The Current State of Video in Email

Video support in email is quickly becoming the hottest topic in email marketing circles.

Many years ago most desktop and web-based email clients actually supported video in email. As security tightened and spam became a bigger problem, the belt was tightened and video support became a thing of the past.

With the proliferation of video on the web the past couple of years through improvements in software, bandwidth and available content, the email industry is again begging the question: can it be done? We decided to find out.

Embedding methods

Just like the web, there is a range of different approaches you can take to try and display video in an email including:

Flash Flash

Thanks to its ubiquity and video quality, Flash has fast become the de facto standard for displaying video on the web. The default way for embedding Flash in a web page is via an OBJECT tag with an EMBED tag placed inside as a fallback mechanism. Because we can’t use JavaScript in an email, there is no way to detect if Flash is installed and display alternate content instead.

Quicktime Quicktime

Like Flash, Quicktime is typically inserted using the OBJECT and EMBED tags, so the results will likely be consistent with Flash.

Windows Media

Again, Windows Media files are also inserted using the OBJECT and EMBED tags.

Animated GIF Animated GIF

Ahhh, animated GIFs. Is it just me or do you immediately picture a spinning globe on a Geocities site? Despite how old this technology is, recent tests indicate this is probably the most reliable way to include video in email. The obvious drawbacks here are file size, video quality and lack of audio.

Java Java Applet

Just like JavaScript and Flash, most email clients, either desktop, web or mobile wouldn't’t support Java applets. Only one way to find out. Java applets are embedded into a page via the APPLET tag.

Mpeg Embedded MPEG

Just like embedding images in email using base64 encoding, you can take the same approach with video. This approach does have it’s own limitations, the only way to embed a video in a HTML page without the object or embed tags is with the little known dynsrc attribute of the img tag. This tag isn’t well known because it only works in Internet Explorer (and support has been dropped in IE8). From the start this approach is a long shot, but it should work in several versions of Outlook (which uses IE as the rendering engine), and potentially to anyone using a web-based email client with IE.

Embedded Animated GIF Embedded Animated GIF

Theoretically this should give them same results as referencing the image externally like in test number four above. But, embedding an image has been known to get around image blocking in some email clients, so it's worth a look.

Test Suite

Desktop email clients

  • AOL 10
  • Apple Mail
  • Entourage 2008
  • Lotus Notes 6
  • Outlook 2003
  • Outlook 2007
  • Thunderbird
  • Windows Mail

Web-based email clients

  • AOL Web
  • Gmail
  • MobileMe
  • Windows Live Mail
  • Yahoo! Mail

Mobile email clients

  • Blackberry Bold
  • iPhone 2.2
  • Windows Mobile 5
  • Windows Mobile 6

The results

Email
Client
Flash
Quick-
time
Windows
Media
Animated
GIF
Java
Applet
Emb
MPEG
Emb
Animated GIF
 
Desktop
AOL Desktop 10.1 Y Y
Apple Mail
Entourage 2008
Lotus Notes 6.5
Lotus Notes 7
Lotus Notes 8
Outlook 2003
Outlook 2007
Thunderbird
Windows Mail
 
Web-based
AOL Web
Gmail
MobileMe
Windows Live Hotmail
Yahoo! Mail
 
Mobile
BlackBerry Bold
iPhone 2.2
Windows Mobile 5
Windows Mobile 6

 

Additional observations

While the results for the animated GIF tests were impressive, take note of the following issues:

    1. While the animated GIF worked successfully, it was still not loaded by default because of image blocking in Entourage 2008, Thunderbird, Gmail, MobileMe, Windows Live Mail and Yahoo! Mail.
    2. Because of the slower CPU speeds on mobile devices, animated GIF playback was painfully slow to the point where it was next to useless. HTML rendering engines aren’t optimized to display animated GIF’s (even Apple’s Safari struggles with them on a fast machine), so the devices simply can’t keep up.
    3. While Outlook 2007 displayed the animated GIF, it only played the first frame thanks to its use of the Word rendering engine.

Recommendations

To be honest, there weren’t a lot of surprises here. The OBJECT and EMBED tags remain as poorly supported now as they were 3 years ago. This instantly wipes out Flash, Quicktime, and Windows Media formats. As predicted, Java support was also a no show.

The best of a bad bunch

The results are quite conclusive - the only reliable way to embed video in email is an animated GIF. While it does render across almost all environments, there are (unfortunately) considerable downsides:

    1. Image blocking in most email clients means that it won’t be displayed by default.
    2. No support for sound
    3. Much larger file size and poor image quality.
    4. High CPU load (especially on Macs), so you can’t have a frame rate much faster than 10/second.
    5. Plays on load, user can’t control playback.
    6. Doesn’t work on mobile email clients because of significant CPU load.

Because of the large file size, we also had some deliverability issues related to the embedded animated GIF we tested. ISP’s such as AOL and Yahoo wouldn’t load the original animated GIF because of its file size. Externally referenced is certainly the way to go if your animated GIF runs for more than 5-10 seconds.

Do you need to embed?

This test was performed purely to test the technical side of embedding video in email. What it didn’t cover was if you should be embedding video in email at all. Instead of embedding it, the obvious alternative is simply linking to the video from your email (read more from Mark Brownlow on this approach). By opening your video in an external browser, you can use just about any of the techniques above and it will work reliably.

In the end, it comes down to a simple question. If you desperately need some kind of video in your email, animated GIF is the most reliable way to do it. If you require sound or decent video quality however, a link from your email to the video in question is certainly a better alternative.


Try it


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