28 Nov 2007 11 am eastern

Give HTML e-mail a chance

Ten years into the web standards revolution, e-mail client support for standards remains sketchy. A new group is doing something about it. Launched today, The Email Standards Project “works with email client developers and the design community to improve web standards support and accessibility in email.”

Brainchild of Mathew Patterson of the Campaign Monitor, the newly launched site, like any good advocacy site, explains why web standards matter for e-mail.

But it does much more. Already the project uses a WaSP-style CSS test to judge the standards compliance of major e-mail clients from AOL to Yahoo! Mail and report on how they did. There’s also a blog and a list of things you can do to help promote standards awareness and persuade e-mail software makers to improve their support.

I started out hating HTML e-mail, but now I am a believer. I support The Email Standards Project.

[tags]email, e-mail, standards, webstandards, advocacy[/tags]

Filed under: Accessibility, Design, development, HTML mail, industry, Tools

53 Responses to “Give HTML e-mail a chance”

  1. Kevin said on

    Great timing. I just finished coding one of these guys for an overseas client and I really hope this takes hold. I secretly hate myself every time I bang out an HTML email, and this isn’t something I can explain to my family and friends. They don’t understand the pain!

  2. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I secretly hate myself every time I bang out an HTML email, and this isn’t something I can explain to my family and friends.

    @Kevin, you are not alone. Far from it!

  3. Geof Harries said on

    The upside of building and testing HTML for today’s lackluster email clients is that it makes you truly appreciate how far we’ve come. A few torturous days of font tags and nested tables gives you some real perspective.

  4. Tara said on

    I feel your pain Kevin!

    I just built an email newsletter this morning, and as I am about to head out to lunch, I stopped and considered that I shouldn’t leave the html open on my desktop because I was ashamed of all the nested tables.

  5. Kenneth Sutton said on

    I think you were right with your first post! The implementation of web standards in email is broken, but the better adherence to “standards” is to keep email text-only. Html pages can always be attached.

  6. Jared said on

    Wow, that is a huge reversal on your part Jeffrey. So what changed your mind? Your post seems to lead us to the conclusion that it was the establishment of “The Email Standards Project”.

  7. lander said on

    I send a lot of HTML emails at work. Thought I had found a good balance between old and new code, without tables, until Outlook 2007 came along and messed everything up. Much to my chagrin I then spent many hours nesting tables and laying shims to fix our email templates.

    So this is very, very welcome news!

  8. Mathew Patterson said on

    Thanks for the link, and the support Jeffrey. The Freshview team are all behind this – we should not have to be ashamed of the markup we write for emails!

    @Kenneth – why should we arbitrarily ‘attach’ an HTML page? Your only removing the HTML content one click further away then. Of course everyone should still be sending plain text, but lets give people the choice to send clean, semantic HTML instead of retro tables based horrors.

  9. Tantek said on

    Interesting change of perspective Jeffrey.

    I have gone the opposite direction.

    Whereas once I used to dislike HTML email, now I dislike email in general (with very few exceptions), though I still dislike HTML email more than plain text email.

    I think the solution is to reduce use of email of any form to the absolute minimum. I’ve started recording my notes on what I’m doing about it here:

    Email Reduction notes on Tantek’s wiki

  10. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    @Tantek: Very interesting perspective (as your comments always are). But those of us who interact with the business world can’t abandon e-mail. A potential client of Happy Cog is not going to Twitter about it, nor would I want to negotiate a fee on a public platform. :D

  11. Greg said on

    Text-based email is not so much the desired standard, it’s more the net result of stripping out everything that might create a rendering conflict. A text-based website worked consistently in both Netscape and IE back in the 90s, but we web designers would not have accepted that as the solution then.

    As an email designer whose designs got completely derailed by Outlook 2007, I am thrilled to see the Email Standards Project challenging the email clients to do better, and think it’s great that you, Jeffrey, are supporting those efforts.

  12. Dan Schulz said on

    I’m glad to see this is finally starting to take off. Thanks for the heads up, Jeff. :)

  13. Antoine Butler said on

    Wow I just completed a 6 series viral campaign for a client. Not as bad my days putting together disgustingly long and table heavy newsletters for a government think tank.

    It will be nice but not something I can get too involved in. At least not untill enough software and email providers start offering products that abide by the rules. It will be a great day with ie6 is dead and outlook is compliant. I just hope it doesn’t take another 10 years.
    Once again, thanks for the heads up. This needs to be posted in the the dwws group.

  14. Mark Wyner said on

    Thanks for posting about this, Jeffrey. We worked very hard on this project and hope that it will have an impact on email clients the way WaSP did on browsers.

    For someone like myself who is adamant about web standards, this is a critical mission. My studio has been fortunate enough to convince our clients of the benefits of standards-based markup, and we therefore haven’t had to revisit tables and font tags to ensure design integrity. But not everyone is so lucky. And in the end, it’s email recipients who pay the ultimate price.

    I just wanted to say how happy I am that you’ve reconsidered your perspective on this debate. It’s great to have you on board. And thanks for everything you’ve done for web standards as a whole. Your efforts laid the groundwork for what we hope to accomplish with the email environment.

    Cheers!

  15. Matt Robin said on

    I love Tantek’s response! Ha!

    I was only thinking the other day, less and less people use my actual e-mail address…instead it is messages from web-sites and web-apps that wouldn’t include any HTML formatting anyway! One day in the not too distant future, we might find ourselves saying “Hey, remember when people used e-mails?!” – hehe

    At the moment though, e-mail use is still prolific enough that the whole matter of HTML e-mails (or more specifically: how to get the standards for them sorted out) is still quite relevant.

    Strangely though, even though I’m a firm supporter of Web Standards – I just think trying to do the same thing with HTML e-mails is a nonsense – it’s just not they way e-mails should be used anyway. In many respects, I’ve just read your previous article Jeffrey (from June this year) and I’m more inclined to agree with everything stated in that post…it was as correct then as it is now.

    The best thing for HTML e-mail Standards would be if HTML e-mail was dumped altogether, by ALL of the e-mail clients en-masse! Because hey: if you want to make a colorful document with images and fonts – use a Word Processing program and save it in an already widely-used format like ‘PDF’ (for example) in the first place – I mean: that’s what they are for!

    That’s not a criticism of the lovely web site they’ve made for ‘e-mail standards’ or the great amount of effort that the team are pouring in to the matter…I just think they are barking up the wrong tree!

  16. Tom Carmony said on

    Thanks for highlighting this; the more folks aware of (and getting on) this bandwagon, the better. HTML email makes up a pretty significant chunk of my current design workload, and it’s maddeningly frustrating trying to negotiate effective, accessible designs between the various email platforms. About as much fun as hacking CSS for IE6. :-)

  17. Adam Prime said on

    One can only hope that they can spur MS to fix the mess that is Outlook 2007 HTML email support. Hopefully they’ll also encourage the use of multipart messages so that those who prefer text only aren’t left staring at code.

  18. Joe Clark said on

    No HTML mail, no phishing.

    Fair bargain? I think so.

    Support for HTML mail correlates highly with support for top-posting. All you people: Never mail me.

  19. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    No HTML mail, no phishing.

    Fair bargain? I think so.

    I agree, but (a) many people would rather get nicely designed e-mails than ASCII ones, and (b) many companies and organizations rather insist on sending HTML e-mail, and not every consultant, agency, or in-house designer can say “no.”

    Given that some people prefer HTML mail (and indicate their preference by opting in) and that most companies and organizations expect to be able to send it, vendors of “full-featured” e-mail clients should support standards accurately.

  20. ben said on

    Yep, doing an e-mail campaign (as I have only twice) is a trip through a time machine – it’s 1997 again, and I’m a winsome twentysomething with a gross of loose marbles who dunno his ass from his elbow.

    (More recently not so winsome, and only a dozen loose marbles… but… I digress.)

    Could someone, anyone, please suggest where I can find a summary of the market research spelling out why HTML e-mail is So Frakkin’ Kewl (and not merely the manifestation of some weird symptomatic PHB Syndrome)? At least then I’ll why I’m being an idiot. I mean, seriously. It’s like visual tinnitus. Gaaah!

    Pending an epiphany, I’ll gleefully refer all of my e-mail marketing prospects. *shudder* And not just because of the crap markup.

  21. ben said on

    Wow, that went well. I can’t even do simple markup today. now it makes perfectly good sense why I don’t want to work on any e-mail campaigns.

  22. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Once I finally accepted that Eudora was a dead end, and switched to an actively updated e-mail application (Apple’s Mail, as it happens) that could display HTML mail gracefully, even HTML mails I hadn’t opted in for stopped bugging me, because they stopped looking like the least attractive part of my dog.

    Not only that, but I began to appreciate the ability to see simple hierarchies (i.e. headline versus body text).

    If one sets up an opt-in system, makes plain text the default, and is rigorous about honoring people’s preferences, the evil that most of us internet-old-timers fear goes away.

  23. John F Croston III said on

    Doing HTML e-mails are a pain in the rear without using web standards.

    I had to send out a half dozen a year a while ago. I had to send it out using Outlook (not sure which version anymore) and the users where using it too.

    Outlook added so much crap to the HTML it was really ugly. Thank goodness that I did not need such a pretty e-mail. All I was required to have was header with logos, footer, a few other images, and only two columns.

  24. Dana K said on

    I’ve gotta say the last 3 places I’ve been employed and the last 5+ clients I’ve worked for have all had HTML email disabled at the exchange level or pushed to each individual machine via policy. Maybe I live in a sheltered environment, but I can’t even see that HTML email has that big an impact these days. I currently live under the assumption the majority of companies/organizations force it to be disabled out of common sense.

    Any good links to provide some hard data in support or to the contrary?

  25. Tantek said on

    @Jeffrey you are of course correct that business transactions cannot really be conducted over the public web, yet (with a few exceptions, see below).

    Thus for now, I agree and tend to use instant messaging (IM) for clients / speaking / other business transactions discussions, with email for “checkpoints” of agreed upon sets of points (something you can reforward to them later etc.) that I typically then process into a private wiki for my own tracking.

    However I think your remark also points out an excellent business opportunity for someone who can solve the problem of doing business with clients with a nice, easy to use website, easier (less noisy/annoying) than email.

    People used to buy products from companies by email (speaking from personal experience of a 1996 startup), and that was replaced a while ago by web forms (same experience), e.g. Amazon for most people.

    Ebay went further and enabled user to user (for some reason I dislike the B2C, B2B, C2C terms) transactions for “stuff”.

    I think there is a natural evolution occuring here, and that the scenarios you outline of “client discussions”, and “negotiate a fee” are merely further along the spectrum.

    If the ecommerce (yes I think there is still a place for that term) successes of Amazon and Ebay are any evidence, there are likely additional opportunities for innovative startups that simplify other types of semi-structured transactions that were (have been) assumed to be unsimplifyable.

    For example (just thinking out loud) perhaps there is an opportunity for a site for speakers to pitch sessions they can give, and months/dates they are available, and conference organizers to bid on them or otherwise make them offers. Such a service might even make it easier for conferences to find a more diverse set of speakers, a long tail of speakers, if you will, just as Amazon and Ebay have made it easier to find a more diverse set of “stuff”.

    Bottom line: minimize use of email, and consider each seemingly required use of email as an opportunity for an entrepreneur to create a web startup.

    Tantek (with apologies for blogging in your comments ;)

    P.S. I’ve also noted these comments on my aforementioned wiki page in two new sections: “Limitations” and “Opportunities”.

  26. Tim said on

    I wonder how many people who produce HTML emails have actually put any work in laying out their text email so that they too communicate a clear document structure. I.e.

    THIS IS A HEADING
    =================
    * Story 1 summary
    * Story 2 summary

    Story 1
    -------

    So much effort is put into making these bloated and embarrassing piles of markup that we all acknowledge are far below any standard to which we hold the rest of our work. It seems like it would be easier and more effective to channel that into something else.

  27. scottandrew said on

    I use HTML emails for press releases. I’m told it’s pretty much standard in the PR industry, particularly in music and entertainment.

    Hand-in-hand with client standards support are email composers that can correctly create and send multi-part messages. Thunderbird is surprisingly great at this.

  28. Justin Premick said on

    @ Joe -

    No HTML mail, no phishing. Fair bargain? I think so.

    Not sure I agree with this. Two reasons:

    1. No HTML mail means institutions like PayPal don’t send it either.

    So it’d become a question of phishers making text emails that look like PayPal’s text ones.

    True, you can’t hide/obfuscate the URL in text like you can in HTML, but I get the feeling your assumption is that that means people will never click a non paypal.com (or whatever institution) link. Which takes me to #2:

    2. Some people will click phishing links, even if the URL is shown.

    Seems to me that people who are apt to fall prey to the typical phishing scam could just as easily fall prey to it in text format.

    How many people would click a link at a domain like http://www.paypal-account.com or http://www.we11sfargo.com ? I think a lot still would, especially if the link is so long that their attention is drawn away from the domain.

    Stopping phishing requires email user education (example: this anti-phishing game developed by students at Carnegie Mellon). A text-only email world doesn’t replace that.

  29. jethro said on

    You can’t fight the usage of HTML emails. They’re not going away. So supporting standards based creation of them is the way to go. I think using POSH and a little CSS will make mail better in general.

  30. Herman said on

    …many companies and organizations rather insist on sending HTML e-mail, and not every consultant, agency, or in-house designer can say “no.”

    Those companies very quickly lose my business (if they ever had it) if they do not offer a plain text alternative.

    Everyone can say “no” – even if it means losing the client. Principles are worth more than money.

  31. andrew woods said on

    I agree with Matt Robin. Web standards are a great thing and I fully support them, but they don’t belong in email. Although, I’d add that you should send the html file as an attachment, just like you would a PDF. That way it would ultimately be rendered by your favorite standards-compliant browser.

  32. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    you should send the html file as an attachment

    Many corporate mail gateways block attachments; many even block e-mails with attachments (not just the attachments).

    Assuming an attached HTML file gets past the gateway, you now have to rely on the recipient’s expertise. He/she must know what to do with an attached HTML file (i.e., drag it into her browser).

    You’d subject business correspondence to those obstacles and vagaries rather than send properly formatted HTML mail to people who have opted in to receive it? Where is the logic there?

  33. Jason Berry said on

    @Herman,

    Not everyone can say “no”, especially when it means losing a client. It’d be nice to be that idealistic, but some of us have to put food on the table.

    “Principles are worth more than money.” – We’re talking about emails here, not an issue that actually matters and is going to change lives, like human rights for instance – a little perspective could help.

  34. Pete said on

    The main problem I have isn’t generating the HTML (although it is pretty horrible) but rather getting it to the client so they can send it themselves (despite my best advice regarding Outlook mail blasts).

    If I could solve the problem of giving the work to the client I’d be happy.

    I’ve also had countless discussions with clients trying to convince them they should use a proper mailing service such as Mailchimp rather than send from their desktop. They just don’t consider all the issues that need to be considered and if they do, they don’t consider them to be important.

    Double opt in? Unsubscribe link? Personalised mail? Pah. :(

  35. Robert Chien said on

    I used to be strongly against HTML Email [...] But over the years, my view gradually shifted. I now consider HTML Email to be complementary to plaintext. Read more…

  36. boon said on

    I thought there was a standard: No HTML.

    You might have hell trying to convince any IT department to use anything other than PINE. They might just respond to your inquiries with: “I’ll get back to you once I decode your email.”

  37. Norman Walsh said on

    HTML email: Just. Say. No.

  38. el salvador said on

    Wow, that is a huge reversal on your part Jeffrey. So what changed your mind? Your post seems to lead us to the conclusion that it was the establishment of “The Email Standards Project”.

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