Online video has enjoyed immense growth in the past few years, proving to be an extremely powerful tool for marketers looking to engage audiences and drive conversions.

The only catch?

Figuring out the best way to include a video in an email is still pretty complicated. In this article, we’ll outline the various options, and recommend the best course of action for including video in email campaigns.

The Advantages of Video in Emails

The data is clear: video email marketing is worth the effort. One study found that just mentioning the word “video” in an email subject line improved click through rates by 20 percent; another report found that it increased open rates by seven to thirteen percent. Other research found that using videos in emails resulted in a 55% increase in click-through rates, 44% more time spent engaging with the email, 41% more sharing and forwarding, a 24% increase in conversion rates, and 20% increased ROI. Concerned about earnings? Marketers using video in email were found to generate 40% higher monthly revenue than non-video users.

As Kissmetrics points out, video email marketing has other benefits too. A video can help your email stand out, make complicated topics easier to understand, and lead to more social sharing.

Embedding Videos with HTML5

So we all pretty much agree using video in emails is a good idea. But what’s the best way to do it? Marketers have been trying to answer this question since the late 1990s, eons ago in internet-time. And progress has been made. It’s now possible to use HTML5 to embed videos directly into emails — meaning subscribers can click and watch your witty, brilliant, sure-to-drive-conversions marketing video masterpiece immediately, without leaving their inbox.

But there’s still a big problem: not all email providers have caught up to the latest technology. Only two-thirds of email clients today can play embedded videos. Gmail, which holds a 40% market share for webmail, isn’t one of them. Neither is Outlook (23%) or Yahoo (21%).

In the best-case scenario, subscribers using mail clients that don’t support embeds will see a static fallback image with a link to the video. And, unless you want to code the email yourself, you’ll likely have no control over which static image is shown.

In the worst-case scenario, they’ll see a broken image that doesn’t allow them to view the video at all. There are a few different ways to prevent against this by using tools created by email service providers or coding workarounds. But the upshot is that while embedding video directly in email may be cool and cutting-edge, it’s far from simple. Marketers must spend time and expend effort to make sure that every subscriber has some way to watch their video, plus you also want to ensure that those watching the video have a consistent experience.

The Image + Link Workaround

Just a few short years ago, it wasn’t possible to embed videos directly in emails. So savvy marketers came up with a workaround. Instead of just including a text link to the video, they embedded a static image (usually a screenshot from the video) and superimposed a play button over it, making it look like a playable video. When recipients click on the image, they’re taken to a new page where the video is hosted (either on a social video site like YouTube or their own website). Marketers often set the video to autoplay on the landing page, so that recipients only have to click once to start watching. Not a terrible user experience, but still sub-optimal.

Others took this strategy a bit further, and began using animated GIFs or cinemagraphs (supported by almost all email clients) instead of static images. As Smart Insights points out, “the motion in the email tempts and teases customers to watch the full video with audio on the landing page.” This strategy is a nice compromise between HTML5 video embeds and the static image solution, providing a dynamic user experience without all the complications. (If you’re interested in trying it out, check out tools like ImgFlip, GifLike, and GifSoup which let you create animated GIFs for free).

To Embed or Not To Embed

With this in mind, marketers have to weigh the pros and cons of this complicated question: to embed or not to embed? “The primary benefit of embedding a video in email is an improved user experience,” particularly on mobile devices, writes Ezra Fishman from Wistia. “Because most mobile clients don’t allow any form of autoplay, a viewer who clicks on the thumbnail image is forced to click play again when they reach our landing page.”

Exact Target notes that “embedded video acts as an amplifier to get more people to see video content. On average, we see 35% – 45% more video plays on embedded video when AB split test against linked video.” Like Wistia, they attribute the reason for the increase to an improved UX for mobile users: “only a single tap is required.”

A 35% – 45% jump in plays is huge. But these results haven’t been widely replicated, and at least for now, most marketers still seem to be sticking with the tried and true image (or GIF) + link workaround. According to Socialmouths, the breakdown looks something like this:

  • 52% link to a video landing page on their site or on a video sharing network (likely using a static image)
  • 27% link to the video using an animated GIF
  • 23% embed a video player in the email (using HTML5)

If direct embeds really are better, why are so many marketers resisting them? Wistia again: “Embedding video in email does improve the user experience, but we have to weigh that against some pretty substantial costs.”

For one thing, the improved user experience is uneven, thanks to the one-third of clients who don’t support embeds. As one marketer puts it, “I don’t want to send out anything only part of my subscribers or followers are going to be able to experience as I intended.”

This how-to guide for embedding HTML5 video in email talks about some of the ways developers can prevent videos from breaking in Android, Outlook, and more. But many marketers don’t want to have to deal with this level of technical detail. Envision Creative also warns against the heightened possibility of emails with video being labeled as spam, “which in the best case means your email can’t be read and in the worst case means your domain will be blacklisted.”

Smart Insights also notes that for driving conversions in particular, video embedding may actually be less effective than using an image + link. “The killer question [for embedded video] is what happens once the customer has watched the video? You need another click since you still have to get the customer to your landing page. That means getting two clicks from the customer… Using the classic static image with linked video approach and auto-playing the video on the landing page means just one click is needed to the landing page.” Videos embedded in emails don’t autoplay, hence one click to the start the video and (if all goes well) a second to reach the landing page.

Even if your primary goal is brand awareness rather than conversions, embedding the video directly in the email may still not be the way to go. Wistia points out that “linking to a video on our site instead of playing it in an email allows the content to live on as a more permanent resource. From an SEO perspective, we want people sharing and linking to the content on our domain… As we create more and more content, our site becomes a powerful library of resources… Our audience members have more incentive to visit our site, and when they do… they’re more likely to stick around to consume a few videos.” Folks are also more likely to have more varied and deeper interactions with your content: “They can leave a comment, ask a question, or start a discussion immediately after watching.” In other words, embedding a video in an email and hosting an evergreen version on your site are not mutually exclusive.

Embedding video directly in emails also limits the analytics marketers can gather on user behavior around the video. In particular, it makes it difficult to track videos for completion rates, according to Red Pill Email. “On the web, it’s a fairly straightforward matter to track whether a video was watched, say, 50% to completion. But in email, it’s not possible (yet). That’s because tracking video completion relies on JavaScript, which can’t be used in email.”

Most email service providers aren’t psyched about direct video embeds either. Campaign Monitor advises avoiding video and using an animated GIF instead. Emma also recommends linking to the video instead, explaining that “mail servers aren’t as fond of video as we are… and many servers out there tend to block video that’s simply embedded in the content of the mailing itself. And in addition to the dip in overall delivery rates (eek), embedding video in your email makes it darn near impossible to track who’s watched it (argh).” MailChimp offers a bit of a compromise, providing an “Auto-Convert” feature that scans your campaign content for video code and converts into a screenshot plus a link. But again, the gist is that embedded video is not supported.

The Takeaway

Embedded video is a cool development with a lot of promise. But at least for now, it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to execute it successfully. Keep using video in your emails, but stick with static images or GIFs that link to a landing page on your site.