Why we need standards support in HTML email

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a long time now. I've been delaying it purely because I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to write with Zeldman-like virtue on why email, just like the web, needs to pay attention to web standards. Sadly, in the time between the idea for this post and actually getting it published, web standards support in email has gone seriously downhill. I can't delay it any longer.

My role at Campaign Monitor has given me a great opportunity over the years to research and speak to other designers at length about the standards issue. Each time the topic comes up the result is always the same - getting an email to display consistently in all of the popular email clients is by far the most frustrating part of the job. It's a painful and always moving target that's getting harder instead of easier. There's really no justification for it and it's about time something was done.

Accepting the reality of email today

Let me preface this by saying I completely respect everyone's choice for the email format they prefer to send and receive. I also understand that it probably wasn't the original purpose of email to go beyond one-to-one plain text messaging. I really do. This is one of the biggest reasons we encourage everyone to include a plain text alternative whenever they send a HTML email.

But we need to be realists. Every popular email client supports HTML email and most use that format out of the box. Out of the box means it's the format of choice for anyone outside of the design and early adopter community and there's no indication that's changing any time soon. No amount of angry comments on Slashdot singing the praises of Pine are going to suddenly force email client developers to drop HTML support. It's just not going to happen.

So, it's not going anywhere and it's broken. If we can all get past this point together, it's obvious that the best path forward is to work with desktop and web-based email client manufacturers to improve how HTML emails are rendered, not argue amongst ourselves about personal preference.

What's wrong with the current picture?

Today there are at least 10 popular email clients out there, each offering different levels of standards support ranging from perfect to virtually non-existent. I often hear comparisons between the current state of standards in email and the web circa 2000. While there certainly are some similarities, there are also some big differences.

The web standards movement faced not only poor browser support, but also an uneducated design community. They had browser makers and designers to convince. Today we're lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of these giants in a world where web standards have well and truly been embraced by browser developers and the design community alike. People want to build HTML emails using the same approach they build for the web.

Another big differentiator is the fact that there were 2 or 3 browsers to consider back then and we knew exactly which web browsers were popular, making it much easier to know where to focus our energies. There is almost no data like this for the email world. Are more of my subscribers using Thunderbird or Apple Mail? It's almost impossible to know. So, we've got 3 to 4 times more variations to cater for and we don't even know which ones we should be targeting.

Because of this huge variation in standards support, email designers have been forced into a corner. There have certainly been valid attempts at encouraging the use of web standards in email, of which I'm proud to say we've played a part. The W3C has even jumped on board in realizing something needs to be done here. With the recent and unfortunate news from Microsoft however, it's been getting harder and harder to justify this approach.

What we're now left with is building for the common denominator. This means bandwidth hogging, image heavy emails with nested tables and font tags. Yes, I said font tags. I see hundreds of these designs being sent every day purely because it's the only way to achieve consistent rendering across the board. Type in the URL of those creating these designs however and you'll often find a beautifully coded standards compliant site. Email design truly is stuck in the dark ages.

Revisiting the benefits of web standards

Many of you are already well aware of the positives web standards offer, but I'll focus on those I think are particularly relevant to email.

  1. It removes the guess work from email design - This is an instant win for designers and everyday email users alike. If all email client developers aimed for something close to web standards, you can design an email knowing it will work for all your subscribers. Stop and think for a second how awesome that would be. Your subscribers will win by no longer receiving garbled, hard to read newsletters because their email client doesn't support standards.
  2. Faster loading and reduced bandwidth consumption - Well coded, standards compliant markup that separates content from presentation is generally much more compact than nested table and spacer-image based markup. Further to this, many designers have given up on rendering issues altogether and send purely image-based emails. This adds significantly to the file size and results in a poor experience for their subscribers because of image blocking.
  3. Make your email accessible to all - Using standards does not automatically mean your email will be readable to people with disabilities, but it's certainly a great start. By separating content from presentation you're making it much easier for everyone to access your email.

Further to these intrinsic benefits of web standards, there's another significant win that would follow. Using tables for layout is a dying art in the web design community. Many designers who started web design in the last few years have never even coded a table based layout, which is a good thing. The current email environment means a designer not familiar with the table based approach will need to learn a completely different way of creating a page if they want to send HTML emails.

We're fast approaching a fork in the road where email design will become a niche, expensive service that fewer designers can provide. Sure, a few designers win by being able to charge more for their work, but everyone else loses.

Where to from here?

This much is clear - arguing about HTML vs plain text or complaining about standards support in email isn't going to get us anywhere. It's time to get off our butts and actually help email client manufacturers to introduce better standards support.

I also think it's important to realize that these manufacturers don't have a problem with web standards. Supporting standards might not always be the easiest option, in fact for web-based providers I'm sure it's quite the opposite. It's our job to demonstrate why they are important and then make them as easy as possible to embrace.

We've been hard at work on this for the last few weeks, focusing on the following areas:

  1. Establishing a baseline of what standards we need supported in email - We certainly don't expect perfect standards support across the board initially, but there are a number of key properties that we can encourage manufacturers to support sooner rather than later.
  2. Document the important changes each of the major email client manufacturers need to make in order to support web and related standards - Once we've established the baseline, we can put together a basic wish list of the changes each manufacturer will need to make to meet this target and then work with them in any capacity possible to help make this happen.
  3. Create a simple acid test that makes it easy to see if an email client supports this baseline - Much like WaSP's Acid2 test, we should make it easy to see if these important standards are being supported by creating a simple test page that can be viewed in that email client to confirm at a glance if the baseline is being met.

We plan on bringing this all together in a dedicated site launching soon. Obviously the more of us that can get behind this the easier the job will be. Even the king of web standards, Jeffrey Zeldman agrees (emphasis his):

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.

We'll be posting more about this initiative soon, including how you can help make a difference. Jeffrey's right, it's not his job - this one's up to us.


Update: You can start helping right now. Check out the initial list of baseline standards that should be supported and add your own thoughts.

Posted by David Greiner

36 Comments

  • Heather
    8th November

    I applaud your efforts and cannot tell you how excited I am that someone has picked up the torch. It’s bewildering, if not down right infuriating, that email has lagged behind the times for so long.

    The Email Experience Council (http://www.emailexperience.org/), a fairly recently formed group of email marketing professionals, has had great success in their efforts to standardize the marketing and design aspects of email. While your efforts are more technical in nature, we all know how inextricably tied the various facets of any interactive project are and, to that end, I’m sure they would be very interested in helping you further your cause. I would SERIOUSLY consider contacting them – Jeanniey Mullen specifically (jeanniey at emailexperience dot org).

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, again for taking this on!

  • iamitcorp
    8th November

    I hate to think I’m in the dark ages when it comes to email design (being only 34 year old) but apparently so after reading some of these postings! With a background as a self taught graphic artist turned online marketer, not a web developer, HTML email opened the door to do something more creative with the medium of email other than just text. I got into this around 2002 (I think), working with the only tools I trusted for doing print and web page design (Adobe & Macromedia). As a reseller of these technologies, I remember when CSS and absolute positioning were first introduced but my experience with both proved unstable. So I just stuck with the lowest common denominators (basic HTML, tables, and images) which has seemed to work and has been reinforced over the years by documentation provided by almost every ESP I’ve worked with. Apparently either I’m missing something or these new techniques have yet to win me over. I appreciate Mathew characterizing this as a dieing art because that’s really is how I feel about it. I’ll admit, I’m intimidated by new web technologies that seem to only benefit programmers and as a result increase the learning curve for marketers or designers to participate. All the jargon thrown around like, “well coded, clean sheet html, standards compliant markup, pure CSS positioning” ect. For me, it just adds to the confusion of how to simply and efficiently design and deliver successful email campaigns for my clients.

  • Anna
    28th November

    Seems like standards were a good idea way back in ye olde early sendmail times, and then HTML email came out, then voila, nefarious people did bad things with it. But supporting a smaller framework HTML with no exterior JS link support or iFrames, but standardized object model… it seems just to clear, simple, and practical, dare I say obvious, to NOT be done. Thanks for starting the ball rolling- and I’ll definitely blog about it Wednesday (australia time)!

  • Douglas Karr
    30th November

    I would propose a 4th area, alternative support via a browser.  Currently, most ESP’s provide an online HTML version of the email.  If there were support for an internal tag, ie. , software application providers could simply alert the user:

    “This email has functionality or features not supported by [ie. Outlook]. If you would like to view the online version of the email, please click here to open the message in your default browser”.

  • Alex
    4th December

    Thx for the article. I totally agree with the html-standards for e-mail.
    We need to have these e-mail standards, like currently standards for websites.

  • See Message
    27th December

    This page is not Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict!
    Result:  Failed validation, 31 Errors

  • Bill
    16th February

    With web and email standards in constant motion, Flash moving more towards object-oriented programming, I think it’s time to interview for that catamaran second mate job in the Virgin Islands. ; )

  • med08
    2nd April

    pine? nice straw man, very easy to knock down. the standard client these days is mutt

  • parkiety
    15th April

    I standards also use and command this to all there is the future

  • Ashley
    15th April

    Thought provoking stuff.
    The market should set the standard in the long run.
    Standards can also lead to monopolisation, Good or bad?
    Blue Dot Internet Advertising

  • ÅŸirketrehber
    18th April

    Your signup form for the new site is not working. Safari 2.0.4, MBP Core Duo 2ghz.

  • Tom
    21st April

    Thanks for the words of support Damien, that’s much appreciated. I can see that the issue has slowly worn you down too. I also think that moving forward it’s important not to point fingers in any specific direction for the current standards mess.

  • Jonathan D
    30th April

    I like the idea of a HTML e-mail web standards movement, but I can’t help but think we’re doing their job for them. They are supposed to be elite developers and we have to spoon-feed them this?

    BTW I am one of those developers that use tags, but its on account of Gmail, which I would consider the second-worst common renderer (though not nearly as bad as Outlook 2k7.

    It’s just a mess.

  • Alan Cyment
    1st May

    I reckon non-standard HTML rendering lurks also in other places, such as Pronto devices, OLPC machines, cellphones, add-hoc kiosks…you name it!

  • Rules
    13th May

    I completely agree! I think this is a fantastic idea. The Web Standards Project need to set up an email task force ASAP, if they haven’t already done so.

  • guzel sozler
    31st May

    Without even questioning, we’d be on board in any way we can help Dave. As always, loving your work mate.

  • teoman
    31st May

    It’s worse than you know: Outlook 2007 changed to Word for HTML layout and we all know what a superb job that does with/to HTML.

  • durma dans et
    31st May

    pine? nice straw man, very easy to knock down. the standard client these days is mutt

    but no worries, i don’t particularly want to read any email that is part of a ‘campaign’.

  • var misin yok musun
    31st May

    Well done on hopefully the being of the end to the current HTML email debacle.

  • elektronik imza
    31st May

    Thanks for this article.

    I’ve struggled with design for email and have concluded that using CSS for structure is nearly impossible with HTML email design.

  • Antalya
    31st May

    I posted not to pour cold water on you guys, like the angry Pine user above, but just to make the point that there may be other considerations in that move and those considerations may have their own weight.

  • Vergi
    31st May

    I applaud your efforts and cannot tell you how excited I am that someone has picked up the torch. It’s bewildering, if not down right infuriating, that email has lagged behind the times for so long.

  • Domki pod sosnami
    10th June

    I completely agree!

  • hip london
    16th July

    I thought you’d enjoy this. I think this is a fantastic idea.
    Thanks for this article.

  • Sukienki
    23rd July

    The Great Work!
    A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.

  • konto bankowe
    30th July

    Thank you. Where do I sign up?

  • OFE Fundusz Emerytalny
    15th August

    Greate Thing.

    Awsome that there is a chanse for making standards all arrond the world. I have had same problems making mail bussiness offers using HTML. So, after few tests I started sending plain text only.
    I hope You make it work. HTML mails looks much better then plain ones;)

    ps. sorry for my english - still learning :)

  • jarek
    15th August

    Best article, thanks

  • żabiczyn
    15th August

    Thanks for very interesting article.

  • best poker bonus
    16th August

    I set up a number of css layout email newsletters for healthcare agencies but I never had a way to test them. The content of the newsletters were separated from the presentation but I had no way of testing whether or not it really helped.

  • bet365
    16th August

    It really is an issue of many versions of different OS, email client applications, and different screen reader application implementations. The many permutations and combinations may (and probably do) introduce variable results, bugs, and performance use issues.

  • Sklep Calivita
    24th August

    I think that the positive Internet standards are very important for e-mails.
    It is important that your e-mail address is legible for people with disabilities.
    In the majority of people with disabilities very low assess the level of adaptation of software.
    All the more so that the whole world against people with disabilities continue to build a lot of obstacles, and the question of improving conditions is typically far on the list of priorities.

  • Pod Sosnami
    29th August

    Very interesting article - thanks. I really enjoyed reading all of your articles. Keep up the good work.

  • twojarandka
    26th November

    I standards also use and command this to all there is the future

  • clearance london
    10th December

    Thanks for this article. You’re touching sensitive point….

    It’s worse than you know: Outlook 2007 changed to Word for HTML layout and we all know what a superb job that does with/to HTML… and that’s how it should works with all email clients.

  • Gwara
    13th December

    Recently established website: <a >nasza gwara.</a>
    Dialect page is devoted to the Polish people, you can find a friend from the past, who left in search of better jobs. I invite all.

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