agencies or representatives responsible for those particular properties would then be informed and can get in touch with the potential customer.

Finally, Robbins spoke about the advantages of interactive features for the topic “rate & review”. Instead of asking the user: “Would you like to write a review?”, this offers the opportunity to ask: “What do you think?”. Feedback is direct and easy without leaving the inbox (e.g. clicking on a thumbs up or thumbs down symbol). Robbins explained that in their experience reviews perform very well in interactive email: in their own split testing, there was a 55% increase in reviews left compared to static email.

Interactive design tips

Mark Robbins closed with a few basic pieces of advice for designing interactive emails.

  1. Use common design patterns – e.g. color buttons, arrows for scrolling, etc., that users are already used to.
  2. Match functionality on your website, because your users are already familiar with your website
  3. Think about what’s best done in the email, what on the website. Email is about starting engagement, building curiosity, but some interactions will be better suited to being carried out on the website itself.

Finally, he illustrated the real power and potential of interactive email by revealing that his entire set of slides during his talk had been presented in an email, in Apple Mail.