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]

41 thoughts on “Eight points for better e-mail relationships

  1. Thankyou Jeffrey for a considered and helpful response. As we said in our post, we’ve always had huge respect for the work you and others have done with web standards. It is time for the next generation to take the fight into new areas, including html email.

    The W3C discussion is a great start, but you are right, the real work will be with the email client manufacturers.

    Your 8 points are sensible and practical, and we certainly encourage all our customers to act as advocates for standards, restraint and accessibility in emails with their clients.

    It’s worth noting that both Campaign Monitor and MailBuild make it very
    easy to send UTF-8 encoded plain text emails as per your point 7. (Although we’d love to see the end of phrases like ‘E-mail blaster’ !)

    Thankyou for listening.

  2. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say about Apple’s announcement yesterday of the new Mail app in Leopard with its templates (examples)

    One of the features Steve was touting was the 30 professionally designed stationary templates…

    “From invitations to birthday greetings, stationery templates feature coordinated layouts, fonts, colors, and drag-and-drop photo placement — everything to help you get your point across. You can even create personalized templates. And messages created using stationery in Mail use standard HTML that can be read by every popular email program on the market — for both Mac and PC.”

  3. To your points about testing and learning how html works. Unfortunately, all the different email programs and email web apps out there render html differently (especially as far as headers and styling is concerned) – throw in browser compatibility issues and you’ve got yourself a major headache…

    We shoot for the least common denominator and we find ourselves designing with tables, html hacks, etc. I’m not saying its cool, it’s just the way it is.

    Another big problem is Outlook 2007 is using the same rendering engine as Word now, and that’s still kind of a big question mark as to what works and what doesn’t code-wise. If anyone is going to do any html emails, I suggest keep it simple, and use text emailing over html if at all possible.

  4. Fantastic post Jeffrey. I was quite shocked with your last post and was one of those who commented to say I felt you had generalised a little too much.

    i suppose the problem is that the bad practitioners are still in the majority. Perhaps the ISP’s should refuse to carry HTML emails without a plaintext alternative?

  5. You may have been a little over the top in your June 8 post, but the essence of it was right on – email is not for design, the web is. Getting web standards implemented by browsermakers has taken forever, and we still have a ways to go. To think that email clients are going to do the same is not so much a pipe dream as it is pointless.

    What’s wrong with sending an email with a link to a well-designed webpage in it? Or just using text. I suspect what’s wrong with it is people want to use their sharp design to influence the reader to do something, or to differentiate their product/service from another.

    The problem is that’s not what my inbox is for. It’s MY inbox, not my television or my copy of Sports Illustrated where you get to pitch ads at me. The spirit of me choosing what I subscribe to means I’m choosing things I want. So if I’ve already chosen to receive your stuff, I don’t need the pretty marketing gloss, I just need the alert that you have something new out at http://gohereandcheckitout.com. I’ll see your design in my browser after ONE CLICK. If I don’t make that one click, guess what? That’s my choice. And my inbox is not the place for you to change my mind.

    I think a lot of time gets wasted on working with HTML emails because it’s using a tool for something it wasn’t meant for. Now if there was no other tool available, that might make sense. But there is a tool. It’s called a website. I think you had it right on June 8.

  6. MBJ, you miss one critical point in Mr. Z’s amended comments:

    sent only to people who have asked to receive it

    According to your comments, that doesn’t include you. But, it might include all my music-promotion clients, who’ve opted into the html version rather than the default text version of our mailings.

    Your personal choice, allowed for in the updated commentary, doesn’t refute it.

  7. We have a really funny situation here!

    I wonder if the anti- HTML-emails people of last week will now ammend their beiliefs to match Zeldman’s newfound wisdom…

  8. spinhead: fair enough, but I still think it’s using email for something that the web is better suited for.

    Maybe I’m just biased because I spend way too much time dealing with email formatting differences for clients when I could be improving their websites.

  9. I think you’re really making two points: unsolicited email is infuriating and HTML emails are often poorly designed or wholly unnecessary. I don’t think anyone can argue with that, but I think your brush stroke is still too broad.

    Having recently worked at a non-profit that sent out HTML emails on a regular basis, I found that the HTML emails were far more effective at communicating our message. We had much higher click-thru rates and responses to those who chose to receive our message in HTML.

    I couldn’t agree more about your call to WASP. We should be putting some pressure on the biggest email clients to improve their HTML rendering. Then all of the talented web designers of the world can put their skills to use and avoid clunky HTML emails.

    To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of HTML in every communication, but it certainly has its place. Just like web design of the mid-nineties, email design is relatively young. Blink tags were certainly annoying and widespread, but they’re (thankfully) a thing of the past. In the end, I think education is the way to solve HTML emails, not discarding it completely.

  10. One big recommendation that I’ll be looking to use in future projects:

    On your website, provide a sample of your HTML newsletter so people can judge for themselves if it’s something they want to receive.

    Just one of those things I haven’t thought about and it’s a great idea. Thanks for the information.

  11. troy: Sorry, I still think it is the work of the devil.

    But as my comments (and many others) indicated: The irritation with HTMail probably has more to do with the fact the 110% of “pretty mail” I receive try to communicate with me in ways I find offensive.

    I can go as far as agreeing that being able to send messages with bold type and a few colors can enhance a message. But we don’t need full HTML-support for that.

  12. So, let me sum up this and the previous post in one sentence:

    >>Don’t Spam people.

    Email-client developers should definitely do more to stop spam.
    One thing related to HTML that they could easily do is to refuse to show HMTL-messages that were not sent from pre-approved addresses in my addressbook.

    But to stop Spam. Email has to go alltogether. If email is like telnet, we need ssh. If email is like ftp we need sftp.

  13. HTML email isn’t evil. Spammers have ruined it for the rest of us though… well, spammers and anyone who uses Incredimail or stationary in Outlook, or… Ah, nevermind.

    Anyways… There are things that can be better expressed via imagery that text would have a hard time conveying. Regardless of the format of a message, as long as the recipients have agreed to receive it… format should really be a moot point.

    Jeffrey, thank you for amending/updating your stance. I still love ya ;)

  14. I’m glad to see this article here – as one of these involved in the initial discussion, its nice to see a balanced and fair response. With the exception of point 2, I agree with and we are practicing all of the advice listed above. I would add to that list that a ‘web version’ is an essential inclusion, allowing clients who did receive the email and would like to see it rendered accurately in their browser – getting over any patchy mail client issues. Additionally, I would also add to that list that the emails MUST include a PROMINENTLY PLACED automatic unsubscribe function. I know most of the legitimate email marketers out there are already doing this as a matter of course though I think its worthy of inclusion.

  15. Like Martin, I still detest and despise HTML e-mail. That’s okay: I’m not bothered by it, because I don’t have to see it– no font styling, no images, no nothin’, thanks to my preferences settings. In fact, I have a Eudora filter that flags any HTML e-mail. That way I know which messages are of lower priority.

  16. My recommendations are simple: semantics and simplicity should prevail.

    I’d rather receive plain rich-text email than overly complicated tables. On the other hand, plain-text versions lack headings and bold text which make scanning much easier.

    When I have to deal with HTML emails, I try to promote and create semantic HTML, which generally looks fine even when/if styles sand images don’t show up on arrival, and take only a few seconds reading.

    I wish somebody from Amazon reads this and acts upon it!

  17. And PLEASE have an unsubscribe link directly in the email.**

    Ironically, a mail service which I don’t use any longer (because as a small business owner I’ve opted out of email marketing), doesn’t have an unsubscribe in their own messages!

    I don’t use their mail service, but I get all kinds of email from them touting their services and maintenance schedules, etc. No unsubscribe. I have to log in to their site and find the mail preferences…which I haven’t done because I don’t recall my login and password – it’s been too long!

    ** I know an unsubscribe link can be used by spammers to know that an address is active and checked, but really, I believe people can remember which they’ve opted into. Make it easy for them to unsubscribe!

  18. Jeffrey, I am glad to see you have pulled back from the hard-line stance, because I do agree that there is value in seeing the company logo in its true form, or even a signature image of the prominent person providing the letter above his name. But these are extras, ones that you can do without if the email client can not or will not render images or styles. And with Microsoft spiralling HTML-emails back 10 years with the use of the Word engine for rendering Outlook, these are about as advanced as we can safely take an HTML email anymore.

  19. Kudos Zeldman, it takes a person of character to put his beliefs out there and modify them upon further reflection instead of clinging to them regardless of what others have to say. Gives you a whole lot more cred and respect (not that you don’t have either ;)

  20. @everyone and anyone who claimed that HTML emails are primarily used by spamming scum-of-the-earth:

    I have read both articles and many (but not all) of the responses in both pertaining to HTML emails (June 8th and June 12th). The ivory tower denigrations claiming that HTML emails are primarily spam is beginning to come up empty. I would have been swayed by such a sweeping stroke had I not been curious about the spam in my own junk-mailbox. I am one of those people who allows mail of all kinds to appear in HTML format. I am not a plain text purist. I’ve got HTML turned ON. Just for kicks, I opened each and every one of the filtered spam messages that I had not yet deleted. You know the kind, the email that I did not opt in to receive…

    None of them had any images or fancy gimmicky graphics going on at all! All they had was continual pleas for me to see some hot, naked Russian girl; use Viagra so I can satisfy my woman all night long (even though, as a woman, I am ill equipped for their product); as well as plenty of chances to start my own online business or buy stock options. ALL WRITTEN IN PLAIN TEXT. Go figure!

    So, I have to ask — why argue that HTML emails are all likely some kind of spam, when all of the spam I received contained no instances of HTML?

  21. I really don’t care for html email. That is, I don’t like creating it, and I don’t like receiving it.

    That said, my opinion doesn’t really matter. I have numerous marketing people tell me how much more response rate they get from an html email vs text, and its end of discussion. I could go on and on to them about web standards and broken html in this email client or that, but it doesn’t matter. More response rate, end of story, I build it.

    If the proliferation of bad html email is going to ever change, the Marketeers will have to be convinced. So add it to the list, right?

    I’m also wondering how Apple’s next version of , with its fancy templates, will play into this discussion.

  22. I think HTML emails are a welcome and powerful marketing tool if they are only delivered to people who opted in. I think that well designed HTML emails are easier to read and more informative then plan text ones. I don’t like the nasty code that you have to write to get them to work in every email client, on the other hand I do like that HTML email is a additional service that I can offer to clients.

  23. I’ve read your previous post and this one too. I consider point 1-3 the most important ones, thank you for making me notice these recommendations!

    However, think again when recommending plain text as a good solution as it is: ‘ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.’
    Maybe for you, English-speaking friend, but not for us, whose alphabet contains more letters and/or accents than the English alphabet. For us, ASCII has been really pain in the ass for a long time now. I’m not talking about missing localized keyboards and key-code switching madness, but also sending an e-mail through servers using 7 bits (and thus cutting some extra letters/characters we used). For us, a unified character-layout, like UTF-8 can be a dream came true – we wished for nearly a decade.
    I would like to poit out, that even in case of opting for plain text, a common and usable standard charset is necessary, so as we could be able to communicate flawlessly.

  24. It strikes me that we are living in a digital world of user extremes: we want 48″ TVs that we have to sit on the far side of the room to enjoy, and iPhones where our fat little fingers try to manipulate tiny (but oh-so-cool!) images. At the same time, some most of us are still texting using only our opposable thumbs (on mobiles where you would think speech recognition would come as standard).

    I agree with parts of many of the points raised, but it seems to me there should be some ‘middle way’ between the overblown excesses of a multicorp adfest and plain old ascii. I now wear glasses, and peering at tightly-bunched, unformatted stuff that looks like something from the era of The Rockford Files bugs me in a different way from wading through screeds of pointless images from Getty. I sometimes want a little ‘soft sell’, and a little whitespace, with my info. Surely something akin to Markdown for the masses is not too much to ask?

  25. I think some of the people touting HTML email don’t understand how many people are (willingly!) using text-mode terminal-based UNIX email clients for mail. People who use pine or mutt (or vi :-)) aren’t doing it because they’re old curmudgeons. They’re doing it because they find it to be a more productive environment to work in.

    So the contention that HTML always communicates more effectively is bogus. It might, if you see something other than a screen full of tags.

    To comply with the standards, a web browser must be able to process HTML and display it to the user. An email client, *by the standards*, must display plain text, full stop. The standards don’t require HTML in an email client.

  26. For a community that is supposedly keen on accessibility and usability, many of these comments are disappointing to say the least. Plain text is unusable in many circumstances. Likewise, the crap HTML that is supported by today’s email clients is inaccessible in many circumstances. There’s no reason for it except that there are no standards.

    Standards for email would be a godsend on so many fronts. Even the text only crowd should be concerned that there are no standards for email. (Didn’t you find it disappointing that the ascii art you spent hours working on didn’t show up as fixed width font when you sent it to that cute girl in communications?)

    I tried emailing the Web Standards Project to express my interest in volunteering but their email bounced (don’t get me started about lack of standards around bounce messages).

    I’ve also tried to rally a group at the Email Experience Council but so far there are no takers.

    I make good money as a result of the mess created by the lack of standards for email but I’m happy to give up email design if it means that email would be accessible and usable for all.

    I hope this discussion gets people fired up. Standards for email are a worthwhile cause.

  27. @Gregg

    Standards for email are a worthwhile cause.

    There are standards for email. > http://www.imc.org/rfcs.html

    That being said however. If we all waited for ‘standards’ to change instead of pushing the boundaries. Standards would never change or surely change at such a snail’s pace, we’d all still be designing in table structure.

    The unfortunate thing with ‘standards’ is they only define what ‘is’ and not ‘what could be’ often making them stifling to your project.

    Look at things like the iframe for example. iframe is/was a handy little thing which took a long time to become standards compliant. However, enough people bought into this ‘microsoft’ tag that all browsers and w3 adopted it.

    It’s called progress.

  28. Plain Text is for losers stuck in 1995. Get real and catch up. Communication is more than characters on a page.

  29. @TJ: That kind of mature, sober reasoning must win a lot of converts to your point of view. I’m sorry you can’t express yourself without insulting others. Must be lonely in your little world of pain.

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