How to use Alt Tags in your newsletter and avoid “hidden” problems

“We learn from our mistakes,” the saying goes. That may be true, but it’s a lot less stress inducing to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Seeing errors in the work of others can induce schadenfreude in some cases, but a better response is to investigate what the sender did wrong and ask yourself if you are in danger of making similar mistakes. If you are, then you might want to treat those errors as your own.

For this purpose, I keep a separate folder in my email client into which I put any examples of problems that I find cautionary and instructive. Here are a few of the more common problems I’ve come across and some ideas on how to avoid them.

An “Alternative” View through alt-tags

Perhaps it’s because I first view all my email with the images turned off that I’m especially sensitive to the quality of alt tags. Too often I find that alt tags are treated as an afterthought, thrown in at the last minute with little care or design. It is important to remember that not everyone reads their email with images turned on so it’s a good policy to pay attention to what those alt tags say. Ideally, it should be something that makes them want to find out what they are missing.

Ya’ got something against “T”s?

Lyris gets points for using a colored cells with styled text, but if you ever needed a reminder to check your alt tags as carefully as you check your email newsletter and content, this is it. Maybe the “T” key on their keyboard was broken? Or is the modern spelling of Integration really Inegraion?

Alt tag? What’s that?

In Lyris’ defense, at least they had an alt tag. I can’t say the same for Hugo Boss, whose email always lands in my Inbox looking exactly the same. No alt tags and absolutely nothing to make me want to see the images. Or maybe this is really some clever attempt to get one to display the images out of sheer curiosity.

You’re using an image because…?

It’s always heartening to see someone use alt tags to further their message. That can be anything from a simple “Turn on your images to see what you’re missing,” to fully styled alt tag in a colored cell (here is an article on how to do this). But this alt tag from Generator Research takes the cake:

Bizarrely, the missing image is nothing more than this same list as a gif file, which raises the question: Why bother with the image at all?

Delivery Problems

Although plenty of people do, it is not a good idea to rely entirely on images to convey your message. Network slow downs, unexpected glitches, and certain browser extensions can ruin the best email design. When this happens, you’ll be glad you had something else on the page beside the picture that never showed up. Here’s an email from Fab that got scrambled somewhere along the way:

We’re not sure why this email from Fab got screwed up in transmission, but had they included some text it would have mattered less. As it stands, the only visible message is something about Pumpkin Pie Cake. Is it a product, a cookbook, or just a joke? We’ll never know because the only other text in this email were the legal notices, address, and unsubscribes mandated by the CAN-SPAM act.

Who is ANSI_X3.4-1968 anyway?

You may have seen this subject line structure before. The problem is that the encoding didn’t match the chosen character set. The headline used an em dash (it should have read: “EEC 2014—Early Bird Special Ends Tomorrow”) but for that to work, the subject line must be encoded properly. You’ll see this most often when using email-injector programs, such as the Javamail API included in Java, instead of the software from a professional ESP. Any decent email marketing software should be able to avoid this problem. But even a single test email would have exposed this problem, so testing cannot be overlooked.

00A0? I Thought You Said C2A0, now it is in the junk folder!

By far the worst example of miscoding that has ever graced my Inbox came just the other day in the form of this mess:

This one actually ended up in Junk Folder, which is exactly where it belongs. I fished it out to add to my Sample Folder because I’ve honestly never seen an email so badly constructed. The author was attempting to insert images into the mailing using base64 encoding (the view shown above is with images turned off), but also set the message to send as iso-8859-1 instead of utf-8.

This wouldn’t have been that big of a problem had the author not decided to use non-breaking to set line positioning, which adds yet another level of wrongheadedness to the email. If they gave licenses for email marketing, this guy would be facing a one-year suspension.

Jim Morton

Jim Morton is the Marketing Communications Specialist at Goolara, the makers of Symphonie email marketing systems and writer of the Best Practices, Vol. 1 white paper