Why Email Marketers Should Avoid the Coming Wave of Mosaics in Email and What to Do Instead

Art brushes used to create mosaics on canvas

Today, ISPs block a lot of the images in your email marketing campaigns. That’s not anything new. But what is new is the soon-to-be realistic use of mosaics in your emails. What are mosaicsMosaics are complex HTML tables that impersonate images. How can a table impersonate an image? The HTML table has so many rows and columns, each cell having a background color, that it can really look like an image. And above when I say “what is new”, I don’t mean brand new like the new baby ficus tree that Loraine in the cube next to me bought to replace the last one that she killed after throwing it at me.

Creating mosaics just got a lot easier

Mosaics themselves aren’t new. But compared to how difficult it used to be to create one, a new tool called Mozify from Email on Acid will make creating mosaics a lot easier. You see, in the past, to realistically create one that actually looked like an image took forever and was a giant pain in the (insert expletive here). So why would you use a mosaic in the first place? Well it’s a bit like slipping images into your email campaign and always having them displayed even if images are turned off. Since the mosaic isn’t really an image, the ISP doesn’t notice it. But your recipients sure do. In Mozify beta testing, one company saw a 376% increase in click throughs. So why do I think using mosaics is going to become a bad idea? Because mosaics will be blocked from email marketing campaigns in the near future.

Left: mosaic loaded. Right: images loaded
Mozify at work.
Left: mosaic loaded. Right: images loaded.

Why would mosaics be blocked from email campaigns?

To understand my point, you’ll first have to understand why ISPs block images from your email messages in the first place. The top reasons Gmail, Hotmail, and others block images is privacy. Typically there is a one pixel image embedded into each email that is sent. When you open this email message, Gmail calls back to the email marketer’s server to retrieve the one pixel image. When that happens, the email marketer’s server now knows you’ve opened the email. And that verifies your email address is valid, is being used, by you, right now, at this very moment, in the privacy of your own home, and there you sit without yet having run the straightening iron through your hair. Now, that email marketer knows what you look like without makeup and hair frizzed all over the place. Well ok, so he doesn’t know that much. But it is still a validation to the sender that your address is in use. And if the sender was a spammer, you wouldn’t want him to know that.

The reason Gmail wants to block images is infrastructure

Very few words in the English language are as boring as the word “infrastructure.” You want to lose a bunch of readers of your blog articles quickly? Just pop that word into print and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Concerning Gmails desire to preserve infrastructure, Richard Evans, Director of Partner Marketing at Silverpop, says

Rendering 3k worth of HTML vs. 30k of HTML and images across millions of inboxes and dozens of emails per inbox each day is a substantial reduction in load on the (email) infrastructure.

If you are Gmail, and you have millions of inboxes, you’d be very interested in reducing the load on your infrastructure. Thus,

Recommended for YouWebcast: The Art of Community Development: Turning Brand Awareness Into Sales

Gmail has a vested interest in blocking images in emails

Also, consumers are reading more and more emails on mobile devices and thus are incurring higher data usage fees. Setting a mobile device to disable images will reduce data usage and thus consumers are already demanding a lower filesize of their individual emails.

Mosaics will be blocked as well

After all, mosaics, which are meant to temporarily replace an image, are somewhat large in filesize themselves. If the ISP is blocking your 50k image because of their interest in reducing load on their infrastructure (sorry, had to use that word again), and now you’re slipping a 48k mosaic in there, Gmail will probably not like that.

Gmail will create scanning technology that determines that a mosaic is being used in an email, strip it out, and leave you with the same email-images-not-being-displayed problem that you started with. After a while of having mosaics blocked, I can foresee some not-so-intelligent email marketer who will try to game the system. They’ll try decreasing the number of rows and columns used in their mosaics to try to skirt around the Gmail filter. But once Gmail catches up on that little trick, the marketer just might find themselves blocked. Or worse, banned. Or worse still, flummoxed (whatever that means). Or worst-est still, they might get fired from their current email marketing role and have to come work here and sit next to Loraine (flying ficus trees are dangerous; just a warning.)

Getting images displayed

So what can you do to avoid this whole “images blocked”, “mosaics blocked”, “emails banned”, “ficus tree thrown at me” situation? Richard Evans continues, saying,

Get back to basics. If you follow these steps you’ll do a lot better getting your images displayed in the first place.

  • Only send to true opt-in subscribers
  • Ask recipients to add you to their safe senders list (try a set of dedicated campaigns targeted to just recipients at a single ISP asking them to add you to their safe senders list (read this article on How to double your Gmail inbox placement rates
  • Encourage recipients to click through or reply to your email directly-remove unengaged subscribers 
  • Don’t go nuts during the Christmas season by sending huge volumes of email unless you’ve properly ramped up your sending

Richard Evans is the Atlanta-based Director of Partner Marketing and Alliances at Silverpop, a leading digital marketing technology provider that unifies marketing automation, email, mobile and social. Mr. Evans has 12 years of experience in the email marketing field and currently leads Silverpop’s global partner program.

What other best practices should be used to increase image display? Tell us in the comments.
Image credit: Fotpedia

Comments: 8

  • Entertaining read, Nate; thanks! Pixelation seems to be a drastic measure to overcome the image issue. I wonder if the high CTR isn’t merely because of the novelty of a pixelated (low quality, frankly) image in place of the ‘images not loaded” icon. Not sure I would even want to bother with that. My email service however will divide larger images into seamless, side-by-side jpgs in order to load faster, which is nice…Doesn’t it always come down to this, as you said: “Only send to true opt-in subscribers.”

  • Jen,
    Thanks for the comments. Yes, it’s possible the CTR is due to the novelty, but I also think that marketers who’s emails are image heavy (like retailers) would benefit broadly by being able to display a good representation of their images even when images are turned off. That being said, and like the article points out, I don’t think ISPs are going to accept mosaics for very long before they start stripping them out anyway.

  • Sorry for being naive here, perhaps, but what proof is there that a) those like gmail will indeed be seeking to block mozaics and b) that they are going to be able to do so reliably?

    • There is no proof. These are my predictions of what I believe is coming. My bet is that if mosaics become popular, Google will have no trouble creating technology to detect them (at least the large file size ones). Thanks for your question.

  • Jim Morton says:

    Sorry Nate, I don’t buy this argument. Google is only going to block mosaics if people either complain about them or enough people start using them that is interferes with their delivery. Most email marketing providers (us included) aren’t too crazy about them because they chew up bandwidth. That’s a legitimate beef, and is, I suspect, the real agenda behind some of the comments. There are some very good reasons not to use mosaics. I addressed some of these here. But I don’t think the fact that Gmail and the others might some day block them is one of them.

  • Adrian says:

    Another thing – this is just a cheap trick to circumvent the customer’s preferences. If they don’t want to see images, we shouldn’t be showing them any, blocky or otherwise. This feels like something you’d find in a spam email.

  • Jose says:

    Adrian, the customers in most cases have not set these settings. Therefore, it’s presumptuous to call them the “customer’s preferences.” For instance, I don’t prefer images be blocked at all. However, they are in my Gmail account, as well as in my Outlook client. Why? Because that’s the default, and because while I would prefer images render in my emails, I don’t have a huge vested interest in it, so I don’t change the settings.

    The benefit of mosaics, I would suggest, is that they can properly render the images without track-back functionality. As such, there is the benefit of displaying the email the way it is meant to be seen (and if they’ve “subscribed,” I daresay, they probably want the email) while maintaining the privacy of having images off.

    And truth be told, I actually disagree with Nate that ISPs are going to disable them (though I did enjoy the read, and I do value your perspective, Nate). The primary reason for this is because ISPs don’t seem to have done anything about embedded images.

    Embedded images, unlike linked images, present the same two-fold benefit of mosaics:

    1. The email is viewed the way it was intended by the sender, and
    2. The privacy of the end user is still maintained, resulting from the image referenced in the code being sent with the email, making for no callback.

    It also comes with the same drawback: The file size of the email is increased … potentially significantly so.

    It seems as though the ISPs have been happy enough to permit the practice of embedded images, simply throttling the file size if it is too large. They’re already doing the same with mosaics, so I can’t say I think they’ll treat them any differently. They’ll continue to be able to:

    1. insulate themselves from the burden of large file sizes,
    2. protect the privacy of the end user, and
    3. still render the email properly.

Add a New Comment

Thank you for adding to the conversation!

Our comments are moderated. Your comment may not appear immediately.