Woman reading letter with pile of mail
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Despite the growth of Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat and dozens of free messaging services, email remains the business and communication tool of choice among a majority of users.

That said, email, particularly the way it is displayed and consumed, has changed radically in the last couple of years. For email marketers, this poses a number of questions. Here is a look at some of the key email marketing challenges, opportunities and predictions in 2014:

1. More Image-Heavy Emails

Google made a big change in the way it handles images in Gmail. Thanks to better caching, all images in Gmail will now open by default.

The impact of this change cannot be overstated. Until recently, 80 percent of email users had “images disabled” as their default setting, which forced marketers to stick to text emails. With this change, every Gmail user will see all the images in your emails – a fact you can exploit to improve engagement and create better newsletter experiences.

2. A Focus on Design

The web has evolved drastically in the last two decades. Email, unfortunately, has largely remained the same – text based, with limited design options.

This is set to change in 2014 as email providers follow Google’s lead and enable images by default in web clients. This means you can create high-quality HTML emails with an emphasis on design, not just plain text. In an increasingly visual web, this is a step in the right direction.

3. Mobile Will Become Even More Important

Roughly 48 percent of users check email on their smartphones. This number can only go up in the next few years. It is not unforeseeable to imagine a world where smartphones and tablets are the primary computing devices, with the humble desktop relegated to specialized tasks.

In this mobile-first world, it is imperative that email marketers prioritize mobile experiences in their email creation strategy. Effectively, this means less text and more images with responsive design that can scale on multiple devices.

4. Location Will Play A Larger Role in Targeting

Smartphones pose a number of challenges to email marketers, but they also create some great opportunities. One of these opportunities is the ability to leverage user’s location data to craft more personal, location-dependent emails.

You could, for example, include information about a nearby restaurant in your email, or tell the user about your deals if they are in the vicinity of your business. Expect location to play an ever larger role in your email marketing strategy.

5. Big Data Will Help Craft Better Emails

The days of sending out mass emails to the same list of people are, thankfully, behind us. Thanks to Big Data, marketers can now get insight into subscribers’ demographics, browsing/shopping habits, behavior and more.

This data can then be leveraged to create highly personalized emails targeting users who fit specific selection criteria. Expect Big Data to become the cornerstone of email targeting decisions in 2014.

6. Tabbed Inboxes May Become Common

Gmail’s tabbed inbox, launched in May, was one of the biggest challenges marketers had to contend with in 2013. By using a proprietary algorithm, Gmail would automatically sort emails into “Primary,” “Social” and “Promotions” tabs. Needless to say, most emails that landed in the Promotions tab had terrible open and conversion rates.

In the next year or so, expect more and more email providers to adopt tabbed inboxes. This means marketers will have to create relationships with subscribers and craft messages very carefully to avoid getting trapped in the Promotions box.

7. Wearable Tech Will Become A Design Concern

Right now, wearable tech is limited to Google Glass and a handful of smart watches (Pebble, Galaxy Gear). But if the success of devices like the Pebble watch – and the rumors of an Apple smartwatch – is any indication, wearable tech looks set to become a big consumer category in 2014.

For email marketers, this means designing emails for screens less than an inch in width. This will pose some serious design concerns, especially in the way these devices handle and scale images.

Thanks to the growth of the visual web, mobile devices and Gmail changes, 2014 looks like the year when marketers should adopt the “a picture can speak a thousand words” maxim.