Experts Say: Why You Shouldn’t Send Image-Only Emails

We’ve all been there: Your boss or client just asked you to set up an email that’s almost entirely made out of images. “I see everyone else doing it,” they might say.

Or your design team might argue, “Images just make it easier to keep the design consistent. We can use our brands’ fonts, place copy on images, and more… all without coding.”

And maybe this is something you believe in, too.

At first glance, sending image-only (or image-heavy) emails might sound like a great idea, but those emails can come with a poor subscriber experience—and can ultimately hurt your brand. A picture may say a thousand words, but sometimes, you also need those words spelled out.

Keep reading to learn from several email marketing experts on why all-image emails are so popular in the first place, why you may want to reconsider, and how to use the power of imagery while keeping your emails accessible.

Why image emails are popular

Before we talk about why you shouldn’t send image emails, it’s important to understand why this is a popular tactic in the first place. It’s still common to see image heavy emails from major brands despite the criticisms. Why? Because it’s fast. Efficiency is the problem that marketers need to be solved.

Tabish Bhimani, Founder and Principal Strategist at Mastrat Digital, explains:

tabish-bhimani “We send emails for ecommerce brands and realtors who work on new builds, where it’s always about being first to market.

Image-only means it takes less time for us to put out emails.

When it’s about first mover advantage, we know that image-only emails are quick and effective in getting emails out for real estate. The other alternative is a text-only email.

We can do a lot more visually exciting stuff with image-only emails that will hold across all email platforms. By contrast, HTML emails can annoy customers when they don’t render properly.

We’ve done segments where we see if someone has not opened but clicked an email (signaling that the open tracking pixel wasn’t loaded, but customer engaged). The ratio of those with images turned off is quite low, even when you take the additional engaged people and apply it to the general engagement rate.

So key here is agility, adaptability, and time sensitivity.”

The problem is that many brands are not as well equipped to create effective image-only emails that align with their audience’s reading needs and behaviors.

10 reasons to stop doing all-image emails

It’s worth repeating: We aren’t denying there’s a place for images in email, but you have to know how to do them well. And from the above, Tabish is doing all the right things for all the right reasons. “For us, proof is in the pudding,” he told me. But not everyone has the same skills or resources. Or the same audience.

So you have to ask yourself: Will images alone serve your entire audience? By simply sending out emails that only contain images, or have the bulk of your message contained in an image, you may be optimizing your email to only a subset of your audience. And there’s more to it than that, too.

Here are ten reasons why you may want to reconsider sending all-image emails.

1. If your subscriber has images turned off, they won’t see your email

Have you heard about email image blocking?

Due to an email client’s default setting or a personal preference, images are not displayed for many subscribers. While many email clients now show images by default, images off is still very common in regulated industries where corporate filters block images by default. So if you’re a B2B marketer, this is a key detail to consider when crafting your emails.

Blocked images can result in emails that do not communicate anything immediately and fail to make an impact—or even appear to be broken. It can be worse if you don’t have any ALT text set up for your imagery because then, the email simply appears blank.

For example, these two screenshots below show the same email—with images on and off:

Email with images on Email with images off

 

Nearly all of the email’s content resides in the imagery, and no ALT text is set up. So any subscribers with images blocked completely missed out on the email’s content.

2. Not including live text can hurt your email’s accessibility

There are understandable benefits to building your text into images—controlling font appearance, for one—but when it comes to creating accessible emails, there’s no alternative to live text.

Even if blocked images are a non-issue for you based on your specific email client market share, there’s still the problem of image-only emails not being inclusive to all readers.

Carin Slater “You just don’t know how your subscribers are experiencing your emails, and you want to give your subscribers the best experience no matter what. And that is not possible with all-image emails.”

Carin Slater, Email Marketing Specialist, Litmus

(Carin also wanted me to tell you, “I reserve my right to change my opinion at any time.” Ha! If there’s one thing we’ve learned about email, it’s that there’s no constant in email.)

Consider the visually-impaired subscriber. If they use a screen reader to read your email, but your message is hidden in an image, they won’t be able to digest everything your email has to offer. If they set their device to 120 DPI to increase font size, well, they won’t be able to see larger text since it’s all in images.

The same goes for someone who speaks a different language: They cannot translate the text in your email if it’s part of the image.

Something worth noting here is the increase of subscribers who use voice assistants to read their emails to them. Unlike screen readers, voice assistants do not seem to recognize ALT text and other HTML attributes, so even if you have ALT text for your image-only email, it won’t matter for this subset of your audience. The email will be completely blank to them. Another reason to use live text wherever possible.

3. Personalization options are limited

Sure, you can create personalized images, but that’s a lot more work than creating personalized text. Setting up the targeting conditions in your email platform would also be much more difficult versus using merge tags in your copy. Just imagine you want to use basic first name personalization. Can you imagine creating an image for each unique name on your list? No. Way.

And while there are plenty of tools out there that automate image personalization, they may not be in your budget. Plus, they usually lack the ability to personalize the ALT text, too, which takes us back to the whole email accessibility issue.

4. The size of the email can cause it to load slowly—or not at all

If your subscribers have a slow internet connection or are connecting to data on-the-go, the images in your emails may load slower than normal. Even if someone has a speedy internet connection, there is a risk that images may not load quick enough.

nout-boctor-smith “If you have slower internet or if you’re using your mobile device, loading images uses cellular data and can take an annoyingly long time. An image not loading means a marketer can lose the opportunity to get the subscriber to click on their CTA.”

Nout Boctor-Smith, Sr Manager, Lifecycle Marketing, LaunchDarkly

On my desktop with a high-speed internet connection, this all-image email was loading slow enough for me to capture a screenshot. You can see part of the headline image is still loading. What you don’t see? The giant hero image that’s supposed to be above that as well as another text-block-as-an-image and animated GIF where that big empty space is. Because those haven’t been loaded yet.

email-images-still-loading

The longer images take to load, the more likely your subscriber will be disengaged and delete your email. And if images are all your email has to offer, this can affect future engagement with your brand.

5. Images may not scale well down to mobile screen sizes

When considering mobile email design, there’s a lot to think about. Design images for mobile, and they can look overblown on desktop. Design for desktop, and they can look blurry if you’re not using retina images. And if there’s text on that image? It may end up looking too tiny on the small screen.

jody-gibbons “On switching to different views (desktop to mobile screen), you haven’t got as much flexibility in terms of styling like font sizes with all-image emails. Unless you have specific desktop and mobile only images. But doing that for most, if not all, of the email is not great practice and results in a big file size.”

Jody Gibbons, Email Marketing Executive, Notcutts Ltd

As Jody mentions, if you create separate images for desktop and mobile, this is less of a problem. But there aren’t just two screen sizes. And why do twice the work of creating images (and bloating your email’s HTML) when you can just build a responsive email with live text in the first place?

6. Designing for Dark Mode is much more challenging

As if it wasn’t already challenging enough, right? Dark Mode can do weird things to your email—like invert your image colors. You’ll have to take more care in your email design to make sure your images look good. Meanwhile, it takes less work to make live text work in Dark Mode.

7. Your emails will land in the spam folder

…Sort of. I mostly mention this one to debunk it.

It used to be that spam filters didn’t like image-heavy emails because they couldn’t read the text on them to identify them as spam (and that was a way for spammers to hide their message).

This may have been the case several years ago, but spam filters have since evolved and now pay closer attention to mailstream behavior, links in the message, and user interaction rather than doing naive word matching through supposed spam trigger words.

So it’s not the images themselves that can hurt your deliverability—but the lower engagement you may see from having less accessible emails that people can’t interact with.

8. Your emails won’t be searchable

People tend to use their inbox as a storage medium. Occasionally, they’ll remember something helpful or valuable in your emails—like a special offer on a product—that they need to find again later. But if you place all of your text in your images? Your content is no longer searchable.

Your subscribers won’t be able to find the content they’re looking for as easily as they could have if you had used live text in your email.

9. Making copy edits takes too long

How often have you had an email approved the first time around? According to our State of Email Workflows report, the number of people involved in the review process has increased, and 30% of marketers feel the process is too burdensome.

Having to change text on an image makes this even longer.

courtney-fantinato “Image-based emails can impact production time. If there are revisions required in the copy from review, and it’s in the images, you’ve now got multiple steps to make that change vs. live text.”

Courtney Fantinato, Email Marketer & Developer

And don’t think that images give you greater flexibility to replace mistakes on the backend after an email’s been sent. As Courtney explains, “There could be complications with that from image caching.”

10. Image-only emails are expensive to do well

Time is money. Having someone spend the time creating a beautiful all-image email—including all the back and forth we mentioned above just to change the text on it—is costly.

steve-atkins “Image-only emails can get expensive to do well. Particularly when you start looking at responsive design, accessibility, and internationalization. Whether it’s worth the additional cost depends on what you do with it and who the audience is. And you may not have the in-house talent to pay that cost.”

– Steve Atkins, Founder, Word to the Wise

Consider everything you have to do to accommodate different screen sizes, text edits, languages, and more. That time (and money) adds up.

How to use the power of imagery while keeping your emails accessible

We’ll say it again: You should never send an email that’s made up entirely of images.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use images in your emails! When done right, you can create flexible and beautiful email designs that harness the power of imagery while keeping your emails accessible for everyone at the same time.

natalie-jackson “Any image you do have should have a purpose. I like a mix of text and light images in B2B, but defend that image. What value does it add to the message? Is it, for example, making the content more skimmable? Giving context? Showing an experience?”

Natalie Jackson, Director, Demand Generation, CBIZ

Here are some tips to give you the best of beautiful imagery and accessibility:

  • Many companies default to embedding text in images because they want to place copy in front of an image. Use background images and live text instead!
  • Include descriptive image ALT text, and implement styled ALT text where it makes sense to brand this element even with images off.
  • Build bulletproof buttons to keep your call-to-action loud and clear.
  • Optimize your images to keep file sizes small, preferably under 1 MB.
  • Many brands also talk about how image-only emails save time, but you can save even more time by creating a modular email template to quickly build flexible, creative, error-free emails in minutes (our very own Carin Slater does it in 10!).

And if the thought of coding responsive emails is holding you back, check out this easy-to-follow responsive email tutorial from Nicole Merlin, Owner and Email Developer of Email Wizardry.

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Still not convinced?

If explaining the drawbacks of image-only emails doesn’t convince you or your stakeholders, here are a couple ways that might:

Show how your emails look with images disabled.

See exactly how your campaigns will look to subscribers if images don’t display. Litmus Test provides you with a screenshot of your email with images disabled that you can easily see for yourself or share with your stakeholders.

Run an A/B test.

Sometimes you need numbers to convince stakeholders that image-only emails aren’t effective. Pick an upcoming campaign, create two versions of that email—one as a single image and one using live text with supporting imagery—and let your audience help you make your case.

It’s all about your subscribers

What works for your audience? Every single one of them? If you’re doing all the right things (like the tips we shared earlier) to do image heavy emails well, and they work for your subscribers, then that’s great!

But if your image emails could use some rework, that’s okay. Sometimes the best way isn’t the easiest way, but taking the care to make your emails inclusive to all readers with as much live text as possible ensures a great subscriber experience—and ultimately saves you time and money.

And you don’t have to go all in at once. Even just one step away from a poor, all-image email experience is a step in the right direction and makes a positive difference to your workflow and your subscribers.

Do you have more tips on how to convince your team to stop sending image-only emails? Let us hear them in the comments below!

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Originally published March 5, 2019, by Whitney Rudeseal Peet. Last updated August 26, 2021.




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