Let me start this blog post with some general advice: You can and should be using video in email today! Video in email often is “the” missing link in business to consumer email communication. We did a lot of technical research and development and want to share some of the results with you today. Today’s technology – together with the tools we have prepared – offers you the ability to use its full potential.

Email: From experiment to everyday use

It’s been a while since the first email message was sent by Ray Tomlinson at Arpanet in 1969. Currently more than one hundred billion email messages are sent every day by a still growing worldwide population of email users. For a large part of that long history email has been used as a marketing tool. As such it gradually overtook classic methods like the phone or door to door salesmen. This blog – even though written from a technical perspective – doesn’t go into the details of what to expect from video in email business wise. Rest assured though: The potential for lead generation and conversion is enormous.

Email goes multimedia.. sort of

In 1999 the (MHTML) open standard was announced, enabling the use of HTML formatted text and images within email messages. This however is where technical innovation concerning the email message format stopped for a long time. The web continued to develop and – most importantly for a “Video Company” like ours – video and audio became an essential part of the way we communicate through the internet.

In recent years Web technology also became more and more dynamic and interactive through the establishment and wide adaptation of “browser native” technologies like HTML(5), CSS and Javascript. Until recently most popular email clients missed out on these developments. This page from the “Email Standards Project” provides a quick overview of the good, the bad and the ugly in email software today.

Video in email: Apple to the rescue

A while back Apple enabled support for the HTML5 audio and video tag in all of their email clients. This allowed all Apple users to play video directly in an email message. Still no Javascript, still no full CSS support but at least now we’re able to play some video in an email message. This means there’s finally a significant market share for video in email. According to this US website: Apple Mail on iPhone is the #1 email client over all, even beating old “work horses” like Microsoft Outlook. It gets even better though: Apple Mail on iPad is #3. Bringing some other software into the equation, for instance Microsoft Outlook for Mac, we can easily reach to a market share of 50% or more today! And then there was iOS 8…

Apple… What are you doing?

In iOS 8 an issue appeared in the Apple mail software on both iPhone and iPad. To describe it shortly: Apple mail “says” to support the html5 video tag and shows a “player” with a big round play button… which is not clickable. I personally think we’re dealing with a bug here. Why would Apple intentionally display a broken video player? The issue is present for quite some time now though. Minor update releases 8.2 and even 8.3 beta still don’t offer a solution.

With Blue Billywig you can deliver video in email today

To be able to present our users with the best possible in email video display on each device, we’re in the final stages of developing a module enabling you to get a one size fits all in email embed code. Currently we have to work around the iOS 8 bug and other restrictions but we think things will get better soon. I’m not giving away all technical details here, but I will share some findings on our way to the first release of our video in email module:

CSS hacks

As mentioned before: Apple Mail on iOS “says” to support the video tag. This means we cannot use the common fallback practice of including an <a href=”.. link to the video webpage within the video tag. That fallback image would only be rendered on clients that don’t support the video tag at all. We have to do some CSS trickery to work around that issue. A good source that will get you started on recognizing specific Apple mobile devices is: https://litmus.com/blog/how-to-code-html5-video-background-in-email. Detection of screen size and “Retina factor” gives these devices away and once detected using css you can easily hide the video tag and use an overlay image instead.

Fake it ’til you make it

Our Video in email module provides a standardized way of embedding a “replacement screenshot”. That screenshot is a dynamically generated image of the Blue Billywig player with a video-specific thumbnail image inside:

The cute little lamb you see here is actually a generated screenshot of our fully rendered video player. It will show the video title, play button etc. all in the look and feel of your own Blue Billywig player. A screenshot like this can be used as a fallback for both detected iOS mobile devices and email clients that don’t support the video tag (the latter by using an “img” tag within an “a” tag). On iDevices making the image link to a video webpage would never auto start the video, which means an extra click. To work around that we created a server side component which:

  • detects the incoming device
  • logs a “view session” in Blue Billywig Analytics
  • redirects to a playable video stream/file (when the device is an iOS device)
  • or redirects to a video webpage or full web page video player (on devices and browsers that support automatic playback of the html5 video player).

With Blue Billywig you can do an even better job tomorrow

We don’t want to trouble our users with all technical details on providing each user and device with the best possible video viewing experience. As soon as video in email options change and more clients hop on board, we will adjust our service giving your viewers an even better video in email viewing experience tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about creating the perfect embed code that fits every device. Our email module delivers a standardized HTML snippet that fits all possible email software. Curious how to make video in email work for you? Be sure to contact us for more information or a demo.