UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

HTML Email – Views From The Grizzled Techies And Evil Marketeers

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 Mar 2007

One of our web officers has been asking about whether there’s any good, reasonably priced training in creating HTML mails. If anyone has any experience with this, would you let me know?

That message, sent recently to the web-support JISCMail list seemed a reasonable request for information. So I was surprised to see responses saying “I can give you a complete course right now. Don’t do it“, “If people learn to write they don’t need HTML to spice their text” and “the people that want it are the very last people that should be allowed to have it. To me, the reception of HTML email from an organisation is a great big hint that I never ever want to deal with that organisation.

Well, there are some unequivocal positions! And look at that last comments: “the people that want it are the very last people that should be allowed to have it.” What happened to having a user-focussed approach to Web development?

Fortunately there were other responses to the debate which took a more holistic view: “Don’t just say ‘No’, say ‘Let US do it’, or at least ‘Let us get involved’. Take control if possible. Otherwise they’ll just do it anyway, and quite possibly do it (very) badly.

The debate seemed to polarise the “grizzled techies” and the “evil marketing managers”. One of the latter gave his reasons for making use of HTML in email:

As the resident evil marketing manager on the list I’ve tried to restrain myself but can’t hold back any longer…

We always use HTML based e-mail for our marketing (we send multipart e-mails with a text version so that most users should see something on their screen). All our e-mail marketing is opt-in and we give an unsubscribe link on every message sent, partly because that’s the law, but mainly because it’s polite – we’re happy that our unsubscribe rate is reasonably low. We developed a set of corporate templates which were thoroughly tested with Outlook, Outlook express, Hotmail, Gmail, Mac mail, et al (if you think getting HTML to render in a variety of browsers is fun wait until you start developing HTML e-mail!). Every message we send is sent to test accounts using a variety of e-mail services before we send in bulk.

It does strike me that there are two polarised communities. Coincidentally around the time this discussion was taking place I attended the Aoc Nilta conference [note Web site no longer available – 12 Jan 2009], at which, as described in a posting by Scott Wilson, personalisation was one of the key themes of the conference (and, as described recently by the BBC, is also on the Government’s agenda).

My view? I’m on the side of providing flexibility for the user community – and if the marketing community are the ones who try to respond to the users’ needs, then we should be working more closely with that group, rather than the dated technical views of the grizzled techies!

12 Responses to “HTML Email – Views From The Grizzled Techies And Evil Marketeers”

  1. I offer both HTML and text versions of my newsletter, and the HTML subscriptions outnumber text subscriptions 5 to 1.

    A couple of tips:
    – don’t use Javascript – it will cause most of your emails to be bounced
    – don’t use images – almost no email readers display images by default, and your mail will just look odd and ugly
    – define all styles inline – web-based email readers (such as GMail) strip all CSS declarations
    – remember that the width of the email reading window is usually only about 2/3 the width of the screen
    – you’re competing with a lot of other info – give your email a nice border of white space, use large text, and a distinctive colour combination
    – remember, relative links don’t work (you’re not on your website any more) – make sure all URLs are fully defined

  2. Scott Wilson said

    I think the best things you get from HTML email are the simple things, like styled text (bold, italic, headings) and structures such as lists. Its a bit frustrating when emailing outside my organisation to have to add in _these_ *weird*

    * bits
    * of
    * pseudo-markup

    because of the fear and loathing of non-vanilla email. We should be beyond the point of having to justify the use of italics in emails! I’m sure a lot of people these days install a newsreader and just see it as being another ‘rich text’ application like almost everything else, and aren’t even aware that they are using HTML as such.

    At the other end of the scale – the marketing email or email newsletter – Stephen’s tips look very useful.


  3. Scott Wilson said

    (I meant email client rather than newsreader…)

  4. Hooray! The best polarising debate there is!

    “”the people that want it are the very last people that should be allowed to have it.” What happened to having a user-focussed approach to Web development?”

    Don’t mix up the users (recipients) and the people who are asking how to provide HTML (the liar^D^D^D^D marketeers). I’d point to pop-up ads as a pretty clear indication of what marketers can do to the web when they like.

    “It does strike me that there are two polarised communities.”

    I think this is only true if you take a blinkered look at what the state of HTML email actually is, who’s sending it, who’s receiving it, whether it was opt-in or not, etc.

    Most animosity to HTML emails I’ve met is historical – five years ago (although this is still partly true today today to some extent) idio^D^D^D^D marketers would send out HTML mails packed with flashing images and invoking popups with no other way of reading the content, with an incredibly tiny amount of actual content. Most modern HTML mails are having to take into account the fact that most email clients are stripping out the security vulnerabilities, sorry – images and javascript, and so can actually stand alone without it. It’s only anecdotal evidence but certainly almost all of the spam I used to receive was HTML-based (this was before spam filters) and so I have a very strong HTML mail == spam filter.

    “and if the marketing community are the ones who try to respond to the users’ needs”

    Are you on crack? What users’ needs?

    In other news, I look forward to all the HTML mails breaking yet again in Outlook 2007 now that it uses Word’s rendering engine (with, thank god, no animated gif support), and HTML mail being thrown back five years. Not good for anyone.

  5. Hi Phil – thanks for the response. Note that the discussion was not about HTML email in general, but about universities providing the option for their users to choose to receive HTML email. Whilst I would agree with you that HTML email is the norm for spammers, in this case we’re talking about best practices for trusted organisations. And, as Stephen Downes has described, in his case, with a known trusted individual, the vast majority of users are willing to select the HTML option.
    The challenges, I would argue, are best practices for sending HTML email (and Stephen lists some of these), the policy issues (for example, on use or not of JavaScript, image referral tracking, etc.), the architectures for sending the email (an issue which came up in the email discussion) and, as you mention at the end of your message, avoiding breaking email clients. On this latter point, simply using simple styled text (bold, italic, headings) and structures such as lists, as Scott suggests, can avoid many of these problems. And services such as SiteVista’s Email testing service can help identify problem areas without you having to install and test a wide range of email clients (and Will Young, Sheffield Hallam University was pleased with his experiments with this service.

  6. “about universities providing the option for their users to choose to receive HTML email”

    Are you sure? I don’t think this is true at all.

    FWIW I would argue that the association with spam is a real one and an issue which directly affects your audience.

    Stephen’s anecdotal evidence does not display “the vast majority of users are willing to select the HTML option.” because HTML is pre-selected and is the first option in his list. I would be interested to see if there was any change in adoption rate if they were reversed so that text-only came first and the HTML options were unchecked.

    I still fail to see what users’ needs are being met by this other than providing a fictional choice (provided of course that it even is a choice and a marketing department is enlightened enough to send a multipart email which also includes a text version).

  7. I wonder if there’s a bigger issue where an institutional mail server blocks images and javascript from mails sent from the insitution’s own marketing team? That would be quite amusing :)

  8. i’m pleased to see that my “grizzled techies” terminology made it to your post :)

    as touched upon already in the discussion, this is about context. it’s important to distinguish what types of emails we (the evil marketeers) want to send out as sexily designed, enticing missives that compete for the user’s eyeballs.

    i for one enjoy html email from certain sources (for instance, those messages from the apple store trying to entice me with lickable product shots of their latest overpriced gadgets), while in other cases i find them rather pointless.

    and yes, the “let ‘US’ do it” approach is certainly the best, i’d say.

  9. While we were having the discussion (here and on the web-support JISCMail list) a similar discussion was taking place on a W3C list. And, as a result of W3C Member interests in this area, the W3C will be hosting an HTML Mail workshop on 24 May 2007.

  10. […] as applicable to blog awards) is a view that will be shared by some.  Indeed I’m aware of a certain antipathy towards those involved in commercial and marketing activities from many involved in IT development […]

  11. Mike said


    Lotta anger there. Suspect [some people] should go take a deep breath.

    Welcome to 2008. We left text emails back in 1983.

  12. Mia said

    I’m not sure that the marketing community are the ones who try to respond to the users’ needs – they’re responding to the marketing needs of the organisation rather than advocates for the users’ experience.

    As the public face of an organisation, a good marketing department should try to balance usability and user-friendliness with their own goals and need for metrics, but as has been said, this wasn’t always the case in the past.

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