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Who to follow: Mike Ragan

Who to Follow: Mike Ragan (@Mike_Ragan)

Mike Ragan is an email designer/developer at Action Rocket; a top-notch creative studio for email marketing based in London, UK.

As with most email folk, Mike’s road to email was a long and winding one.

After completing his master’s degree in environmental engineering in 2006, Mike spent several years as a Site Engineer in the environmental sector. In this role, he spent his time travelling around the UK working on sites (not websites).

Image credit: 20th Century Fox


But, Mike soon realised that this wasn’t his true calling and after some much-needed travel, Mike found himself in London taking temporary jobs to get by. This included helping a friend “do marketing for a couple of weeks” and as he caught the digital bug, those two weeks turned into a year.

Soon after, Mike found himself doing basic design/development work on his own and applying for “web type jobs”. So when an agency came calling to offer Mike an email development position, his path, at last, became clear.

Now Mike’s a 7-year email design/development veteran, 4 years into his stint with Action Rocket and has a passion for all things email that burns with the intense heat of a thousand suns.

Mike’s Twitter account, replete with gifs, sarcastic comments, and no small measure of email expertise, has become one of our phavourite phollows of late.

Why? Because Mike asks the tough questions and openly calls out incompetence wherever he may encounter it (usually in his inbox)…

But is there more to this email designing/developing machine than meets the Twitter eye?

Let’s find out…

mike ragan

*** Mike Ragan’s face “when my football team is losing at halftime”

Mike Ragan tale of the tape:

Favourite food: Salmiakki. I am addicted. I get mine shipped in like some sort of fiend.

Pets: Not allowed any.

Dream job as a child: I just wanted to be involved in the future. I still do.

Last big purchase: a motherf*cking London flat.

Guilty pleasure: I still play the occasional poker tournament. It is such a huge time vampire it seems so excessive and it probably is.

Pet peeve: I have a new one every day.

An interview with Mike Ragan

What is Action Rocket and how does it make life easier for email marketers?

Action Rocket is the creative studio for email marketing. We are involved and interested in all things email, but our focus is email design. We make life easier for email marketers because we work closely with marketers and brands to make sure we give our clients what they need.

What have been the biggest developments in the field during your career working with email?

Email is ever evolving, which is one of the reasons we like it so much.

The biggest development has definitely been the mobile email revolution.

Related to that, I am proud to be a part of one of the biggest micro-movements in email design and development – that of raising the baseline for what is acceptable & accessible for mobile users in environments that don’t support media query driven optimisation.

When I was looking at this a few years ago I backed into something by accident…

I was trying to make mobile optimised email code render better on desktops, specifically Microsoft Outlook 07, 10. I was using the Table Align method from the beginning, as I couldn’t get column splitting to work on the test android (due to no doctype). We had no testing suite at the time (this was before Action Rocket) and the culture was anti-mobile. The idea loosely being that mobile was a lot of hassle for not much return. The QA system was pretty strict and mobile optimised emails were not looking pixel perfect in MSO. This was causing major headaches. I wanted to champion mobile email as I thought there was a future in it (crazy huh?) but the QA department wasn’t letting me pass.

So I experimented, and tried a lot of MSO specific stuff, I went through a long, literal list. Eventually evolving on from the ghost column to make a ghost wrapper, which could target all types of MSO. At this time I also noticed that the tables were stacking neatly in the Gmail app as the email was split with fixed and fluid widths. This was a side effect really and one that we explored more fully at Action Rocket and derived our coding standard from – the Hybrid Approach.

This has been taken on by lots of others and improved upon, I may have been one of the first to blog about it but Fabio Carneiro was the first to talk about something similar in some depth. You should check it out, it’s really a master class and relevant even now 3 years on.

We were implementing Hybrid code techniques a while before the post when clients would ask for the email to “look better” in the Gmail app. It is something of a regret of mine that I didn’t blog about it earlier, I have had this discussion a few times. I think the email community used to be a bit less open and at the time it felt like “giving away the secret sauce”. But now the email community is so awesome; it’s all about the sharing and caring.

Anyway – the clunky double wrapper was improved upon and simplistic stacking moved onto inline divs and then from there was calc method, table-less and so on and so on. And then Gmail fixed their embarrassing problem and went from zero to hero (almost) by supporting media queries and actually documenting their support. *Removes I hate Gmail bumper sticker*

The ethos around optimising for all environments is still very much alive, but Gmail’s client share was a huge driver, so we’ll have to see. Things like don’t repeat and bloat content (don’t hide and show specific mobile content for the sake of it) are also great concepts to focus the design and development of any email.

What I’m interested in right now is how Gmail has opened the door on CSS yet closed it for interactivity. Gmail is such a key mail client, It will be interesting to see how this continues to shape the email design landscape.

Can you expand a bit on “how Gmail has opened the door on CSS yet closed it for interactivity”? What does this mean for those new to the game?

There used to be a few ways to hijack a few attributes within Gmail and use them to emulate interactivity in email – essentially an action within the email itself.

Gmail has done a good job in tightening up how it processes our email code. On the plus side, it’s now documented and supports style and media queries. On the downside, it is quite sensitive and strict with what it will and will not support, so there are fewer grey areas for us to exploit.

Any step towards being more progressive is welcomed and so I don’t think anyone has the energy yet to campaign about introducing support for interactivity, when it took them years to support simple, and pretty clearly positive things for email consumption, like media queries.

What do you see in email’s future?

Related to the last point, I have said before that the way Gmail works is a huge driver for the industry as a whole. Most simply – its attitude towards promotional email. Gmail is the fastest growing mail client already accounting for about 1/5 of all opens. Now that it is taking email development, dare I say it, “more seriously”, I think that we could be in for an interesting period of change.

It’s possible that more emails made by web professionals or generic tools will work better. For example, 50% of all opens are on iPhone and Gmail. These essentially support web code so I think this could reduce some of the friction around email production and this itself will continue to push the numbers. It depends on a lot of things.

I think email designers are safe; it is a separate skill in itself. It’s still a niche part of the web but the signs are promising that Gmail is interested in making the inbox work harder and smarter with their own interactions & actions. Interesting times ahead for us email people.

What do email designers need to keep in mind when designing for mobile, specifically?

Speed, speed, speed. I can’t stress this enough.

There are many depressing and probably not at all relevant stats about how our attention span is diminishing by the day, and that might be the case. However, it is offset by context: who the sender is, the mindset of the user, the situation the user is in etc all play a huge part. The inconvenient truth is that if an email is slow to open it’s likely to get skipped. All that work to get to that point wasted… I think that is an interesting challenge right now balancing speed and accessibility with all the amazing things that mobile email can do.

What is your biggest complaint about email marketing as it currently manifests?

The main one for me is about attribution, the value of email and how we qualify and quantify success. Consider, for example, tone of voice – I really do enjoy receiving considered, fun, interesting content from brands. I really don’t enjoy getting salesy, ultra desperate, anxiety driven content. It’s a difficult struggle that marketers face every day and this is very much dependent upon the sender and what they are trying to achieve. Not every email can be a work of art, for sure, but if the sender isn’t considering it properly then it’s not going to be considered by the recipient.

What advice would you give someone who was thinking about email as a career?

Now is a great time! The industry’s always growing and needs people with enthusiasm to continue innovating in all areas, especially design and development. A while back I predicted that the email industry would continue to improve as it is enticing more people in and retaining them. Mark Robbins from Rebelmail is a good example of this, shifting focus from the web into email, helps to challenge the view that email is less important or less valid. Some attitudes still need to change, people not considering email design as “real design“ and email development as “real development” for example can be frustrating, but it’s always getting bette

r.Final question, for branding’s sake, who is your favourite superhero?

That’s an easy one. I’m Batman. I’m always Batman.


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