THINK Marketing

Animated GIFs in emails, message word count, and reply-to addresses: benchmark data findings

By , January 17, 2017

Is it time to start testing animation in your email messages? Yes, especially if your industry niche includes footwear, fashion, cosmetics, or children’s interests, where more than one in 10 messages display them.

I was surprised to see the animated GIF show up in commercial email messages so often in the benchmark data collected by MailCharts, an email competitive intelligence company.

In a previous blog post, I analyzed MailCharts’ data on subject lines to uncover the average length of email subject lines, how widespread the use of emojis is, and whether most messages include optimized preheader text.

For this post, I analyzed MailCharts’ data to learn what email marketers are doing with their email content. Here’s what I found:

1) Animated GIFs edge into the consumer email mainstream

Eleven of the 19 industries analyzed included animated GIFs in more than 10% of emails sent. Across all sectors, MailCharts’ data shows animated GIFs appear in an average 9.6% of all emails, ranging from a low of 2.4% (Services) to a high of 16.9% (Shoes):


Animated GIFs show up in higher numbers in consumer email categories where we often see the most experimentation and advanced use:

  • Shoes (16.9%)
  • Fashion (14.4%)
  • Cosmetics (14%)
  • Kids (13.6%)
  • Entertainment (12%)

The animated GIF – a single GIF-coded image file that contains multiple images in a specific sequence and conveys movement – has become, if not widespread across all categories, at least more common practice. This is especially true for consumer-oriented industries, where they likely fit in with a brand’s personality and message type.

Categories that use animated GIFs in emails have brands whose products are often impulse purchases (especially Shoes, Fashion, and Cosmetics) and typically use more aggressive marketing tactics.

I was surprised to see Athletic Gear was not as high as other consumer categories (7.8%) because that category is all about getting people to move. Possibly, many of these brands prefer static images that link to videos hosted on their websites.

Takeaway: The animated GIF is becoming more of a mainstream device to illustrate or amplify your message. Embedding video within emails doesn’t work in many email clients and is a data hog, so perhaps animated GIFs have become a replacement for short-form video. Consider testing it in your emails if it aligns with your product, audience, brand image, and messaging style.

2) Most emails require w-a-a-a-a-y more time to read than the few seconds an inbox skimmer is likely to give them

Using email message word count and an average human reader speed of 240 words per minute, MailCharts’ data suggests an email takes 88 seconds on average to read. This calculation includes every word in an email, from preheader text to the administrative footer copy and legalese:

Don’t take these calculations literally. Use them instead to compare across industries. Most email subscribers don’t read every word in an email, especially administrative and legal advisories.

By comparison, IBM’s 2016 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study found 53% of all email readers spend at least eight seconds reading an email message, while 47% either skimmed the message (from two seconds to just under eight) or glanced at it (less than two seconds).

Shoes zip past subscriptions: As you might expect, industry sectors whose brands scored higher on visual elements such as animated GIFs also had shorter read times and fewer words.

Emails in the Shoes category take a theoretical 50 seconds on average with 205 words per email.

Subscription emails, which accompany services such as cloud software use that have recurring payments, have 574 words on average and would take two minutes and 23 seconds (143 seconds) to read. Ranking right up with subscription emails were Finance (2 minutes 21 seconds; 566 words) and Travel (1 minute 42 seconds; 413 words).

Brands in these categories generally feature products or services with longer purchase consideration cycles or messages that focus on education and explanation rather than moving you to a landing page or website as quickly as possible.

Kids’ emails also scored up with the wordier emails, at 1 minute 50 seconds and 440 words. This category includes advice-oriented messages and descriptive copy necessary because subscribers are, in essence, buying things for other people, such as their children.

Takeaways: When designing your emails and developing copy, recognize that about half of your subscribers might only glance at your message body. A high word count could overwhelm readers.

If your emails must include a greater amount of text, design your messages to enable skimming so that your readers can get the gist immediately. Pull quotes, white space, and bullet points highlight key phrases. Use imagery that brings your copy to life.

3) Marketers are optimizing their email reply-to addresses

MailCharts’ data shows only an average 6.2% of emails use some version of the dreaded “no reply” or “do not reply” email address as the message’s return address. This is good news because using a “friendly” reply-to address is one of the most basic best practices in the books.

B2C email senders are the least likely to use a “do not reply” email address, probably because those companies know customers will reply to their emails with questions or concerns and may have assigned customer-service representatives to watch for and respond to those stray emails.

Email in three industries scored below 1% on the “no reply” question: Kids (0.10%), Automotive (0.66%), and Cosmetics (0.89%).

Publishing emails were the most likely, at an average 16.9%, along with Services (13.2%), Software (12.9%), Finance (11.6%), and Education (11.2%).

Takeaways: “No reply” in the inbox looks forbidding and unfriendly. Also, it doesn’t stop readers from replying to your emails with unsubscribe requests, questions, and comments. Use a friendly, brand-centric return address instead, and monitor the corresponding mailbox zealously to catch replies.

Final Thoughts

Given the mobile-first, visually oriented, short-attention-span consumer of today and tomorrow, companies should reassess everything from the inbox appearance to the last line in the email message body. Companies that produce products that don’t fit into a shipping box, such as news, education, or cloud software, need to test using more imagery and animated GIFs and less text to convey concepts quickly in the email itself.

Work with your creative team to create a library of custom images (not stock photos), illustrations, and charts that quickly convey concepts and messages to grab subscriber attention at a glance and bring even the driest topics to life.

About the data: These benchmarks reflect data gathered across thousands of large- and middle-market brands and might not reflect the average from smaller and lesser-known brands.

Thanks again to MailCharts for providing this second round of data. I hope to use these numbers as a baseline for future studies that can show how marketers are adapting their practices to meet the always-evolving challenges of the digital subscriber.

For more email benchmark data, takeaways, and tips, please check out IBM’s 2016 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study.

Please note that DISQUS operates this forum. When you sign in to comment, IBM will provide your email, first name and last name to DISQUS. That information, along with your comments, will be governed by DISQUS’ privacy policy. By commenting, you are accepting the IBM commenting guidelines and the DISQUS terms of service.