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Ensuring Your Emails Look Great and Get Delivered

While a lot of my energy is focused the Email Standards Project and looking to the future of email design, it’s obviously still important to know the best way to approach it for the here and now. If you’re looking for something close to consistency, this means using tables for layout and inline CSS. I’ve just put together an article for Vitamin called “Ensuring your HTML emails look great and get delivered” that looks back at my original recommendations last year, why they don’t make the cut any more and what you need to focus on today. This includes a list of CSS properties that are considered safe across the board, and the best way to use tables for consistent results. On top of my design recommendations, I also dig into advice on getting your emails delivered. This covers a range of topics like how to get permission, reduce spam complaints and monitor your sending reputation. If you’re already a Campaign Monitor customer, you can rest assured that all of the technical recommendations are already covered for you by default. Having said that, the technical side is only a part of your email reputation — the crucial ingredients of permission and relevance are up to you. Check out the article.

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Optimizing Your Subscription Process in 7 Steps

Now that our support for HTML confirmation emails is live, I thought it might be a nice time to revisit some recommendations on the best approach to capturing subscribers via a form on your web site. Here are a few guidelines you should consider to ensure a good experience for your new subscribers and make sure they’re primed to receive your first campaign. 1. Make it easy to subscribe Nobody likes filling in forms. While we make it easy to capture all sorts of information about your subscribers, try not to get carried away. Ask for the bare essentials only. If you do need to capture lots of information, check out these tips on good form design. 2. Ask everywhere Don’t rely on a single page on your site to lure subscribers, such as a Newsletter or Contact page. Try and place a subscribe form on every main page of your site. Again, keep it simple and only ask for the bare essentials. Here are some tips on integrating your list with any current form on your site. Don’t forget to also capture permission offline any chance you get, such as events and at the counter. 3. Set expectations It’s extremely important that you align your customers’ expectations with exactly what you plan on sending them. Make sure your subscribe form clearly explains the type of content they’ll be getting and how often they’ll be getting it. Try and do this on the form itself, and then back it up in the confirmation email. 4. Get added to their safe senders/contacts list When sending a confirmation email we let you specify the from email address you’d like to use. Make sure this address is an exact match to the from address you’ll be using when sending your campaigns. This way you can request to be added to their safe sender or contact list in the confirmation email. Once you’re in that list, you’ll often go through less filtering and your images will be displayed by default. 5. Say thanks and give some gold Don’t forget to say thanks to your subscriber. They’ve just taken a leap of faith handing over some personal details to you, show them you appreciate it. You might also consider linking to key content on your site they might be interested in, such as a past issue or some popular articles that might be related to the reason they subscribed in the first place. 6. Track where they subscribe from Follow this little tip on tracking where your subscriber join from. This allows you to do some A/B testing on different pages to see which subscribe offer/design works best. 7. Don’t forget about forwards Be sure to include a forward to a friend and subscribe link in each campaign you send. If you’re sending useful content, some subscribers will pass it on, so try and make it easy for these recipients to join your list if they’re interested. Finally, don’t forget to keep the tone of your email personal, friendly and avoid lots of email jargon. Lots of these suggestions are easy to implement, but they can make a big difference in that all important first impression.

Blog Post

Getting Better Results from Competition Lists

Campaign Monitor is used by people in all kinds of industries and for all kinds of reasons. Some businesses are more naturally suited to email contact, and some types of email contact are more welcomed than others. One type of list that seems to get a disproportionate amount of spam complaints is competition entry lists. These are the lists where you have entered your email address to win some kind of prize, and at the same time agreed to receive email in the future from the company running the competition. This is completely legitimate, assuming it is made very clear to people signing up that are giving that permission. However, even when it is clear we still see a lot more complaints from campaigns to these kinds of lists. It’s reasonably apparent why that should be the case: There can be a significant time lapse between entering the competition and the first email campaign. A big chunk of entrants only signed up for the competition and never wanted extra email anyway. It’s often easier to hit the spam button than the unsubscribe link. The emails often have no apparent connection the original competition. So it’s not hard to see why some subscribers would have forgotten that they signed up, or not understand why they are on the list at all. Fortunately, these issues are all quite simple to combat with small changes. On the competition entry page, make it obvious what people are signing up to receive. Don’t use vague ‘offers from selected partners’ language if you can avoid it. Send the first non-competition email soon after signup. The longer you wait the less likely people are to remember giving permission. Include a clear permission reminder in each email. It should state specifically that the subscriber signed up by entering the competition (link to the site if it is still available), and also let them get off the list easily. Make the competition list double opt-in, so people have a second chance to understand what they are doing, and take a positive action to give permission. If your clients want to run competitions and send to the entrants, you may need to work with them to avoid getting too many spam complaints on your account. These guidelines will help you, and help them only send to people who actually want to get their messages.

Blog Post

More HTML Email Design Inspiration

There’s a ton of different ways to approach an HTML email design, and we’ve added a few more great examples recently. If you need some inspiration, check them out! See every new entry on the email design gallery’s RSS feed.

Blog Post

Inline CSS for Mac Users

Following on from our recent post on automatically generated inline CSS for email templates, another customer has come forward with a cool OSX widget to achieve the same goal. It’s called TamTam, and it’s very simple to use. You simply paste in your html with CSS rules in the head, hit “Inline” and TamTam updates all your inline classes, tags and ids. Thanks to Gary Levitt from MadMimi for a practical (and funky) designer tool.

Blog Post

Automatically Generate Inline Styles

Update Campaign Monitor now moves styles inline for you automatically – you no longer need to run your HTML email campaigns through an inliner like Premailer prior to send. That’s good news! Creating HTML emails that render well across multiple email clients is complicated by programs like Gmail that strip out CSS styles from the head, and only support inline styles (like <p style=’font-weight:bold;’>A bold paragraph<p>). Our base templates don’t use inline styles because that makes them too inconvenient to easily modify – much simpler to change the design first then apply inline styles at the end. Campaign Monitor customer Alex Dunae has done us all a big favor by writing a sweet Ruby script that accepts a URL, and automatically generates and applies inline styles from the CSS in the head of that page. The script is called premailer and is available for use right now. It won’t always work (with complex CSS cascades), but for most cases it saves you a ton of time. So now you can just build the page in your normal way, then have all the inline style drudgery done for you automatically. As an additional benefit, premailer also checks your CSS against our own guide to CSS support and warns you of possible issues. It’s a great piece of work, and well worth a look. Alex is even planning to release the source code soon.  

Blog Post

New Zealand’s New Anti-Spam Legislation

On September 5th, New Zealand’s Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007 comes into effect. For Campaign Monitor customers, this should have little impact, because it is essentially just requiring that New Zealand businesses have direct permission to email people, and always provide an unsubscribe link. Our permission policies already extend beyond that, so you won’t need to do things differently, even if you are from New Zealand. However, it is another piece of ammunition for you to use when discussing permission with your clients, to show the growing international agreement on the importance of respecting peoples email addresses and right to control what arrives in it. Mark Brownlow has a good collection of anti-spam laws around the world, helpful if you need to check for a specific countries legislation. Don’t forget though that just complying with the relevant laws is not enough anymore. You have to ensure your emails are relevant too, or risk being blocked and filtered in the same way spam is.

Blog Post

Capturing Unsubscribes in Your Own System

We’ve posted about this quite a while back but it remains one of the most common questions we get. How can I get the address of people who just unsubscribed, so I can keep my database up to date? Since we first answered, we’ve added a full API which has a method for getting a list of people who have unsubscribed since a specified date. If you have some development skill available, that’s a great way to keep things in sync. However, you don’t have to use the API – a simple way of getting hold of those unsubscribed addresses is to use the custom unsubscribe confirmation page. You can find it under ‘Unsubscribe Options’ for any list, and it lets you enter a URL that we will send people to after they unsubscribe from your list. You can just have a static ‘sorry to see you go’ page there, but you can also pass through the unsubscribing email address, and send it to whichever internal system you have. It’s very simple – just make your unsubscribe URL something like: www.yourwebsite.com/goodbye.php?emailaddress=[email] That [email] tag will be replaced with the relevant address, and passed onto your pag, and from there it’s up to you. Anyone who unsubscribes via a link in your campaign or an unsubscribe form will be handled in this way. Please note: You can’t pass through any custom field values on the query string like this, only the name and email address will work.

Blog Post

Plain Text Templates to Save You Time

You spend a lot of time crafting your HTML newsletter, tweaking the layout from a previous edition or adding new sections. Then you get to the text entry field, and have to layout the same content again under much greater constraints. To give you some ideas about how plain text can be best formatted for readability, we’ve gone looking for some examples of well designed plain text, and then created some simple text templates from them. Our inspiration (and permission) came from 37Signals, Freshbooks and Good Experience, who all have excellent newsletters that we can personally recommend. Next time you are faced with that empty text field, just copy and paste a template and fill in the sections. If you already do a great job of text formatting, we’d love to hear about it too. Would it make it easier for you if you always started with the plain text from your last newsletter for that client? Let us know with a comment below.

Blog Post

30 Free Great Looking HTML Email Templates

Ensuring your emails look awesome across every major email client out there can be a lot of work. To make your job that little bit easier, we’ve just put together 30 free email templates that look fantastic and have been tested in all the major email environments. Not even Outlook 2007 could stop these suckers looking great. The templates range from simple, single column emails through to more complex 2 column newsletters with different types of content. We’ve also been careful to keep the use of images to a minimum, so the templates look great even when images have been disabled. Changing the color scheme to suit your own brand is as simple as making a few simple tweaks to the code. What are you waiting for? Preview and download the templates now.

Blog Post

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. As 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.

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