Optimize Email Design for Mobile and Images-off


Email marketers love images – what better way to tell a story, attract and engage readers than to call out that great offer with a big, bold design and a high resolution photo. Especially with all of the latest enhancements in the adoption of CSS and .GIFs, images offer an even more flexible and creative way to entice your audience to click.

That said, believe it or not, even today some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block images embedded within email messages as their default setting. Adding to the problem is the fact that not many subscribers bother to adjust their inbox settings to automatically download images for the ISPs in question. That means those awesome images and graphics aren't always going to be seen.

When it comes to mobile, images in emails have some disadvantages. The biggest one is that they tend to be less flexible when they are viewed on a mobile device.

Marketers have to balance the value of images with the need to get their message across to those who don’t see the images. The importance of that balancing act strikes home when you remember how much competition there is for a reader’s time and attention. Most marketers are only too familiar with the “3 second rule” that relates to how long they have to grab readers’ attention before they move on or delete an email. With an estimated 269 billion emails sent every day, marketers have their work cut out for them.1

So how do you optimize the email experience knowing this potential roadblock?

Avoid All Image Emails

Because images can tell a strong visual story; and impact your click rate, marketers have a strong attachment to images. This leads to many email campaigns being designed directly using Photoshop then forced to be HTML-friendly through Dreamweaver (or a similar tool). When Photoshop becomes the primary email creation tool, a lot of times emails will render in an images-off environment like this: 

Where’s that dramatic visual or the compelling message? How would the reader interact with the offer if there’s no copy to clarify it and no calls-to-action to engage with?

Using images to design an email also has disadvantages when viewing on a mobile device. Because images adapt to the size of the device, the offer and other important text embedded in the image can scale down so far it’s impossible to read or click. 

Clearly, finding a way to optimize emails for images-off viewing is critical to a campaign’s success.     

Three Email Design Techniques to Optimize for Mobile and Images-off Viewing 

Because image-heavy emails take time to load or don’t render at all if the recipient has defaulted to images-off, marketers need a way to keep readers engaged while maintaining mobile flexibility; after all, they only have 3 seconds to do so! This is where images-off design can make all the difference. The following email design best practices give readers a reason to hang around and interact with the message, even if images aren’t displayed, while producing mobile experience benefits with flexible HTML:

  • Bulletproof buttons – Building buttons only using HTML and CSS enables them to be displayed when images are off, making them “bulletproof”. They will also adapt to the screen size of the device they’re viewed on. Another improvement over the Photoshop method is that you can update the content and style of your buttons by simply editing your HTML template.  The “Check us out” CTA in the following illustration is a bulletproof button.
  • Defined image sizes – Images are a great way to grab a reader’s attention. With images-off, you need to insert a placeholder. Well-coded email templates define where an image will go and provide a visual outline. See the three image placeholders in the following screenshot (left side) and how the images actually appear.   

  • Background colors – Because email templates often employ a light background color, it can be hard to tell where the placeholder is. Adding a darker, more dramatic background color to the defined image space visually reinforces the notion of a placeholder. The use of background colors can also emphasize the email design by highlighting the way the content is organized.

Testing the Performance of Images-off Design

Yes Lifecycle Marketing worked with a large multi-channel retailer to do a head-to-head test running an all-image email against one using images-off design. We sent seven, high revenue-generating campaigns over a seven-day period and collected click-through rates.

The results demonstrated a substantial difference in performance. The emails designed for images-off generated: 

  • 10.69% more total clicks
  • 10.48% more unique clicks
  • 8.6% higher unique click rate
  • 7.4% higher CTO rate 


The results above speak for themselves. With the inbox becoming more and more competitive marketers need to leverage HTML coding disciplines to impact their bottom line. Consider implementing these three email design best practices and testing their performance since every audience is different. 





Author Bio

Kyle Henderick

As Director of Client Services, Kyle is responsible for helping major clients implement new programs, processes, and data-driven strategies to create campaigns that truly drive revenue. With a passion for technology implementation and a background in database, email, web, and social media marketing, Kyle turns his real-world experience into executable tactics to help clients see an incremental lift in revenue, subscriber engagement, and customer retention. A lover of all things Chicago, when Kyle is not reading up on latest marketing practices or focusing on improving client programs, he can be found enjoying the city’s great restaurants or wearing his heart on his sleeve while rooting for all Chicago-based sports teams. A curious individual willing to try any and every food that does not include raw onions, he is always looking for exciting dining options and new adventures around the city.