Why is email cool

Leading on from my old Shexzy Email presentation at Only Email back in 2014, I’ve been asked again, Why is email cool. I pinged out a tweet and only really got ROI reasons; that’s not “Cool”, so I thought I’d best have a pop myself.

Why is email cool

In comparison to itself and others a few years ago / in comparison to other mediums now (dev, marketing etc.)

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Email ROI is still TOP – no sign of it relenting.

Why? Email is patient – especially compared to other mediums…
You get an email, it sits there forever, until you read it, move it or delete it.

Whereas messages over all other mediums can easily get lost in threads, with few easy ways to highlight relevant ones for action etc.

Email is easily categorisable. Automatic high level classification is pretty good, with gmail tabs etc. allowing people to split between messages, updates and marketing.

Notifications and improved control and relevance of them, make it easier not to miss important & urgent ones in good time.

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Your activity is ‘more’ private.

Email is very personal and private. The only people know if you have really opened an email (without loading images) is the inbox provider, be it your company mailserver admins or the host like Gmail etc. It is not until you load the images or click a link that sender can know you’ve seen it.
Obviously what that host does with it is another discussion.
There are providers who are more private. Whilst you don’t get much space for free, as we all know, if you don’t want to sell your privacy for ads, you have to pay it.

Whereas whatsapp, FB messenger etc. has the little indicators for if a message has been seen.

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Email is freely accessible

Email has been a victim of its own success. It’s free, it’s a medium that is open for anyone to use and build for and not owned by any individual brand to control and profit from.

This means that it does not get the attention and budget it deserves; tech bods who’ve never got their noses into email, can easily hold it in contempt. From MTA management for deliverability to personalisation and frequency in life cycle journey experiences.

It is an ongoing battle to prove the budget for something that is so fundamental but without the self marketing power of mediums owned by a brand, like Facebook & Google; email doesn’t have stocks and shares; email doesn’t have a figurehead being interviewed for election fixing or resisting law enforcement for decryption.

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Portable personalisation

If you consider how sites personalise ads and experiences, most of it is down to them ‘sensing’ who you are, eg: cookies in a browser; where 3rd party cookies are less tolerated for cross site ad targeting. Sites will store whatever they can figure out about you as a visitor when you land on a page. Compare it to previous visitor details & cookies etc. to see if they have anything that they can use to personalise the experience / optimise the advert relevance.
You have multiple devices, multiple locations including being out and about on mobile data.

Once you log into a site, obviously it all comes together naturally because you have confirmed your presence & identity.

With emails, you log into your inbox and carry that around. All a brand needs is your email address, which you use to log in with, purchase with, submit whitepaper downloads with etc. etc. they profile your activity against that and send you personalised content with consideration of the time since your online activities and bookings whilst logged in etc.

In reality, a ‘free’ email address’s actual cost is your own privacy. “If a product is free, you are the product” Alan Cooper.

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Email is required for most other mediums.

Be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google searching etc. etc. they all want you logged in and all use an email address. All because of the above reasons. It might be a final backup for contact, it might be a confirmation method, it might be a way to log less important information so it is stored in a users’ person storage not in the app itself.
Email is infinite
Obviously for completely infinite, it’s not free but limits on message length and storage space sizes are implemented by a provider not by the medium’s nature.

You can make an email as long as you like; You can keep emails as long as you like – if your service lets you; you can extract them and save them elsewhere in an easy to use format.

Facebook posts are not easy to extract. Instagram images and comments and complicated to extract together, Tweets are short and a thread is hard to extract, especially when comment threads split out from comments on comments, it’s hard to read.

There’s very little reply-all and ability to copy extra people in to tweet replies without eating into character space & changing the context. Whatsapp tends to exist in predefined groups. Slack is a bit more flexible, not so markety and threads are fairly new and can get lost. Snap-chat messaging for instance is geared to avoid accountability and live in the moment and the emergence of stories in facebook-land has followed.

All at some-point labelled as the email killer, none have touched it.



To be fair though, email has missed a few tricks from these new mediums. You could simply send a 150 character email message to a contact, via email. You don’t have to have a subject line and the inbox at the other end needs a good enough way to show it and keep the messages together in a decent thread or not. Whereas messaging apps, simply send only the message, their UI just piles them on top of each other. Whatsapp groups can do a delayed reply, with a quote. Slack has introduced threads, which is a mixed bag of experiences.

If for instance, Google had built a messenger UI into the gmail app, instead of trying G+ & hangouts etc. people could have seen email differently, even if the messaging still sent json/xml like a messenger app and didn’t really email. The UX would have melded the concept and Google would have been able to compete with Facebook for it. Now we all have whatsapp & slack as well as Gmail and the messengers are more urgent, regardless of their importance.

RCS is Google’s new thing, that seems to be getting traction, which is essentially SMS on acid. Time will tell.

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Controversy if delivering emails could be cool but in reality this was the first AI in a lot of marketing. The competition in free inboxes to have the better spam filter and be the ‘main email account’ was fierce pre-gmail. Back when list purchase was a thing and the only real dissuasion to marketers doing the numbers was Spamhaus traps threatening their hosting provider.

Gmail’s content filters the end of spare IPv4s and marketers’ increase in email use due to the credit crunch, leading to early implementation of sender reputation made deliverability a real thing.

It’s still a thing and still not really getting the recognition in skill it deserves.

The fact so much of it is now user centric and not some so much of the internet police it used to be, means that you get rewarded for good email experiences and respecting permission.

In balance, all of the hoops email devs and mta managers have to go through to facilitate these great experiences across inboxes, means it is easier to differentiate ourselves from the actual spam and malicious viruses & phishing attempts.

This achievement, with the amount of work involved in the foundation, is very satisfying.

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Privacy Protection

With the various large increases in digital protection law, especially GDPR in the EU and CASL in Canada, the real consequence of abuse increased the scarcity of an email address, so the value of an email address increased with it. No longer was it simply ISP and anti-spam / anti-virus angles but real legally enforceable and expensive angles, giving people confidence over the content of their inbox; returning them the power they expected which in turn made their email address more valuable to them, as well as brands who want to market to them.

Again, a ‘free’ email address’s cost is usually your privacy, for profiling and advertising. There are the odd secure and private free addresses, eg: Protonmail, Tutanota; or make your own.

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Email Innovation

Long gone are the days where an email dev would have to go back to the nineties to html code an email. Whilst tables are still required for optimal structure solidity, CSS and responsiveness has almost caught up; the improved ability of tech and code to process and spit out the messy email html from cleaner, more web like code or even custom markup, has made building very cool emails very accessible.We have code frameworks and processors like, foundation, mjml, bootstrap email. There’s loads of in house custom systems, many on the back of the original “premailer” inliner.

Sitting on top of all of that, there’s dozens of drag and drop editors, to give the best UI without the need to know all the quirks, facilitating strategy and content experiences.

From general responsiveness between devices and device rotations, to interactivity like carousels,, progressive disclosure, shopping cart management; to Gmail promo tools in the inbox; to AMP where an incredible amount of web-site like interactivity can occur from inside the inbox.

The only thing holding back a lot of the new tech, is the old tech which doesn’t support it; like qwerks we have to use to reset inboxes like Outlook and maintain structure of responsive emails; the slow evolution of popular inboxes, like the time it took for Gmail to support media queries.

Apple, being a big player since the iphone’s mail app, was so flexible being so close to a browser, has its own set of requirements for safari and the browser battle continues on the outside. AR and VR capabilities where a device’s gyroscope is required is the latest battle, especially between apple and android mobile devices. These things often leak into email world and I’d love to see if an email could ever use the gyroscope and/or camera for AR.

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Email’s place as the number one ROI is safe because of its cost of access (permission) vs the consequences of abusing it;

Its complication plays in its favour, where to do really good email, you have to work pretty hard and that bar is fairly high, making it easy for inbox filters to split out the lazy spam be it from people or virus/bots.

This is further supported by its continued simplicity but immense capability.

Often being the final output or such complex and intensive personal data mining and profiling to optimise that one message at that one time in line with everything a brand can figure out about how to least annoy a person and how to most appeal to their needs and convenience to earn their money without alienating them.
The data, the content itself from the data, the presentation, the timing, the multi-media / multi-channel support on the back of it to support the journey from one email to an entire journey; from getting the email address from search traffic to still being a customer 10-50-100 years later is a massive deal that should not be taken for granted as much as it is.

Email is the easiest marketing medium not do badly, it is the most capable medium for reach and experience and multi-channel tie-ups and life cycle journeys – this may also make it the biggest medium and hardest medium to master.

Quoting back to Shexzy email:

“Email is a victim of its own success, cheap, robust, ‘easy’, consistent, accessible” (Mark Brownlow 2010).

It’s lack of scarcity and as a medium without being owned by a brand on the stock market has it taken for granted and ignored financially.

To lead on from it:

Whilst it is the unappreciated foundation, email shouldn’t exist in a silo, fighting for attention; An intuitive holistic content experience will lead you to the best mediums along the journeys. Done well, email tends to emerge as the most involved.

Spam was named after a Monty Python sketch

Clicked through a Facebook post called “7 words you probably didn’t know we’re acronyms

And one of those words was spam.

And it stands for: Special Processed American Meat.

The email spam is not an acronym, the description for repeated unsolicited email was aparently adopted from the Monty Python sketch…


Signup form subscription bombing is worth avoiding

Signup form subscription bombing is worth avoiding

Signup form subscription bombing is worth avoiding

Subscription Bombing

Everyone who sends email even close to properly has a sign-up form, therefore, you should have all heard about subscription bombing by now and signup form subscription bombing is worth avoiding.

Just in case you haven’t, its when a spider, bot, virus etc. finds a form on a page and submits it, a lot. Like a ddos attack but with email addresses. Thousands an hour or even a minute, relentlessly.

I’ve recently been tracking hits on a form (which is protected), for about a month, that began in China before going to the Philippines, then Hong Kong and then back from the Philippines. Mainly using numbers at qq and repeating combinations of a short list of names for other fields.

Consequences of subscription bombing on your list

There are a few consequences for a list:

  • It fills up really quick and with rubbish.
  • You can’t send to it.
  • It’s a nightmare to clean.
  • If you have a welcome message and no double opt-in, you then send dozens of thousands of those that will never be opened.
  • If you have a double opt-in email, you’ll send dozens of thousands of them but at least only the humans will confirm.

This all sounds inconvenient, expensive and very complicated to recover from…

It then gets worse when Spamhaus blocklists your IP for not sufficiently protecting your sign-up form. Apparently you should know about this and want to protect it. Also your ISP probably has a Spamhaus listing in their Ts & Cs of things not to have so now your entire hosting package is on the line.

How does Spamhaus manage to find out? interesting question, however, it matters not; it’ll make you fix it quicker and you won’t do it again.


Spamhaus is the worst blocklist to be on and most people who get on a list, deserve to be there. It’s successful, popular and reliable for a reason. But sometimes, you’re unlucky. Ignorance is not an excuse, although it may be a reason but ignorance is cured by knowledge. Sometimes you can get punished twice, when the guilt and the consequences of the first problem, what you thought was the big problem is sinking in, you get called an idiot and kicked while you are down; Signup form subscription bombing is worth avoiding. Do your home work, otherwise you look lazy and contemptuous and that never goes down well.

How to avoid subscription bombing

Double-Opt-in and reCaptcha.

How to avoid signup form subscription bombing


As I’m sure you know, subscription bombing is not pretty and expensive. Having your form signed up to thousands of times in an hour by what is essentially a virus in a ddos attack is the worst. So here’s how to avoid signup form subscription bombing.

1. Double Opt-in

Also known as Confirmed Opt-in (COI): Someone signs up, send them an email with a link in it. If they click it they get in; if they don’t, they don’t, it’s as simple as that.

Well before subscription bombing was a thing, this was ‘best practice’. Listed in every ISP’s bulk sender guidelines; cited by every spam blocklist as proof of unsolicited email; often named the list killer by most B2B email marketers, the needless added barrier to that all so valuable foot in the door.

For the most part, only people who want to be on the list will click that link in the confirmation email they get after signing up. If you get unlucky, lazy or stupid and hit a trap with a COI, it’ll get you notified before blocklisted.  Senders who are scared they’ll lose those people aren’t confident in their own brand and the exclusivity of their list.

2. reCaptcha

Google’s completely free and far prettier version of the captcha, where you have to tick a box and Google and will decide if you are a human or not. If it can’t decide it’ll ask you to click some pictures, just the ones with road signs in or house numbers etc.

Only a human would be able to get to those and match those images, like the original captcha but google does a little bit of checking first.

Also there is now an invisible version, so you don’t even have to tick a box. Its very new and the UX of it is yet to be accepted.

Just login with a google account, get the code and follow the instructions.


Emoji in Gmail inbox preview snippet

I got an email from Google+ yesterday and saw some odd characters in the preview snippet.


The “inbox preview snippet” (or  “inbox snippet preview” or “preview snippet” or “snippet preview” or “snippet” etc.) is where your email client grabs a line or two of the copy from the email and pops it after or beneath the subject line in the inbox.

I had a quick look through the code to see if anything shouted at me but didn’t get anywhere, so after a full minute of looking I turned to twitter with a screenshot.

Within 30 seconds I had a reply! “Yay!” I thought, but it was James Dempster from Cobb Digital with a joke … he is funny though.

A few minutes later I was replied to by the legend of Mark Robbins telling me it was emoji!

I returned to the message and looked deeper. I found that what I had thought was two images, badly aligned, either side of a title, was actually two shooting star emoji characters.
So when Gmail grabbed the copy from the message, it had grabbed the emoji as normal characters and rendered them normally, be it with a different emoji set but it does open a door or two.


Many people like to add a hidden block of text in the top of their body code so they can control this snippet without having it affect the experience once the email is opened.

I think I need to check out how this looks in other snippet showing inboxes and see how useful this can be at getting attention.

Emoji in the subject line is not a new thing and can help if you don’t over do it – more of a novelty thing really.
Personalisation in the subject line, is a similar thing; when done well and not too much it is effective.

Personalisation in the snippet preview is a lot safer, because whilst it shows up in the inbox its not the subject line and as a snippet of the start of the message, it leads the user into the email, building momentum to get the open. So emoji in the snippet could a useful creative tactic.

Time will tell I suppose.

The Magically hiding TalkTalk content

A few months ago there was a bit of problem with TalkTalk users who were getting blank emails.

The same email in any other email client were rendering as coded, it was just TalkTalk.

Eventually enough people moaned and TalkTalk updated the rendering to fix the problem.

However, a tiny number of senders reported that they were still having this problem, one of them was a customer of mine.

I had a look through their HTML to find out what they were coding that others weren’t.

I tracked it down to a hidden pre-header, which was coded in a way that was causing only TalkTalk’s renderer to think the entire email was commented out.

Here’s the code:



As you may be able to spot, the closing conditional has an extra opening comment tag. It was this opener that TalkTalk seemed to carry through to the rest of the email; so as far as TalkTalk was concerned, all of the message was commented out, thus hiding all content below it.

On further investigation, we found that the code was copied and pasted from a very old post in the Litmus community forum, from a comment by the legendary Mark Robins, about how to hide a preheader.

I ask Mark if that was deliberate or a typo, and he told me it was on purpose but he couldn’t remember why, it was a long time ago.

Either way, I removed it, tweaked the styles a little bit and it was fine again in TalkTalk and everywhere else…



While I’m here I’d also like to point out the commented space just inside the conditional.

Without that, MS Outlook was skipping the hidden preheader for its snippet in the inbox, under the subject line and taking the next bit, which was the url of a linked image. When I added it back, MS Outlook was behaving normally again.

Classic inbox weirdness.