Manas Kumar, Thinking out Loud

my thoughts & visions for technology

Email standards for HTML newsletters – Nobody cares

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It’s been almost 10 years now since the broader web design world was introduced to the ideas, and the importance, of web standards. The Web Standards Project taught us all that we shouldn’t have to code the same page twice for Netscape and Internet Explorer. By designing to web standards, and with the help of increasing browser support, we could reduce the time and money spent coding and make lighter, faster, more accessible websites.

Unfortunately, just like that Celine Dion song from Titanic, HTML email rendering has been left in 1998. Getting even a relatively simple design to work in the 10 or 12 major email clients can be a very frustrating task, and support is getting worse, not better. It’s time for web designers and email client developers to realise that we need to follow the path that web standards for browsers has cut so clearly.
HTML email is here to stay

Designers, particularly web standards designers, have not shown a lot of love for the idea of HTML email. Key figures in the industry have spoken out against it, and the general approach has been very much ‘Don’t do it’.

This approach has proven to be ineffective; The use of HTML emails has greatly increased, and there are some very solid reasons for that:

Every popular email client sends HTML email

Not only that, but most have HTML as the default sending format. Since the massive majority of email users are not web designers, they don’t have the same philosophical or technical objections to the idea of HTML in email, and are just happy to be able to paste images into their messages.

HTML email gets results

Businesses sending messages to their customers continually get better results, measured in clicks, interest and actual sales, with HTML than they do with plain text. Recent studies have shown that email marketing can provide a better return for each dollar spent than any other direct marketing channel.

HTML emails can be a better experience

If you signup for an email from Real Groovy, you probably want to know what new CDs are available each week. Having a photo of the new albums is a much faster way than trying to describe it in text. HTML can make a message clearer and easier to understand, especially by giving back typographic control – add real headings, line spacing and emphasis without needing *punctuation hacks*.

With some design thought, restraint and skill, an HTML email can be a significantly more effective way of making your point in email.

So HTML in email is going to be used whether designers agree or not. Given that will be sent, and somebody will design them, shouldn’t it be web designers rather than the marketing secretary? And wouldn’t it be great to be able to use the same semantic, light HTML and CSS you already craft for your websites?

Web standards make sense for email

Most people reading this will be well aware of the positives web standards offer for designing websites, but how do they apply to emails?

1.It removes the guess work from email design

This is an instant win for designers and everyday email users alike. If all email client developers aimed for something close to web standards, you could design an email knowing it would work for all your subscribers. Wouldn’t that be fantastic! Even better, you could rest assured that any subscriber with an HTML capable email client could read your message the way it was intended. Of course, you’d always send a plain text alternative for those who need or prefer it.

2.Faster loading and reduced bandwidth consumption

Well coded, standards compliant markup that separates content from presentation is generally much more compact than nested table and spacer-image based markup. In frustration, many designers have resorted to sending purely image-based emails (remember when websites where built like that!). This adds significantly to the file size and results in a poor experience for their subscribers because of the very common image blocking techniques in email clients.

3.Make your email accessible to all

Using standards does not automatically mean your email will be readable to people with disabilities, but it’s certainly a great start. By separating content from presentation you’re making it much easier for everyone to access your email.

Many designers who started web design in the last few years have never even coded a table based layout, which is a good thing. The current email environment means a designer not familiar with the table based approach will need to learn a completely different way of creating a page if they want to send HTML emails. Let’s not go back to those days.

I think we can agree that if we could have the major email clients all supporting at least a subset of web standards, we would be in a much better situation than we are now. If things continue the way they are heading, with designers ignoring the issue completely, this will never happen.

Based on the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) properties that are supported and those that are not supported we have developed an Acid Test tool which scores your HTML emails.

The scoring is done on a scale of 100 and depends on how many properties included in the CSS of your HTML are unsupported in certain mail clients.

Of course, 100/100 is the best case scenario and most often you will find that HTML that sticsk to the W3 web standards will pass 100/100 each time on most mail clients.

However, lack of support for the most common CSS properties in popular mail clients such as Gmail, Outlook and Lotus Notes makes life that much more difficult.

The problem is that none of these three mail clients follow the standards in its complete state. If they support one property, they dont support the other – and thats what is most frustrating for us as developers.

At the end of the day, people need to understand that the shortcomings are not on part of the HTML (necessarily) or the application – but the mail client.

It is a great battle to fight against some of the giants such as Outlook and Lotus Notes – But the fact that they are the biggest and most adopted does not make them the best.

Feedback and debate is encouraged – so feel free.

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Written by manaskumar

September 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm

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