The email design gallery grows up

Every few days for the last 2 years we've been showcasing the amazing email designs you guys have been producing and sending through Campaign Monitor.

This gallery has now grown to well over 100 entries and was really starting to outgrow the current blog format. Because of this, we've been hard at work on a brand new email design gallery that's much easier to browse and really does justice to the quality of work you guys are pumping out.

We've gone back and tagged every design we've featured to date making it much easier to find just the designs you're looking for. Want to just see 1 column email designs? How about all the newsletter style emails we've featured? No problem. On top of this, we've now got a dedicated RSS feed so you can get an update every time we feature a new design.

We'll be rolling out a few more features in the coming days that will let you browse the gallery by popularity. To top it off, we've got a backlog of some awesome new designs that we'll be featuring over the next few days and weeks. Enjoy.

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 2 Comments

Microsoft takes email design back 5 years

As I type this post I still can't believe it. I'm literally stunned. If you haven't already heard, I'm talking about the recent news that Outlook 2007, released next month, will stop using Internet Explorer to render HTML emails and instead use the crippled Microsoft Word rendering engine.

Now c'mon, how bad can this be?

First things first, you need to realize that Outlook enjoys a 75-80% share of the corporate email market, which is similar to Internet Explorer's share of the browser market - they make the rules. We've been doing some early testing, as have a few other brave souls, and come February, here's just a taste of what won't be supported:

  1. No background images - Background images in divs and table cells are gone, meaning Mark's image replacement technique is out the window.
  2. Poor background color support - Give a div or table cell a background color, add some text to it and the background color displays fine. Nest another table or div inside though and the background color vanishes.
  3. No support for float or position - Completely breaking any CSS based layouts right from the word go. Tables only.
  4. Shocking box model support - Very poor support for padding and margin, and you thought IE5 was bad!

Microsoft have released a full run down of what is and isn't supported, including a downloadable validator that helps you validate your HTML for their engine. Word of warning though, it only works with Microsoft software and Dreamweaver.

To give you a quick example of just how far backwards we've gone, here's a screenshot of the Campaign Monitor newsletter (which uses CSS for layout) in Outlook 2000 and 2007. Yes folks, that's seven long years difference.

The Campaign Monitor newsletter in Outlook 2000

Outlook 2000

The Campaign Monitor newsletter in Outlook 2007

Outlook 2007

This really is a game changer. Previously you could send a HTML email in the comfort that the majority of your recipients would have very good CSS support. Other email clients were also catching up. Thunderbird uses the Firefox rendering engine, the new Yahoo! Mail beta has great CSS support. Things were looking good for us CSS based email designers.

Unfortunately, that all goes down the toilet now. If your email breaks in Notes or Eudora, it was often an acceptable casualty, but if it breaks in Outlook, you're more than likely ostracizing too many recipients to justify your design approach. This certainly doesn't spell the end for HTML email, it just takes us back 5 years where tables and nasty inline CSS was the norm.

Imagine for a second that the new version of IE7 killed off the majority of CSS support and only allowed table based layouts. The web design world would be up in arms! Well, that's exactly what the new version of Outlook does to email designers.

What's the reasoning behind this?

After picking up the contents of my desk off the floor and taking a few deep breaths, I tried to come up with a few decent reasons why Microsoft would go in this direction. Here's what I came up with.

  1. Security - But wait! Microsoft have touted Internet Explorer as "a major step forward in security". Surely they'd just replace the IE6 rendering engine with IE7 and be done with it. I'd also love to know how float and position impacts the security of an email in any way.
  2. Consistent rendering - By default Outlook uses the Word engine to create HTML emails, which it's done for years now. Perhaps Microsoft figured that in order to keep the look and feel of emails consistent between Outlook users they'd display emails using the same engine that created them. But what about the millions of other email newsletters out there that aren't created with Outlook or Word? If an email is created with Outlook, then surely it should display perfectly in a modern browser like IE7.
  3. They hate us - OK, this one might be pushing it, but I'm running out of explanations here. Don't get me wrong, we're not Microsoft bashers here. Both our products are developed on Microsoft's .NET platform and we've been a fan of their development environment for the better part of a decade. But seriously, they've taken 5 important years off the email design community in one fell swoop.

At least they've still got Hotmail, right?

Well, no. We've been doing plenty of testing with the new version of Hotmail (Windows Live Mail) for an upcoming article and it turns out that like Outlook 2007, Live Mail is actually a step backwards for us email designers. At least Hotmail ignored all CSS (except for inline CSS) and you could force it to roll back to a nicely formatted rich text email.

Instead, Windows Live Mail displays some CSS but, you guessed it, limited support for floats and no positioning. It's looking like table based layouts all round at Microsoft for the next few years at least.

Where to from here?

We've been spending the better part of the last 2 years encouraging designers to embrace accessible and standards compliant email design, but frustratingly that position may no longer hold much weight. Just yesterday, Jonathan Nicol said:

None of these limitations is going to make the task of designing HTML emails impossible, but they will ensure that no advances are made in this field for a good number of years. Remember, it's been four years since the last version of Outlook was released, so I‚'m going to guess it'll be at least six years before Outlook 2007 drops off the edge of the map.

Sadly, I couldn't agree more. While this is certainly a big blow, the reality is that many of us are going to have to scale back our email templates to years past and stick with tables and inline CSS if we want consistent looking emails in Outlook and Windows Live Mail. For a quick example, our sample email templates use a table based layout combined with some simple CSS.

Template changes aside, I don't see why we have to take it lying down. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this news. Perhaps if we get together as a community and explain to Microsoft how damaging this change really is, we can encourage some real change, or at the very least get the discussion started.

What say you, email designers?

Update 1: Welcome Digg users. With the anti-HTML email comments rolling in, I just want to clarify one thing here. This has nothing to do with the text/HTML email debate and won't stop people sending HTML email. All it means is that a lot of HTML emails in Outlook will be garbled and difficult to read. Nothing more, nothing less. Thanks also to those posting constructive comments. It seems this situation might have plenty to do with Microsoft having to separate the browser from the OS for anti-trust reasons.

Update 2: We've just posted a follow up article that explains Microsoft's reasoning behind this change and exactly what we can do about it if we want it changed.

Update 3: The time for complaining about this change or debating HTML vs plain text has passed. Read why we need to look forward and start doing our own part to improve standards support in HTML email.

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 515 Comments

SiteVista launches a cool email testing service

SiteVista's new email testing serviceIf you read Mark Wyner’s recent email testing opus you may have despaired at how time consuming and complex it all seemed. Even though you know it is sensible and necessary, it seems like a lot of work.

Fortunately for all of us without Mark’s commitment to excellence, SiteVista have today released the first version of their email testing service. SiteVista’s web page testing service has had great reviews, and this new service looks set to match it.

So what is an email testing service anyway?

Screen showing results from 6 email clientsBasically, it’s a quick, simple and efficient way to find out how your carefully crafted html email is going to be variously displayed or mangled by different email clients. You put your email in, and you get back a bunch of screenshots, just like a web page testing service.

Right now you get screenshots from:

  • Outlook 2000 / XP / 2003 / 2007
  • Outlook Express
  • Hotmail
  • Gmail

Apparently more will be added soon, including Apple Mail, AOL, Yahoo! Mail, Entourage and Eudora. For each client you get one screenshot of your email in the inbox / preview pane, and one of the email as it appears when opened. So within minutes you can find out how hotmail users will see your email, whether your header fits into the Outlook preview pane and what kind of ads Google is likely to run next to it!

If you’ve ever had subscribers emailing you saying they couldn’t see that photo, or your text was unreadable, you know why this is a vital service.

How does it work?

SiteVista have made this incredibly simple. The signup process is quick and painless, and literally within one minute I was testing my first email. To start a new test, you are given a specific email address to send your email to.

Starting to use the email testing service

You fire off your html email to that address, let SiteVista know, and you are immediately taken to the results page.

Over the next few moments (from seconds to a minute or two) all the spots in the grid are filled as the screenshots appear. You can click on each one for a full size view, and it is worth noting that you can see the full email, not just a screenful. SiteVista rather grandly call this ‘FullPage technology’.

Access your previous tests at any timeAny problems are easy to spot, and you can then go away and make whatever corrections are needed before running another test. Your account contains a record of all your previous tests, so you can go back and check your results at any time. It’s all fantastically straightforward and logical.

How much does it cost?

If you are a freelancer, you can have up to 50 tests a month for USD$49, which is great value. Even better, if you sign up by this Friday the 12th, you can lock in your account at USD$39/month for the life of your account.

Businesses can have unlimited access for up to 10 people for USD$149/month. For the full details, including annual rates at a discount, check out the pricing page.

So you like it then?

Yes, we all think it is a great service. There’s a couple of questions I’d like to see the SiteVista site cover, like what screen sizes and resolutions the email clients are at. I also would like to know if the email clients have been left with their default settings or not.

Other than that, SiteVista’s email testing service looks like a really useful tool that can save you a lot of wasted time and money testing and sending emails. If you want to make sure you are giving your email campaigns the best chance of success, you need to test them. SiteVista have given us a simple and cost effective way to do that.

What do you think? Do you do any cross-client testing for your emails now? Would you give SiteVista’s service a try?

Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson - 16 Comments

Gallery: Fresh Updates

See the complete email designBalancing creativity and informality with readability, this entry is from Dave Glass of Fresh. We really enjoy the friendly feel created by the hand drawn elements and photography. At the same time, the structure holds together with consistent alignment and it remains easy to scan and read. Although the headings could easily be in text instead of images, the email has an inviting feel that leaves you with a positive impression. It's only Issue one for Fresh - keep up the good work Dave! Designer:  Dave Glass  |  See the complete design
Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson - 1 Comment

New legal requirement for UK based customers

A quick one for all our UK based customers. A recent Companies Act amendments now requires additional content to be included in every email you send. As of the 1st January this year, each email sent by a company must now include:
  1. Your registered address (not just a valid company address)
  2. Your company registration number
  3. Your place of registration
On top of appearing in all emails, this content must also be included on your web site. From what we've read, this doesn't mean every page on your site, but just your about or legal page for example. You can find out a little more about this over at The Register.
Read this post Posted by David Greiner

New approach to campaign approvals

Screenshot of new approvals systemAs many of you guys know, we have a one-off manual approval process for all Campaign Monitor accounts where a member of our team reviews your campaigns, subscriber lists and permission practices before you can send any decent sized campaigns from your account. This process is one of a number of safeguards we take to ensure our software is never abused by the bad guys, and all you good guys out there are sticking to best practice.

The only drawback from our current approach was that it caused delivery delays for some customers at the worst possible times (as in, right after you’ve told your client you’re about to send their campaign). We’ve always shared your frustration about this inconvenience and have recently made some simple changes to our approvals process in an attempt to minimize these delays as much as possible.

Instead of having to wait for a member of our team to get in touch with the questions they might have, we now allow any new customers to get the ball rolling first by answering a few simple questions earlier in the process.

On many occasions, these answers combined with a review of your site, campaign content and subscriber list is enough for a member of our team to give your account the green light. This change effectively cuts the approval time in half for most customers. We made this change a week before Christmas and so far it’s been working very well. We’re always looking for ways we can stay out of your way as much as possible, and are really happy to have this one live.

Read this post Posted by David Greiner - 3 Comments

The best Christmas emails of 2006 - winners announced

Back in November we posted about our search for this years best Christmas emails.  We’ve been checking out all the fantastic email campaigns, and we’ve got 60,000 email credits to give away.

This year we again saw the full range of Christmas and holiday emails, from well written plain text messages to high impact graphical productions. Last years encouraging trend of companies donating to charity in lieu of a printed card seems to have grown further, something we would expect to see continue in 2007.

2006 Best Christmas Email Winner

In a crowded field, this years winner is not the flashiest or extravagant entrant. However, for elegance, readability and simplicity we could not ignore Glasshouse Multimedia‘s seasonal message to their clients. Click the preview below for the full email.

Glasshouse Christmas Email

Glasshouse Multimedia, from Cape Town in South Africa, have produced here a model of effective HTML email design. The organic leafy background is a subtle holiday reference, avoiding that Christmas cheesiness. It also has the advantage of being relatively compressible, using only shades of green.

The body copy is all in HTML text, potentially avoiding spam filtering issues and remaining readable with or without images enabled. We particularly like the links to online stores, giving the email an additional practical benefit. Congratulations to the team at Glasshouse Multimedia; we’ve just topped up their account with 30,000 email credits.

Honorable mentions

We couldn’t stop at just one! The following three emails all stood out for us, and the designers behind each have had 10,000 email credits added to their accounts.

Vitamin

Vitamin Christmas Email

When a lot of companies go over the top with festive design, Vitamin chose a subtle, appealing design that highlights their well crafted message.

Primer Inc

Primer Christmas Email

Primer produced a fun email that took us back to our Primary School days, cutting out Christmas decorations with safety scissors. A simple idea that tells a story about the company behind it.

Three Sixty Media

Three Sixty Media Christmas Email

Who says Christmas emails can’t be useful? Three Sixty Media manage to pack some business advice in with their greetings and their news, and all in an attractive, bold design.

Well done to all our winners, and we hope you use your credits for email campaigns just as effective as these ones. Also be sure to check out the winners from our 2005 competition and see how they stack up 12 months later.

What do you all think about this years winners? Have you seen something else that really worked this Christmas?

Read this post Posted by Mathew Patterson - 15 Comments
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