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Apple Watch Favors Text Version and Breaks Links

Update: We’ve discovered how to send a hidden version of your email that only the Apple Watch will see!

The Apple Watch has arrived. As an email marketer or designer, there are four critical things you need to know about how Apple’s new wearable technology will affect your campaigns.

The TL;DR? Prepare for plain text to make a big comeback and to be frustrated by lack of insight into traditional email metrics, like opens and clicks.

Plain text display for marketing messages

When Apple Watch detects remote or linked images in an email, the plain text version will be displayed—but only after a lengthy warning: “This message contains elements Apple Watch can’t display. You can read a text version below.” This message is reminiscent of the warning that Outlook displays before ALT text on images and takes up a full screen of Watch real estate before displaying the plain text part of the message.


Remote images are typically uploaded and stored by your mailing provider, or on the same servers used to host your company’s website, and referenced using an <img> tag. Remote images are used for the majority of HTML emails due to their reliability and support across email apps. Early indications show that embedded images aren’t a solution, either. In our testing, embedded images displayed in a confusing jumble below the (lengthy) plain text part:


In addition, embedded images have poor support for rendering in common email programs.

Messages without a plain text part will not render

When a message hasn’t been sent in multi-part MIME, or the plain text version is missing, a different warning displays: “The full version of this message isn’t available on Apple Watch. But you can read it on your iPhone.” Interestingly enough, preheader text pulled from the HTML of the email still displays in this scenario, along with the from name and subject line:


Occasionally, HTML messages without a plain text version or remote images will display—although this scenario doesn’t apply to many marketing messages (most contain references to remote images).

We’ve written about the importance of plain text before, and the subject has been cause for debate. The debut of the Apple Watch makes it absolutely clear that marketers must continue to not only send multi-part MIME messages containing a plain text alternative, but to optimize that plain text alternative for wearables like the Watch. Also note that special characters, extra spaces, and other formatting tricks reserved for desktop plain text consumption translate very poorly to the Watch’s 38mm screen:


Links are disabled

The Apple Watch specializes in doing key tasks very well. Opening links in a web browser is not one of them. In fact, there is no browser on the Watch. As a result, links in the plain text version are indicated with grayed out text:


Notable exceptions are addresses and phone numbers. Similar to iOS, Apple Watch launches ‘helper’ applications to act on this content. Addresses launch in Maps, whereas tapping a phone number connects to your iPhone to make a call.

If your audience includes tech early adopters and potential Watch users, de-emphasize or remove links in your plain text version. Generic plain text messages that only link to the web or online version of an email will only serve to frustrate Watch users since web browsing isn’t possible.

Instead, focus on short, simple messages with strong CTAs reinforcing brand value. You might also try to encourage users to act via their iPhone or desktop computer.

Open tracking is not possible

Open tracking relies on a 1×1 tracking image loading in the subscriber’s inbox. Since most emails on the Watch default to plain text, these open tracking pixels are not displayed or loaded. Marketers will need to get creative with alternative success metrics, and encourage other types of interaction.

Impact to email marketing

The Apple Watch will demand a shift in mindset in the email community. The Watch is a personal device that favors personal messaging. For marketers without a call center or brick and mortar locations, the options to engage with subscribers on the Watch are limited. The irony that a new piece of technology could actually encourage more human to human interaction isn’t lost on us. It’s certainly a departure—not to mention a stark contrast—to the online-centric engagement dominating email today. It’s even possible that this device could turn back the tide of online purchases if retailers capitalize on the ability to quickly map addresses or place phone orders from the Watch.

At the very least, the Watch should encourage marketers to create a meaningful plain text version for each message—which is also a win for accessibility and deliverability concerns.

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