Exploring Kinetic Email: Part Four

For part four of our Exploring Kinetic Email series, I interviewed our Chief Technology Officer, Walt Mann. Walt has been with Liveclicker since its inception and has seen contextual email technology grow from a simple video-in-email inclusion into a multi-functional inbox marketing system. We discussed his views on email technology maturation, where contextual email sits in the marketplace, and how contextual email technology can be used alongside kinetic email design techniques.

Rory: Walt, thanks for joining me today. I appreciate your time. To begin, can you briefly tell me what your position is within Liveclicker and how long you’ve been in the email world?

Walt: Thanks, Rory, it’s great to be here. I’ve been with Liveclicker since the beginning! My role at Liveclicker is CTO, Chief Technology Officer. I help our organization understand what new technologies are available to us to increase growth and innovation. I work daily to increase our product offerings, enhance existing functionality, and develop better systematic efficiencies within our code set.

Rory:  Regarding that, your experience is pretty deep in the email world. Where do you feel the email industry is regarding maturity? As a sub question – do we have more innovation to come from the maturation cycle; is the ultimate goal a seamless experience between email and web?

Walt: I believe the email industry is emerging from the dark ages. Once upon a time, HTML and email were advancing quickly. Over time, it shut down – or was dramatically simplified – because of security issues involved with email functioning as a mini web page. The security issues and how email client developers reacted to them ended up causing real rendering and functionality problems for email users.  Email became static.

After that, everyone kept waiting for email to die because they thought it was going to be replaced by things like social apps or tools – collaboration stuff – like Slack. Finally, in the last couple of years, some email clients started allowing more types of content to render in the inbox. Specifically, in the area of CSS and HTML, some mail client developers were able to increase inbox interaction without sacrificing security. So, while I think a lot of this stuff could have happened several years ago, it’s just started. Email has plenty of room for maturation.

The seamless experience is an important concept.  I do believe that the ultimate goal is more of a seamless experience between the web and mobile applications. Also, more functionality in the email itself, so that you don’t have to switch back and forth between email clients and other applications.

Rory: So, more autonomy within the inbox to bridge the gap between email and the web would be a great goal?

Walt: Exactly!

Rory: Do you believe that kinetic email design is as significant as contextual email marketing in the industry? What was your first impression of the kinetic approach?

Walt: My initial reaction was, essentially, it’s about time. It’s long overdue.

There are a lot of simple applications in kinetic design that are fun. Things like animation that grab the attention of the reader and make the content more engaging. To me, the real meat of it is the way kinetic email design lets email designers organize the information to help convey the most important messages first, then allowing the reader dig down deeper to get more information.

The simplest example of kinetic design I can think of that can make a huge difference is the hamburger menu. For mobile devices, where you’re dealing with a myriad of different screen sizes, you get the most important information upfront. On a mobile device, there needs to be an easy way for the reader to get into detailed information. You don’t have the option of presenting it all in one page, like the web. You’re going to end up with something so tiny it’s unreadable.

Rory: Right, that being said, it seems like kinetic email design organizes the content, contextual email marketing puts more meaning into the content personalization. What are the exact technical differences behind a kinetic design and contextual email marketing? We know they’re different, but not a lot of people have explanations of the technical differences between the two.

Walt: I think you’ve got that exactly right, kinetic design is about the formation of content and contextual content is about personalization. Technically, that breaks down to kinetic design being much more about the email client-side functionality. Contextual content is on the server side, it’s about the time of open, and opener information dictating what content will be rendered. Essentially, with contextual information, there’s a whole world out there that you can package up and deliver at the time of open to the recipient – and that, at the moment, needs to happen on a server.

Rory: Okay, that’s perfect. I love that explanation. Going a little deeper into kinetic design, from your CTO perspective, does Liveclicker use kinetic design? Are there ways that Liveclicker uses kinetic design techniques within its contextual email technology?

Walt: We definitely do. Kinetic design isn’t just about fancy or fun animations. It’s about adding intelligent functionality to an email. However, it’s important to note that a lot of kinetic email design techniques are not universally supported. For example, iOS allows developers to apply kinetic design very consistently, whereas desktop versions of Outlook reduce that functionality. Liveclicker has built several contextual applications that enable kinetic design in the mail clients that support it, while seamlessly displaying regular image content where functionality is still limited.  An example is Liveclicker’s LivePolls functionality.  With this functionality, a recipient can make a poll selection and see results in the inside the email itself on iOS devices. Kinetic design techniques can show or hide various pieces of information within an email without server-side help, while the contextual portion records the vote and displays aggregate results of the poll instantly within the email, leveraging server-side data.

Rory: So the kinetic portion of this example is controlling the display of content while contextual data is being pushed into the message in real-time?

Walt: Exactly.  And – importantly – presenting it at the right time, too. LiveReveal is another example of a Liveclicker realtime content application in email that uses kinetic techniques to enhance the experience; it’s about displaying the appropriate image based on time, location, or known user data – contextually. The kinetic portion is leveraging the client functionality to allow the image to be “scratched” or revealed interactively.

Rory: With the web evolving so rapidly, what do you think has caused email to advance as slowly as it has regarding interaction functionality? I know you spoke already about security, but I guess, in the aspect of kinetic design not tapping back into a server, what would be stopping kinetic from hitting the mainstream?

Walt: That’s a good question. I think a lot of it is really just momentum. Everyone got used to the idea that a static file is what a marketing-type of email looks like. After a couple of email clients started supporting additional CSS and HTML features, and a few developers began testing those features, it was like, “Hey! I can actually do something interesting with this!” It took initial adopters both on the client development and email design side working together to get things going. Truly, I feel like that this could have happened anytime over the last five or six years.

Rory: So, it does fall on both parties. It’s not necessarily an email client’s failure to approve a better standard or a designer’s failure to try to implement better code.

Walt: I can’t speak for designers that much, but I can speak for developers. I know that developers don’t like to change things that work –  and email has worked for a long time. Adding something like advanced CSS and HTML5 takes some time to perfect. Basically, they’re risking a lot of bugs and issues to improve performance for marketers.

Rory: Ah, that makes a lot of sense. The risk on the marketer side doesn’t necessarily add up to the scale of issues that a developer has to deal with.

Walt: Exactly. Also, there’s a lot of risk in being the first to implement new changes. Not everyone (email client) wants to support a feature when others aren’t supporting it. It can become a waste of time.

Rory: Alright, we’ve got one more question for you, and again, I appreciate you spending time with me. When you look at kinetic design and imagine it going forward, say, three to five years. What does it look like to you? Is it still a niche approach or are we adopting it in the mainstream? Would it even become a standard within email?

Walt: I think that a normal adoption curve applies here and that we are in early stages, so I think in three to five years we’ll still see static emails, but less and less. The same way web design in the 90’s looked and then changed to a more user-friendly interactive approach – we’ll see that with email. Static emails will begin to seem very restricted, and people will start expecting better communications from organizations. As consumers expect a better email, companies will rise to the challenge and adopt more interactive email techniques.

Rory: Okay, so I lied. I have another question. How do you feel about Gmail relaxing inbox standards and opening up to more interactive approaches to inbox marketing?

Walt: Ha, no problem. The Gmail changes are going to make a huge difference, just because they’re the gorilla email client in the room. It’s awesome to see companies like Microsoft and Google tip their hat to contextual email technology and open up their systems to improving email communications. We’re just beginning to see email take shape in the interactive world.

Rory: Thank you Walt for sharing your time with me today.  We will wrap up the kinetic email series next week when we interview Liveclicker Product Development Director Jen Fahey.  Until then, happy emailing everyone!