Are video .GIFs used in email marketing campaigns really video?

Last week, I co-presented a webinar on the State of Video Email Marketing in 2009 for my non-VCC gig with Liveclicker (see embed below).  Here’s the webinar in its entirety, in case you’d like to pull any charts/stats/graphs/takeaways:

We spent a large portion of the time in the webinar discussing video .GIFs. What’s a video .GIF, you might ask?  Well, it’s basically an animated .GIF file that looks like video in the end user’s email client.  You can see an example here, here, and here. There are some important elements of video .GIFs that make them different from standard animated .GIFs that I’ll speak to below, then I’d like to put it to readers of this blog to see what you think: are video .GIFs used in email really video at all?

First, some background:

To understand why video .GIFs would be used in email campaigns instead of the more broadly supported Flash video we see on almost all web sites, one first needs to realize the email marketing industry has many challenges to deal with that the rest of us non-video-in-email people can simply ignore.  For one, a hodgepodge of email clients (Outlook 2007, Lotus Notes, Thunderbird, various webmail clients, etc.) all render HTML email slightly differently, often without apparent rhyme or reason. Next, email clients and ISPs/receiving email networks (think: AOL, Windows Live Mail/Hotmail, AT&T, Comcast) long ago stripped support for Flash or Javascript within email as a security measure to prevent unscrupulous senders from delivering malware to email recipients.  Rather than have the ISPs simply review embedded Flash videos or rate and approve email senders to ensure they’re not going to deliver a malicious attack to an ISP’s customers through an embedded video (expensive and time consuming for ISPs already overwhelmed with fighting spam), a simpler solution for the ISPs was to “turn it all off,” essentially tossing the world of video in email back to the stone age.

Fast-forward to 2009

Many of us who depend on online video to make a living already know the reasons online video adoption is accelerating: greater broadband availability, changing consumer preferences, and lower barriers to video content creation have all led to an explosion in the amount of video content produced and consumed online.  What if it were possible to harness these trends in the email channel despite the aforementioned limitations?  Well, now it is.

Sort of.

Video .GIFs, coming soon to a store near you

The first new method used to achieve video in email comes from humble roots: the lowly animated .GIF.  Lest you burst out laughing, it’s important to note that it is possible to deliver video experiences in email using .GIF technology.  How?  With so many people now having access to broadband connections (94.7% of active Internet users in the USA, according to a July 2009 report), it’s now possible to up the frame rate and color palette of animated .GIFs so they appear as video, directly in email clients.  Unlike embedded Flash, video .GIFs don’t trigger spam filters, and they’re supported nearly everywhere:

Despite the advantage of near universal support, there are major drawbacks to using .GIF tech to embed video.  Among them:

  • Audio is only supported on the landing page, not in the email itself.
  • Outlook 2007 and Apple Mail 3.0 will only display static images in place of video.  There are best practice workarounds that can be used to minimize this limitation, though.
  • Video displayed is generally limited to 8 – 16 frames per second, far below the 24FPS (theater) and 30FPS (television) we’re used to seeing.  For the nerds among us, think back to the early days of CD-ROM video for examples, or preview some of the live email examples in the second paragraph above.
  • Since animated .GIFs are images, they’re subject to the same image blocking that hinders all images in email – unless a certification service is used:

Is it true?  The only way to deliver video in email to everyone else is through an animated .GIF?

An animated .GIF = kind of.  A video .GIF = yes.  Why might I say ‘kind of’ instead of just provide a straight ‘yes or no’ answer for animated .GIFs?  For one, having spent six years of my career in the email marketing industry, I feel assured in saying that most people don’t hold animated .GIFs in high esteem.  When I give presentations, I frequently refer to this animated .GIF to represent what crosses the mind of most marketers when the technology is brought up as a possible video inclusion method:

Most people simply don’t believe it’s possible to deliver a video experience using .GIF technology.  Are most people right?  Below is an example of an animated .GIF created from video.  You be the judge:

So is a video .GIF really just a fancy word for an animated .GIF made to look like video?

One webinar attendee asked the following question during the conclusion of the sesson, “Is the video gif simply a big, huge animated gif place (sic) on a server? In essence, it’s no different from any animated gif, correct?”

Here again, I don’t think a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is adequate, but this question has really bugged me for awhile so I think I owe it to our readers to present a thorough explanation.  At a high level, the answer to this question is “yes.” A video .GIF really is “just” an animated .GIF placed on a server, no “different” than any animated .GIF.  However, there are many reasons why simply creating an animated .GIF from a video may not work in email.  To get the full picture, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper – to figure out what powers video .GIFs and makes them work in email.  Doing this requires exploring some of the intricacies of animated .GIF technology and email client limitations, two technical areas that quickly become complex.  The areas email marketers need to remain aware of are:

1) Mail user agents don’t support the same ‘frame rate’ for animated .GIFs

Who cares?  What’s a mail user agent?  The answers to these questions are as follows: 1) You should – if you care at all about including video in your emails.  Every email client in existence uses a Mail User Agent to render email, and mail clients do NOT all employ the same Mail User Agent.  2) A Mail User Agent is the underlying code a subscriber’s email client uses to actually display email.  For example, Firefox 2, 3, and 3.5 support higher FPS limits than IE 6 and 7, or Safari 4.0 and Chrome.  It’s important stuff to know, because all email marketers want to deliver the most realistic video experiences in email possible.  Lower FPS = choppier video.  Higher FPS = smoother video.  Most of the time.  It is possible to set FPS too high for an end user’s connection, which would result in having an effect opposite of the desired outcome.

2) Mail user agents don’t support the same compression methods for animated .GIFs.

For example, adding transparent layers to .GIF files is one way to decrease the size of the files, especially for .GIFs with low-motion backgrounds.  Some mail user agents support transparency, while others don’t.  There are other methods that can be utilized to lower the size of .GIFs, such as freezing layers, altering the frame rates of different layers of the .GIF during playback, and other methods, including real, actual compression based on compression algortithms.

3) Video playback is dependent on the end user’s connection speed.

Subscribers accessing the Internet through dial-up connections are much rarer than they were a few years ago, but they do still exist.  Accurately detecting the connection speed of email subscribers is an essential component to rendering video smoothly in email.

CertifiedVideo, from Goodmail Systems

If you thought the video .GIF was the only game in town for rendering video in email based on this blog post, you’d be wrong.  A second new method used to achieve video in email comes from Goodmail Systems, creator of CertifiedVideo and CertifiedEmail.  CertifiedVideo is a certification program for email senders that wish to include video in email.  Senders participating in CertifiedVideo can have their email delivered with a real, embedded Flash video player.  Audio support in email is also provided.  The main drawback of this solution?  Currently it’s only supported at AOL.  So, unless you only plan on sending video to an AOL audience, the usefulness of the solution is still fairly limited.  Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Goodmail does work with many ISPs in addition to AOL (Yahoo, Comcast, Cox, BT, and Telus are among the others) so one might logically expect that CertifiedVideo will eventually get rolled to these other ISPs, and also that Goodmail’s working very hard to make that happen as soon as possible.  Other video certification solutions on the horizon promise to broaden the availability of video in email to other ISPs as well.

Conclusion?

There are only two methods for achieving video in email: the video .GIF, and CertifiedVideo.  What do you think?  Does the video .GIF really represent video in email?  Or is it just a gimmick?  Share your stories, thoughts/comments below.  Thanks, and until next time –

Happy Selling!

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