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How Emails Are Evolving into Mailable Microsites

Authors: Chad White Chad White
Posted Under: Digital Marketing
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How Emails Are Evolving into Mailable Microsites


“The emails of the future will be much more like sending subscribers a microsite than a static message,” I say at the end of my book, Email Marketing Rules. Watching videos, browsing product assortments, and even making product purchases will also be possible without leaving the inbox.

When the book was published last fall, there were some definite signs of email heading in this direction. But in recent months, developments have accelerated. These changes will have a serious impact on how emails are designed and how email success is measured. Here are some examples of new email functionality that we need to pay attention to:

Product and Content Browsing

Early attempts at creating browsable email content involved JavaScript, which raised a lot of security concerns. Now CSS3 and HTML5 can be used to make “email carousels” that are akin to the carousels used on websites.

UK home improvement retailer B&Q and toymaker Lego have both used email carousels in their promotional emails recently. My colleagues, Jason Rodriguez and Kevin Mandeville, discuss how a coding hack is used to create this functionality in this Email Design podcast (at the 20:47 mark).


Navigation bars are powerful. They generate a significant number of clicks, and those clicks generally turn into conversions at a higher rate than clicks elsewhere in an email.

Mobile email design is moving a lot of nav bars from the top of emails to the bottom, where they have more room to be touch-friendly. The space concern associated with nav bars in mobile emails have led to the creation of hamburger menus within emails.

You can see one in action in this PBC Credit Union email by dragging the slider to narrow the email’s width until the viewport is mobile-sized.


Embedding video content in emails leads to inconsistent experiences across email clients, but between HTML5 video, YouTube, and services like LiveClicker and Movable Ink, you can generally deliver a solid inbox video experience to at least half of your subscribers.

For instance, Lego used LiveClicker to deliver a 15-second video in a December 25 email that let you play, pause, and jump around in the timeline. You can also place video content in the background of an email.

Live Content

Email content is no longer locked in stone when you send it. Sure you can update the source file for an image, but that can be limiting, and now Gmail users likely won’t see any updates because email images are cached.

The more elegant solution is to use live content. This technology can power countdown clocks that are accurate at the time an individual email is opened. It can let you insert a live local weather forecast, as Timberland did in this May 23, 2013 email. It can update the entire content of an email based on the time of open, which Best of the Best uses to clever effect in this August 19, 2013 email.


In-email payments have been in the works for many years. Google’s Pony Express is the most promising development in this space.

The Effect of These Changes

Some call these developments “disruptions,” which is true to a degree. It certainly disrupts the archetypal linear email interaction, where subscribers open an email, click on email content, and then convert or engage with landing page content. Now there are an increasing number of opportunities for subscribers to short-circuit that traditional interaction model and bypass one or more stages of an email interaction.

Stage-Bypass Model of Email Interaction

These developments make email marketing attribution increasingly difficult. Email has a reputation for being a highly measurable channel. Perhaps that reputation is deserved compared to other channels, but there’s a lot of email marketing influence that’s not easily tracked or measured. These new developments will necessitate new models of measuring email engagement, and they’ll make it even more important to measure email marketing activity through to conversion.

But rather than viewing these as negative developments, it’s better to view all of these changes as removing friction. Subscribers are incredibly busy, and every additional step we ask of them reduces engagement and ultimately conversions.

For instance, views of videos embedded in emails are typically 30% to 100% more than views of videos where email subscribers have to click through to the landing page to view it. That’s a huge boost.

The more we can allow our subscribers to do within the inbox, the higher the conversions we’ll see .

However, because email marketing is granted media and takes place on an open platform that’s controlled by multiple companies, it’s important to be aware that the support for many of these functionalities is inconsistent across email clients. Keep an eye on the email clients that are used most by your subscribers, and use tactics that have solid support among those. And for those email clients that don’t support a particular tactic, be sure to design a fallback experience that’s okay for your subscribers using those.

Email design is getting more complicated, but it’s also getting more exciting. In the years ahead, subscribers will be able to interact more and more with brands without leaving their inboxes. This is an opportunity marketers should embrace.

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