Guide to Building Interactive Emails (& Top 5 Resources)

Email Marketing Article
20 mins

Emails formats have traditionally lagged years behind websites in terms of interactivity. While the web has grown ever more immersive, emails have remained static – but in recent years, marketing emails have finally started to catch up, thanks in no small part to increased support for interactive features from some of the most popular email clients.

We’ve put together this guide to show you how interactive marketing emails are built, and some of the ways email marketers are using interactivity to get better results. We’ll also take a look at five key resources that will help you understand and implement this new evolution of email marketing.

What is an interactive email?

There are several different definitions of the term ‘Interactive email’ in-use. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to define interactive emails as emails involving at least one of the following feature types:

  • Dynamic features, where email content changes depending on variables relating to the recipient
  • Kinetic features, which provide interactive user experience within the email itself

Dynamic and kinetic features are often found together in the same email. Let’s take a detailed look at both types of feature, and how they are being used by email marketers:

Dynamic email features

A dynamic email feature is a content item that changes depending on data associated with the recipient – from variables as simple as their name or age to in-depth behavioural data like their real-time activity on an external website.

Some of you may recognise this as the technology commonly used to add the recipient’s name into email subject lines and copy (e.g. the first line of copy changes from ‘Dear Customer,’ to ‘Dear Chris,’ if the recipient’s first name is known). The variables used to deliver dynamic content are becoming more diverse, but the basic principle remains the same.

Popular dynamic content variables include: change over time; user’s location; user actions (such as abandoning their Cart on the brand’s online shop); local weather; order history. The list is ever-growing.

Dynamic emails features all have one thing in common: they act upon user data to personalise the email for each recipient, with the objective of enhancing the email’s performance against its KPIs. They interact with the user’s data – and not necessarily with the user.

Kinetic email features

This grouping contains much the same features we would class as interactive within the context of a website, including e-commerce functionalities, survey forms, quizzes, search bars and so on. Kinetic email features allow the user to interact with content – and sometimes thereby with the brand –  within the email client view.

Other kinetic features include progressive disclosure (where the user can reveal hidden content by clicking a button) and mouse-over image features.

Here’s a ground-breaking example of kinetic email features in action, from a B&Q campaign that yielded 42,000 clicks-throughs and an 18% increase in responder-to-open rates. The email’s source code is included on the left.

What are the marketing benefits of using interactive emails?

The advent of email interactivity has brought with it a transformative array of fresh possibilities for marketers. The following are amongst the most prevalent ways in which marketers are using interactivity to achieve their objectives:

Establishing difference

We’re starting with this potential benefit as it’s the most time-sensitive! In many industries, interactive email use is only just starting to catch on. This means there’s an opportunity for early adopters of interactive to establish themselves as ground-breakers within their particular industries. Web users are highly attuned to digital advances, and if you can be the one to make someone think “Ooh, I’ve never seen that before,” this can only reflect positively on your brand.

There’s a flip-side to this opportunity – wait too long to adopt interactive emails and you’ll run the risk of seeming behind the times. Digital marketing moves fast!

Gathering data

As we all know, the more data we have on the customer, the smarter our marketing can be. Every interaction the customer makes with an email provides new data, ranging from inferred data – such as the identities and order of product listings clicked – to data actively provided by the user, like responses to survey forms, answers to quiz questions and keywords entered into search bars.

Any data gathered by means of your kinetic interactive features can be used to feed into dynamic features of future emails – for example, you might use a recipient’s responses to a product quiz to dynamically determine which products are included in an e-commerce panel used in your next email to the same customer. In other words, one type of email interactivity can facilitate another.

Increasing engagement

Effectively deployed interactive features can greatly improve an email’s engagement rate. Dynamic features are particularly useful for serving more personally relevant content, while kinetic features – particularly presentational devices – can make your content more clickable. Both have great potential to increase engagement.

Funnelling by intent

Interactive email features like surveys can be used to funnel customers into targeted marketing sequences. For instance, you could lead with an email that quite directly asks the customer which of your products and services interest them the most. When they submit a response, a targeted email sequence is triggered, based on their selection(s). This approach can also be used to determine things like the customer’s preferred content types and frequency of emails.

Increasing usefulness

The power to personalise emails in real time with dynamic content presents us all with an opportunity to make our email content more useful to the user. As such, our excuses for sending anyone an email with only partial personal relevance are becoming increasingly few. We know our customers histories, tastes and behaviours – so let’s only send them emails they really want to read.

How to build an interactive email

There are two approaches to building interactive email features: 1. Code it yourself; or 2. Put it together using an application. If you’re a developer, we refer you to the list of interactive email resources towards the end of this article – the first resource listed includes tutorials on how to code some of the most widely used interactive email features. Coding interactive emails in-house brings the benefit of finer control over the end product.

Interactive email tools

If you don’t very much like the sound of hand-coding your own interactive emails, we have good news for you – there are plenty of tools on the market that can empower you to build interactivity into your emails, without the need for much technical know-how. Here’s are just a few of the options available:

  • RealTimeEmail – Uses data gathered at the moment the recipient opens an email to deliver targeted dynamic content in real-time.
  • Boomtrain – Delivers personalised emails and push notifications based on the user’s behaviour and mood, trending topics, metadata and search semantics.
  • Act-On – Personalisation based on personal info, preferences and order history. This tool is especially effective when used to market to e-commerce customers.
  • Zembula – Creates embeddable code for a variety of kinetic content features designed to increase engagement, including scratch-off/reveal images paired with CTA buttons.
  • LeadQuizzes – Creates interactive quizzes. LeadQuizzes integrates with several leading email marketing platforms, including MailChimp, Ontraport and Active Campaign.

Some interactive content tools will integrate with your email marketing platform, whilst others provide a standalone service. Be sure to ascertain that your chosen tools can be used together smoothly, allowing you to create your desired interactive email features without obstructing your email marketing operation as a whole.

Some extra interactive email tips

Signpost interactive features

It’s important to bear in mind that for many customers, email interactivity remains a novelty. As such, we recommend making interactive email features as accessible as possible, using sign-posting copy or graphic elements like arrows and tabs. Over time we will all become better accustomed to interactive email features – but for now, give your audience a hand.

QA you interactive emails thoroughly

If you’re an old hand at email marketing, you probably understand the importance of QAing your emails all too well. It’s especially necessary to test your interactive emails using as many email clients and browsers as possible, for the simple reason that some clients still don’t support interactivity. Once you’ve identified your “problem clients” you can task your developers with building the required fallback versions into your emails.

Don’t overdo it

You should be able to state – and measure – a specific strategic goal for every interactive email feature you use. Sometimes simply improving your email copy will yield better results than adding an eye-catching graphic feature.

Top 5 interactive email resources

FreshInbox – Interactive Examples & Techniques Library

This outstanding resource library features walkthrough guides on how to code some of the most popular kinetic and dynamic features, including hamburger menus, carousels and interactive puzzles. FreshInbox’s resource library also includes useful tips on some of the trickier aspects of interactive email design, examples of interactive emails in action, and some eye-opening experiments that prove the possibilities of interactive email design. They’ve even included an interactive-email-friendly version of Sonic The Hedgehog!

Email on Acid – 10 Best Ways to Use Dynamic Content in Email

Includes some inspirational case studies demonstrating just how smart you can get with dynamic content. We found the examples in which the user’s geolocation or local weather have been used to determine content especially interesting. Using the recipient’s location to generate personalised directions to an event? That’s ingenious.

Outbrain – 5 Examples of Brands Using Quizzes in their Content Marketing

Perhaps one of the more interesting opportunities presented by improvements in support for email interactivity is the option to add quizzes to your emails. This Outbrain feature shows a few ways in which quizzes can be used to further various marketing objectives. Please bear in mind that quizzes must be used only with great sensitivity to your audience and brand – don’t trivialise a serious brand with a comical quiz, and don’t drag down a light-hearted brand with a serious one.

Email on Acid – 4 Interactive Email Fallback Strategies

Some of the world’s most popular email clients have yet to roll out support for interactive email features, which means it’s incredibly important to ensure your interactive emails can switch to a static fallback version if they’re opened in a client that can’t render interactive features. The strategies outlined in this Email on Acid guide will help you address this need.

Litmus – The Evolution of Static Emails into Mailable Microsites

We’re big fans of this 2015 blog entry from email marketer Chad S. White, because it conveys what we regard as an absolutely key message: that increasing email interactivity is really all about elevating marketing tactics within your emails to what’s already achievable via websites. As Chad says, “The emails of the future will be much more like sending subscribers a microsite than a static message.”

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