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.

Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson - 14 Comments

Email newsletters are key resources for small and medium businesses

If you or your clients are targeting small to medium businesses, a recent survey entitled "Optimizing Email Newsletters for Small/Medium Businesses" has some useful information for you.

According to the study of over 300 executives, email newsletters rank highly as sources of information, beating out websites and blogs, and matching print media for importance. A weekly or monthly newsletter was the preferred frequency, and 'how to' and product information the top content areas requested.

This is some more valuable information you can use to explain the benefits of email marketing to your clients. Although the study specifically focused on small to medium (less than 500 person) businesses, it would be safe to extrapolate that out to most businesses and consumers.

We'd be interested to know how often you or your clients send your newsletter - have you had the best results with monthly news, or weekly? Or something completely different?

Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson

Selling the business case for email to your clients

A while back we wrote about 5 ideas you can use when pitching your email marketing services to your clients. These covered ideas like showing them how easy it is to measure the results and how targeted it can be. All very useful stuff, but probably not enough focus on the most important thing in your customers minds. How will it help me grow my business?

Today, one of my favourite email marketing blogs pointed me to this great article by Loren McDonald on this exact topic. While the article is penned from the perspective of selling the benefits of email marketing internally, it's just as useful when read from the perspective of designers and marketers pitching email to their clients.

Instead of focusing your next pitch on the pretty reporting interface you can offer, or how you handle unsubscribes automatically, take it from an ROI angle. Drive home how you plan to use email to drive more sales, increase conversions or achieve some other tangible benefit. Something tells me you'll be improving your own conversion rate in the process.

Read this post Posted by David Greiner

“My clients have been clamoring for a product like Campaign Monitor”

I couldn't be happier with your product. I run my own design and communications company in Boston and my clients have been clamoring for a product like Campaign Monitor. Your pricing model is spot on and a huge improvement over your competitors, plus your interface is top notch.

Keep up the *great* work.

Karl Stier, Watershed Media

Read this post Posted by David Greiner

Windows Live Mail drops a little more CSS support

As part of a check up on our updated guide to CSS support we released around 6 weeks ago, I've just done a quick re-test in some of the major web-based email clients to make sure the results are still spot on.

Well, my first test in and I spotted some discrepancies. Turns out Windows Live Mail's recently noted decline continues with the e:link, e:active and e:hover CSS selectors no longer being supported. These changes make it much harder to style any links in your email, and because they can only be declared through the selector, can't be solved by going the inline CSS route.

We've updated the original article to reflect these changes, as well as the PDF summary, which you can re-download below:

PDF iconDownload the updated 2007 results for all email environments (52kb)

We'll keep checking each environment on a regular basis to stay on top of any minor changes, and if you guys ever spot anything amiss, don't hesitate to let us know.

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 7 Comments

Great new gallery entries

Inside Packaging Stags' Leap Magento

We're showcasing a diversity of subjects with our recent gallery entries - commercial packaging, a winery and open source software - but they're all great email designs.

Don't forget to subscribe to the gallery's own RSS feed to be notified when we add new entries.

Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson

Default image blocking continues to gather momentum

For the most current results on image blocking in email clients, view our updated post.

Screenshot of the new AOL.com mail interfaceAOL recently updated their web-based software for all AOL.com and AIM.com email accounts. We've had a quick look around and even done some preliminary CSS testing. The good news is that CSS support is top notch, as in as good as Yahoo!, which was great to see. The not-so-good news was that images are now blocked by default for all unknown senders.

In the scheme of things, this isn't really that big a deal. Image blocking is the norm in most modern email clients and we've been promoting the idea of designing for images being turned off for the last couple of years.

So why are we even bothering announcing this? Because some people need to hear things 10 times before they sink in. We still see the occasional customer sending largely image based designs for their clients. We point them to our makeovers and reports, but some still don't seem to get the point.

Consider this another tap on the shoulder about image blocking.

On top of getting your design right, make sure you check out our other tips for minimizing the negatives of image blocking, such as becoming a "safe sender".

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 5 Comments
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