Do forms work in HTML emails?

Over the years we've received loads of inquiries about the use of forms in emails, such as newsletter subscribe forms, event registration and surveys. So we decided to run some tests to get to the bottom of just how well forms are supported in all the major email environments.

Is it okay to use forms in emails? It’s not the best idea. But what do you say when your client asks you to put one in an email? You can either tell them “no” for reasons which may not make sense to them, or you can back up your defiance with some hard evidence.

The short of it is that email clients consider email forms to be a security risk. While some email clients simply warn you of potential danger, others outright disable the forms. So if your client wants to send out a form, they should know that most of their recipients will never be able to use it. And for those who can, they’ll think twice about submitting data when they see a warning from their email client.

Results Summary

Common email clients share a propensity to distrust forms in email messages. But they differed greatly in how they handled the intruding forms. Following are some notable oddities.

External data submission

Upon submitting a form in many webmail clients, a JavaScript alert announces that the form is submitting data to an external page and asks if you want to continue:

[Gmail screenshot: You are submitting information to an external page. Are you sure?]

[Yahoo! Mail screenshot: Warning! You are about to send information to someone other than Yahoo! If you do not want anyone outside of Yahoo! to have this information, click Cancel now. Remember Yahoo! will NEVER ask you for your password in an unsolicited phone call or an unsolicited email. Please change your preferences if you do not want to see this message again.]

Scam alerts

Thunderbird recognizes that the form may be malicious but doesn’t strip its functionality. Instead, it warns you of potential danger:

[Thunderbird screenshot: Thunderbird thinks this message might be an email scam.]

Odd behavior

Windows Live Hotmail shows the form. However, the form functions in an odd way; and certainly not correctly. If the form is submitted by keying the “return” key, the page is refreshed but no data is sent and the process is not completed. If the form is submitted by clicking the submit button, nothing happens. Outlook 2007 also exhibits some unique behavior in that it custom renders the form. Inputs are replaced with brackets and the submit button is replaced with the button’s value enveloped in brackets. So it's a plain-text version of what the form would look like, even though the HTML is being displayed.

Complete Results

Client Form is displayed Form is functional
.Mac Yes No
Yahoo! Mail Yes Yes
Yahoo! Mail Classic Yes No
AOL Webmail Yes No
Gmail Yes Yes
Windows Live Hotmail Yes No
Apple Mail Yes Yes
Thunderbird Yes Yes
Penelope (Eudora 8) Yes Yes
Outlook 2007 No No
Outlook 2003 Yes No
Outlook Express Yes Yes
Windows Live Mail Yes Yes
Lotus Notes 8 Yes Yes
Entourage Yes Yes

The Recommendation

Given the sporadic support for forms in emails, we recommend linking to a form on a website in an email rather than embedding it therein. This is the safest, most reliable solution to pairing an email message with a form. More people will see it and be able to use it, and as a result participation will increase.

Posted by Administrator

17 Comments

  • Stormy
    8th November

    Hmm, have to differ with at least one of your results here I’m afraid, as we have received and submitted forms using Outlook 2003 SP2, and it appeared to function fine.

    That aside, I completely agree on leaving forms out of email. If an email is generating enough interest that someone fills in a form, then it is enough for them to click a link to a webpage before they fill it out.

  • Danny Foo
    9th November

    I’m curious, by form does it also mean the polls some people include in their newsletters?

    I’ve always been wondering how they achieved this. :S

  • Dave Greiner
    10th November

    Danny, yes, this refers to any kind of form element in emails, including polls and surveys. Basically, they are very hit and miss and not recommended.

  • Jonathan Sweet
    10th November

    Something that we’ve noticed is that forms work in Outlook (pre 2007), but not in the preview pane (they won’t post to the server).

  • Sully
    17th November

    The presumption that participation will increase by using a landing page is open to debate.  Users are lazy—make them click, and that’s another commitment.  If it’s possible to present simple survey queries in an e-mail, you’d likely see more responses.  After all, they’ve already opened the e-mail—all they have to do is tick a few boxes, or fill out some info, and click.  But if they have to take another step, they might be more likely to abandon.

  • Mathew Patterson
    20th November

    You are right Sully - it is an extra click, and you would expect to lose some people because of that. Unfortunately though, forms just don’t reliably work in email, and it is worse for someone to fill out a form and then see it fail.

    The raw number of participants may fall by having a landing page, but the number of successful forms lodged would be expected to increase.

  • Justine Jordan
    8th December

    It looks like Gmail is now stripping out forms altogether, in both “old” and “new” versions…

  • Justine Jordan
    8th December

    Oh, same thing with Yahoo! Beta (forms still work in Classic). The form doesn’t display at all in the new Yahoo!

  • GulDam
    1st March

    Yahoo classic and V2 is working fine for both displaying email and form submittal.

  • Daniel
    20th May

    Stormy,

    I found with Outlook that forms work fine if you open the email in its own window.  However, if the email is displayed in the generic “Outlook” split window, it does not work!

    That qualifies as unreliable in my books.

  • Paul McRae
    28th May

    I have tried to produce a simple survey for my sailing club by using a form in HTML and distributing it as an e-mail, big mistake! Thank you for all the above posts, they all appear to be accurate and refelect my own findings, there is only one way to do it, make all the emails unique so that all the links are unique and as suggested link to a hidden bit of your website to conduct the survey. I also discovered that some webmail clients needed the link to be short(ish) in length so that may further complicate matters if there is no underlying database to reference.

  • B. Todd
    3rd June

    I know you’re talking about POST style HTML forms… but is it possible to produce an HTML fill-in form that your client would just reply to and send back to you, filled in?  I’ve tried this on myself, but the fields come back blank.  Am I doing something wrong, or does it still fall under the ‘blocked fill-in form’ category?

  • Boszkowo
    18th June

    Thank you from Poland

  • Richard Giles
    12th August

    Just the information I was looking for, thank you.

  • analysis
    20th August

    Users are lazy—make them click, and that’s another commitment. If it’s possible to present simple survey queries in an e-mail, you’d likely see more responses.

  • James
    27th August

    @Danny Foo - you could do a one-click poll… the item (or checkbox) is a graphic.  As soon as they click, you recognize the vote and display the results.  That would work.

    What are people’s experience with displaying a picture of the form?

    I notice that Hilton still displays forms in their emails.  (I’m viewing in Gmail, but using a private-label domain name that doesn’t identify it as Gmail.)  Have not actually tried the form, though.

    They have a text link underneath which reads “Form not working?  Click here to go to website.”

  • James
    27th August

    @analysis - Users aren’t lazy.  Your email is a conversation, their click is them responding.  If they’re not clicking, you’re not engaging them.

    Subscribers rule!

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