May 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

AOL joins ISPs blocking images in e-mail messages

AOL is the latest provider of a web-based e-mail service to block graphical images from unknown senders. An analyst says retailers should balance images with text, and test to see the impact of anti-spam policies.

AOL recently became the latest provider of a web-based e-mail service to block images from unknown senders, which means many promotional e-mails from retailers will arrive with blank spaces where the graphics should be. This means retailers need to include enough text to persuade consumers to download the images and use other tactics to get their messages across, says David Daniels, a specialist on e-mail marketing at JupiterResearch.

Daniels says the change in the AOL Web Mail service unveiled last week is not likely to dramatically change retailers’ e-mail strategies, as other e-mail services, including those from Google and Yahoo, already block graphics arriving from senders not known to the recipient.

Daniels says retailers may want to avoid creating e-mails in which a graphic takes up a large portion of the message as that graphic may not be seen. “If recipients are not seeing images, words are more important now,” he says.

He also recommends adding tags to graphics that would prompt users to download the images, because in many e-mail services those tags will show up as text, even if the graphic is not displayed. “If the image is meant to convey that a sweater is 40% off, the tag should convey that,” Daniels says.

Retailers also can get around the graphic-blocking policies by encouraging consumers to add the retailer to their address books, as images from senders in address books are not blocked. 40% of consumers say they have added senders to their address books, Daniels says, citing Jupiter research.

With e-mail services like AOL and Google constantly taking new steps to stop spam, Daniels says it is more important for retailers to track open rates. “A marketer should like to see if there are anomalies in open rates, which is going to indicate that images are not rendering or potentially even a delivery issue,” he says.

AOL also notes that it has several programs designed to enable bulk mailers to send e-mails with images enabled. These programs rely on reputation and the behavior of the senders as judged by how many times AOL users hit the “report spam” button.

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