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Regardless of how strong your love of trees or dislike of printers is, every now and then there’s a worthy reason for either for you or your subscribers to print an email. Sadly though, simply hitting ‘print’ in your email client of choice doesn’t usually bring the best results. If your email contains large images, it can also cost you in toner and paper, as well.

So, you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, this is obvious. I use print stylesheets on the web, so why not for email?’. Not so fast, buster. As we go through some of the options available when it comes to building printer-friendly email, you’ll come to realize that printing from your inbox can certainly be a fickle beast.

Why shouldn’t I use print stylesheets?

Print stylesheets and email are simply not great friends. Or at best, they’re the kind of friends who routinely show each other up on dates and never shout a round of drinks.

A few years ago, we did an experiment on whether or not @media screen { ... } works in HTML email. Consequently, we tested <style type="text/css" media="print"> and found that although stylesheet acceptance may differ between email clients, both methods share a similar story. After a series of tests with a print-optimized email design, here’s a sample of our results:

Email client @media print { … } media=”print”
Apple Mail 4 Yes Yes
Outlook Express/2003 Yes Yes
Outlook 2007/2010 No No
Thunderbird Yes Yes
Yahoo! Mail No Yes
Gmail No No
Windows Live Hotmail Yes No

In addition, linking to an external print stylesheet poses its own set of issues. As some email clients tend to strip out <link> tags, Campaign Monitor imports any external stylesheets into the HTML code. This is sound logic, however it often results in styles for the screen being overridden.

So as you can see, things aren’t looking too good for the print stylesheet. What’s worse, in our tests with web email clients in particular, we had our email designs either degrade in the inbox (Yahoo!), or display our print styles instead (I’m looking at you, Hotmail).

The bottom line: Use print stylesheets with extreme caution. And only if you know exactly which email clients your recipients are using.

How about my web version?

A better option is to link to the web version of your email and prompt your subscribers to print from their web browser instead. This ensures greater consistency with your email design, however doesn’t solve the problem of unnecessarily printing large images and running up a toner bill. On the upside, it simply works.

Another option is to link to a PDF version of your email. This also means that you can make design tweaks such as scaling/removing large images and provide a more print-friendly look overall. On the downside, this requires a little more overhead on top of designing your email newsletter and can result in fairly large PDF file sizes (which not everyone may appreciate downloading).

So, what’s an email to do?

As you can see, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to making your email printer-friendly. However, if you or your client is determined to make your email look great in both the inbox and from the printer, here are some pointers to consider:

  • Cut down on the huge images. They can chew up a lot of paper, ink and printing time (as well as making your email slow to load).
  • Anything that’s text, display as text. Images used for headings, quotes etc can look pretty natty once printed.
  • Anticipate a degree of layout-breakage. Keep your layout simple and avoid loads of floated divs, elements that are likely to wrap beneath each other (and look bad in the process) and non-static positioning (eg. position: absolute;). Also think about how your navigation will look – if you have a table of contents, how will this display on paper?
  • Keep your email width at 600px or less. Otherwise there’s a good chance that it will chew through extra pages when printing anything that exceeds the margins of a printed page.
  • Test, test, test. Have a look at the print previews at least across a number of email clients. But you knew that :)

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s not a unique one – HTML simply wasn’t designed to translate beautifully from the screen to print. I highly recommend that you read this excellent resource on print stylesheets, as it not only details the challenges faced by folks designing for the web and the printer, but gives you a feel for how this issue compounds when paired with the well-quirky world of email design.

Finally, it’s over to you. What are your tips for creating printer-friendly campaigns? Let us know in the comments below.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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