Zeldman says ‘HTML mail still sucks’

We're big Zeldman fans here at Campaign Monitor. His web standards work has been an important influence in our thinking as web designers and web application builders. So we were disappointed to read his recent post, E-mail is not a platform for design.

The core of Jeffrey's argument is this:

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

Essentially Jeffrey seems to be making the mistake of equating the work of bad designers with the communication medium of email. Obviously we are going to be biased, but we've heard from enough of you guys, and your clients, to know that HTML email can be a great thing when done correctly. 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.

The Threadless weekly newsletterAs an example, check out the HTML email sent weekly by Threadless on the right. It's a smart, simple layout that works in every email client out there. Instead of forcing their subscribers to click on a link to check out each new shirt via plain text, they can preview each design right in their email client. Not only is this a better user experience, but it's also the reason more than half of their recipients click through to their web site each week. You see a design you like, you click it to find out more and make a purchase.

Obviously there is a lot of really over the top, poorly designed HTML emails being sent, but I suspect that the percentage of really badly designed websites would be pretty close to it.

Should we say that all websites impede communication, because most people don’t design well? Consider transactional emails, things like hotel bookings and purchase receipts. Every single instance should have a plain text alternative of course, but being able to give the key information like booking dates or serial numbers a bit of visual weight is exactly what designers should be doing - making the experience better for the person on the end.

Zeldman goes on to explain:

Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way. You cluck your tongue, or sigh, or run de-formatting scripts on every message you receive from him. When your uncle is the "designer," you "get" why styled mail sucks. It sucks just as much when you design it, even if it looks better than your uncle's work in the two e-mail programs that support it correctly.

I'm assuming that he is exaggerating for effect here, because his earlier link to our CSS support in email in 2007 article clearly shows that it is possible to design emails that work well for almost everybody. For even simpler proof, checkout our gallery of email designs, many of which work in every major email client, desktop and web.

Instead of trashing the concept of HTML email based on bad designers and personal preference, it would be much more constructive to continue the fantastic work on web standards in browsers and extend it to the email clients. In fact, the W3C has recently held a workshop on HTML email to investigate the issues and possibilities. We should be thinking about what is best for our readers, and not ourselves. Some people don't want to receive HTML email, and of course they should not be forced to. Many people prefer HTML for some uses; who are we to tell them they should not want it?

Spam is bad. Shoddy design is bad, and no arguments from us. Saying all HTML email sucks based on particular usages and personal preference is also bad. We should all have learnt by now that we as web designers are not in charge of what technology is going to be used for, it’s the people at the end of the chain who get to decide that.

5 steps to better HTML emails

  • Always send a plain text alternative. Choose "HTML and plain text" as your campaign format.
  • Design differently for email. Good design understands the context it will be seen in. Don't just paste in your 3 column homepage
  • Test in different email clients. Make sure your message can be read by everyone
  • More copy, less images. You can't rely on images being seen in emails.
  • Listen to your readers. Don't base your decisions on what Zeldman tells you, or what we tell you. Listen to your customers, they will tell you what they like and don't like.

Email is not a 'platform for design'. Email is a communication tool, and sometimes HTML can communicate better than plain text.

[UPDATE] Jeffrey Zeldman has responded to our concerns with a well thought out and much more moderate post, Eight points for better e-mail relationships. It's definitely worth reading.

Posted by Mathew Patterson

14 Comments

  • Hanan Cohen
    12th June

    Funny. When I saw Zeldmans’ post I thought of adding a link to this very blog in the comments. Somehow I didn’t.

  • riki
    12th June

    Simply put, he’s wrong.

  • Mads Frederiksen
    12th June

    I couldn’t agree more with you Mathew. In March 2007 I travelled from Copenhagen, Denmark to Boston, USA for the ‘An Event Apart’ featuring Mr. Zeldman and he inspired and talked wisely about the WWW. I wish he would stick to what he actually knows about instead of trying to write the new “Designing with e-mail standards” paperback. It’s okay to get involved in the religious e-mail marketing debate, if you can actually base your knowledge on personal experience! My point: I’ve have NO problem getting creative, good looking e-mails through to the users, across general webmail clients, Lotus Notes, Outlook 2003-2007, Entourage and more.

     

    /Mads aka playgrounds.dk

  • Dave Child
    13th June

    I used to agree with Zeldman. And personally I still prefer text email, personally. But HTML email does have its uses to me, professionally.

    What really annoys me is when designers fail to provide the text alternative to HTML email. Send HTML email if you want, by all means, but the real mistake is to not send the plain text alternative.

    HTML email is sometimes misused, and sometimes great for both sender and recipient, but as long as it is sent with a plain text alternative you give the recipient the choice of what to see.

  • Damien Buckley
    13th June

    I’ve long been a good fan of JZ too and was hugely disappointed to see such a short sighted commentary on his site.  I put my two cents in to get flamed like a burger at Hungry Jacks but there you go.  It seems surprising to me that such a proponent of web standards would go this route and I suspect you’re right in that he’s overtly courted controversy.

    His opinions along with a great many of those who blindly followed him in the comments (including Eric Meyer - shame, shame, shame) sounded decidedly like a lot of those we heard in the bad old days of web design - the very bad old days of web design which JZ wrote strongly to dispel into history in his books - of which I’ve read both editions.

    The reality is that email is every bit the design medium that websites are and the challenges we face today with the massive variations in email client rendering and behaviour are much the same as those with web design in the 80’s and 90’s.  Shouldnt the annointed leader of the web standards movement be stepping up for the new cause?

  • Danny Foo
    13th June

    I think both are right to an extent.

    After all, the web standard guidelines were made for a reason. And web doesn’t mean it should only cover websites. Email is a medium made to be translated through the web. Then the email itself is broken into different presentations; design and plain-text. Almost like how web standards states the importance of differentiation presentation and structure for websites.

    So I say, HTML emails are just an alternative for a richer experience.

  • zeldman
    13th June

    I agree with your contention. As a consequence of your comment on my site and your thoughtful post here, I’ve reconsidered the issue, fine-tuned my thinking, and proposed eight points that I believe you will agree with, and that might help designers, marketers, and users on both sides of the issue. Thanks for your leadership and your reasonable and helpful discourse.

  • Mathew Patterson
    13th June

    Thankyou Jeffrey for your considered and useful response, and we’d certainly encourage all our customers to read and follow your guidelines for a better email experience all round.

    Now to find that next generation of standards warriors!

  • Robert Moir
    13th June

    Can’t argue with any of this.
    I really, personally am NOT a fan of HTML email. I have all the options set to force my mail clients to render into plain text, etc, and I often ‘just hit delete’ when sent an HTML email.

    But I’m not the world. What matters is choice. Offer people a choice, and design to a standard that will work well (or at least degrade gracefully) is a pretty good compromise.

    As an aisde, I’m a threadless customer and their newsletter is one of the very few mails where I’ll actually let it render as HTML; their newsletter is an example of adding value rather than imposing someone’s “brand” on my mailbox.

  • G. Jason Head
    13th June

    Fantastic post, Mathew.

    I read Jeffery’s post a few days ago and have been fighting to add to his comments.  I disagree with what he is saying about html email’s.  I was also a bit surprised to see his comments be so negative.  In my opinion, his complaints about HTML emails are the same complaints about html from years past that *led* to the development of web standards. 

    I understand that there are a good amount of folks that don’t like html emails, and that’s fine.  But they have the options of only viewing txt emails or subscribing for only text emails.

  • Darren Nicholls
    13th June

    I’m a big fan of Zeldman, his work, and what he has to say. However, I would have to disagree with him here; I think it’s fare to say that we’ve all seen the success of our HTML newsletters, be in from getting users back to sites or placing orders.

    Again from my own experience I’ve never had any complaints, my customers get very few or no un-subscribers from the HTML newsletters we’ve delivered, maybe that’s because I go for a minimalistic approach? Or maybe because its also because we’ve tried hard to follow obvious ‘rules’ and the many helpful pointers you guys have kindly provided us with.

  • Salvatore
    13th June

    In a utopian world, email clients would support web standards 100%. But with browsers not even supporting standards 100% (bugs, glitches, etc.), it’s a moot point. I agree that Email is not a platform for design, but neither was HTML or the web browser. Yet here we are.

    HTML emails are standard marketing tools, as are text emails. The bottom line is communication and generating revenue.

    I gave up holding the web standards banner, seeing that browser makers don’t really care about it (except for Mozilla and Apple, perhaps?) As long as the XHTML is clean and doesn’t break, and the design conveys the client’s message, then the job is done.

  • Norm Ford
    18th December

    I’m intrigued by all these comments/claims.
    I’ve never had any clients/suspects/prospects ask for the emails that I send them to be in HTML?
    Why would these people ask for answer to be written in HTML?
    I can’t cut code and I don’t see the advantage (sales/revenue) from doing so.
    I’m a photographer and real estate sales. Plus I don’t have the time to learn to design & implement HTML emails.
    Will this new skill earn me extra $$?
    Doubt it.
    I’m flat out trying to learn the best way to Keyword my images & actually doing it.
    I really think that fancy HTML emails are a source of self gratification - showing off “look what I can do” BUT WILL IT EARN ME MORE $$??
    I’m in business to sell photos/prints etc..
    I’m flat out trying to come to grips with blogging & the implementation of doing same PLUS creating a decent newsletter.

    Cheers - Norm Ford

  • poker rules
    26th August

    I disagree with what he is saying about html email’s. I was also a bit surprised to see his comments be so negative. In my opinion, his complaints about HTML emails are the same complaints about html from years past that *led* to the development of web standards.

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