Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Campaign Monitor has taken me to task, and I find it hard to dispute their primary contention:

To say as a blanket statement that HTML email impedes communication is an extraordinary generalisation. There are many times when a well designed, and well laid out HTML email can be a lot clearer, easier to scan and overall better experience than the equivalent in plain text.

They’re got a point. Having read and considered Campaign Monitor’s comment and other sensible responses to my 8 June post, I agree that my brush was too broad.

A few well-designed, well-considered, communicating visual elements, in the context of a well-written, time-respecting, communicating HTML e-mail message, sent only to people who have asked to receive it, and formatted to work across applications and platforms, can indeed enhance communication.

Yet unsolicited mail, as all internet users know, makes it hard to use e-mail to communicate with friends, family, and work mates. Trying to defeat spam, we miss messages from business partners and loved ones. Add unsolicited graphics and broken formatting to that mix; send tons of it to a business person who is trying to check e-mail while out of the office, and you have a recipe for road rage on the information superhighway.

Perhaps reasonable people could agree to the eight notions put forward below.

Note: As in my previous post, I’m about to preach to the choir. Designers reading my site and using Campaign Monitor or other fine mail services (such as Deck advertiser MailChimp, cough) already know and practice ’most everything I’m about to recommend. The following is not a pledge. Pledges don’t work. People don’t change their behavior or business practices because someone with a blog asks them to be nice. Okay? So this is not directed at my readers or Campaign Monitor’s customers, who, I believe, will agree:

  1. Unsolicited HTML mail (like unsolicited mail generally) is an abuse. Send HTML formatted mails only to those who’ve opted in. Always offer a text mail version.
  2. Consider making text mail the default, and HTML mail the optional opt-in. Typically, where choice is provided, the HTML option is checked by default. Many users—because they assume the experts who created the web service are looking out for their best interests—don’t change defaults. This doesn’t mean they all actually want HTML mail. If the default switches to text, then you can be reasonably sure that those who opted for HTML mail probably want it.
  3. On your website, provide a sample of your HTML newsletter so people can judge for themselves if it’s something they want to receive.
  4. As in all design, consider every element before adding it. Remove everything that does not help you communicate.
  5. Test. I can’t count the number of banks, e-commerce and travel services that send me HTML-formatted transaction records, receipts, itineraries, and other jim-jams that do not work in my mail platform. These businesses never offer a plain-text version, let alone an opt-in choice with a test link to see if I like what they have to offer and verify that my mail client likes it, too. Broken mail doesn’t win friends and influence customers (except to change vendors). I am likelier to switch travel services than e-mail clients.
  6. Never send bulk e-mail to a list of people who haven’t agreed to receive messages from you. (This, of course, will never happen, but it belongs in the list anyway.)
  7. E-mail blaster product providers, please offer a streamlined option for those who choose to send their subscribers text-only. Don’t make us design HTML mail templates we have no intention of using, and jump through hoops to make sure our users never see the dummy HTML mail format you asked us to create. (Not directed at any company in particular; suggested as a product differentiator slash best practice.)
  8. Learn how HTML mail works (or doesn’t) across as many platforms as possible, and work with the manufacturers to improve support for web standards. This is not my job. I did my job where web standards are concerned (you’re welcome!), and turned over The Web Standards Project to a new generation of leadership. And as I never send HTML formatted mails, not only is it not my job, I wouldn’t even be qualified to do it. But standardistas who are compelled by their clients to create HTML mails (or who choose to do so) are gently urged to do their part in diminishing wasted bandwidth and enhancing semantics.

Related posts

When is e-mail like a bad website?

Nokia sent a friend an HTML e-mail message. I’ve broken it into five screen shots, because it won’t fit on one. E-mail, as a medium, really doesn’t want to carry all this freight.

E-mail is not a platform for design

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]