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January, 2nd 2024
Why countdown clocks in emails are (almost) at the end
Scarcity is an age-old sales strategy, time pressure a variant of it: if you decide too late, you miss out on a good deal. As a buyer, I can literally see the seconds I have left to make a purchase decision melting away. So it’s no surprise that countdown clocks have become very popular over the last 10 years, not only on shopping sites but also in promotional emails. They still work well – although they no longer come as much of a surprise to most recipients and, in our experience, the desired uplift in conversions has diminished over the last few years.
Time is running out – soon it’s Christmas!
How exactly do countdown timers work in email newsletters?
Unfortunately, HTML emails are technically much more limited than web pages. For example, it is not possible to include a script in an email that generates a continuously updated countdown that counts down to the end time. Such scripts are not executed by email clients for security reasons. For the best display in (almost) all email clients, email countdowns therefore consist of an animated GIF showing the seconds/minutes/hours/days until a certain time. To reduce the loading time of such a countdown, only 30 animation frames/digits are generated (because nobody looks at a countdown in an email for more than 30 seconds). The email itself only contains a placeholder image: when the email is opened, this image is requested from a dynamic image server, which calculates the difference between the current time and the predefined end time and generates the countdown to the second. When the email is reopened later, the server again determines the current time difference and counts down the updated 30 seconds to the end time. If the countdown has already expired when the email is opened, you can display alternative images (“Sorry, the promotion is over”) or leave all counters at 00:00:00.
Who offers dynamic countdown clocks for email marketing and how do the providers differ?
There are now many providers on the market that have dynamic countdown timers in their portfolio, such as niftyimages, countingdownto, mailtimers, motionmailapp, countdownmail, promofeatures, litmus personalize und movableink. Some email service providers and newsletter builders have also integrated the functionality directly into their email editors, such as JUNE, Stripo, Active Campaign, MailerLite, Campaign Monitor, Optimizely, and others.
The basic functionality is the same for all tools – but there are big differences in design and usability. Depending on the package booked, the countdown display (colours, spacing, font, background image, label texts) can be configured more or less flexibly. It is definitely worth comparing offers carefully, or seeking advice on which service best suits your own design requirements and target audience size or mailing frequency. But while design aspects are important for a successful countdown email, there is one consideration that is far more important:
Do countdowns in emails also work for Apple users with Mail Privacy Protection (MPP)??
Since the end of 2022, email senders (both companies and platform providers) have had to deal with Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP), which makes the integration of real-time images and personalised dynamic content difficult and sometimes impossible. The problem is that as soon as the first recipient with MPP enabled receives an email, Apple downloads the images and caches them for all other MPP users. This means that email senders have no way of knowing which recipients have opened their email or downloaded images and when. This not only makes open tracking difficult, but also means that dynamic content generated at the time of opening cannot be loaded individually. This is fatal for countdowns: anyone with an active MPP will see the countdown with the time remaining from when the email was first received by Apple – even if they do not open the email until hours or days later, or if they open it a second time.
Is there no workaround for Mail Privacy? Yes, for “normal” personalised images, email senders can assign individual IDs in the image link, so that each image has a different name – this avoids the image cache problem, and an individual image is loaded in each inbox. Unfortunately, this only partially solves the countdown problem: although the time is correctly calculated for each user when they receive the email, it does create the desired advertising pressure. However, each time the email is viewed later, the cached image is loaded. In the worst case, recipients see a remaining time clock that makes them believe that an offer that is about to expire is still valid for several hours.
So should countdowns be completely avoided in email marketing? And why are they still used after all??
In general, email countdowns can still be used. After all the excitement about Apple MPP, senders are finding that, depending on the target group, only 15 to 30% of openers have activated privacy mode. If privacy users behave exactly like “measurable” recipients, the majority of opens will occur within the first 1-2 hours of receiving the email. Therefore, the number of people who see a noticeably and irritatingly incorrect countdown when they first open an email is not very large. However, the user experience remains poor for all privacy users who open their countdown emails later or repeatedly.
Some countdown providers counter this problem with rules that recognise privacy openings when the images are called up and display special alternative images for this group of recipients (“only until 2/22/24” instead of “only 2 days, 2 hours and 10 minutes left”) or hide the corresponding banner image altogether. Such an alternative image is not as effective as an animated countdown clock, but at least it has no negative side effects. Unfortunately, only a few, mostly higher-priced providers, offer the option to control privacy alternative images – especially those where countdowns are just one of many dynamic email content features. These include Movable Ink, Litmus Personalize and Niftyimages. The smaller and cheaper providers that are also suitable for tactical, sporadic use (such as Mailtimers or Sentric) do not offer Privacy Open alternatives.
Our recommendation: Check how many MPP opens you have in your target audience and then consider whether it is worth paying a little more and investing in a tool that can display alternative images for privacy users. We are happy to advise you on this and all other aspects of your email marketing.