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Do Forms Work in HTML Emails?

Over the years we’ve received loads of inquiries about the use of forms in emails, such as newsletter subscribe forms, event registration and surveys. So we decided to run some tests to get to the bottom of just how well forms are supported in all the major email environments. Is it okay to use forms in emails? It’s not the best idea. But what do you say when your client asks you to put one in an email? You can either tell them “no” for reasons which may not make sense to them, or you can back up your defiance with some hard evidence. The short of it is that email clients consider email forms to be a security risk. While some email clients simply warn you of potential danger, others outright disable the forms. So if your client wants to send out a form, they should know that most of their recipients will never be able to use it. And for those who can, they’ll think twice about submitting data when they see a warning from their email client. Results Summary Common email clients share a propensity to distrust forms in email messages. But they differed greatly in how they handled the intruding forms. Following are some notable oddities. External data submission Upon submitting a form in many webmail clients, a JavaScript alert announces that the form is submitting data to an external page and asks if you want to continue: Scam alerts Thunderbird recognizes that the form may be malicious but doesn’t strip its functionality. Instead, it warns you of potential danger: Odd behavior Windows Live Hotmail shows the form. However, the form functions in an odd way; and certainly not correctly. If the form is submitted by keying the “return” key, the page is refreshed but no data is sent and the process is not completed. If the form is submitted by clicking the submit button, nothing happens. Outlook 2007 also exhibits some unique behavior in that it custom renders the form. Inputs are replaced with brackets and the submit button is replaced with the button’s value enveloped in brackets. So it’s a plain-text version of what the form would look like, even though the HTML is being displayed. Complete Results Client Form is displayed Form is functional .Mac Yes No Yahoo! Mail Yes Yes Yahoo! Mail Classic Yes No AOL Webmail Yes No Gmail Yes Yes Windows Live Hotmail Yes No Apple Mail Yes Yes Thunderbird Yes Yes Penelope (Eudora 8) Yes Yes Outlook 2007 No No Outlook 2003 Yes No Outlook Express Yes Yes Windows Live Mail Yes Yes Lotus Notes 8 Yes Yes Entourage Yes Yes The Recommendation Given the sporadic support for forms in emails, we recommend linking to a form on a website in an email rather than embedding it therein. This is the safest, most reliable solution to pairing an email message with a form. More people will see it and be able to use it, and as a result participation will increase.

Blog Post

Why Don’t I Get My Own Test Messages?

Why is it that sometimes you send a test message from Campaign Monitor to yourself or other team members in your company, and it doesn’t arrive? Well, most of the time the email does arrive, but is filtered into a junk folder, or just takes a few minutes. Sometimes though, it just never seems to get there. It can be incredibly frustrating, and worrying because you may think your own customers won’t get your emails either. Campaign Monitor is sending them out – where are they going? With love, from me to…me The problem occurs when you are sending an email from Campaign Monitor to yourself, but defining the ‘from’ address to be the same domain as the ‘to’ address. So from clarkk@dailyplanet.com to loisl@dailyplanet.com for example. Some mail servers have built in brains that try to stop spam by checking for emails that claim to have been sent from the same domain as they are being sent to. So the Daily Planet’s email server might say: This email for Lois says it is from Clark, but I did not send any emails for Clark, so this must be a dastardly fake. The email is stopped by the mail server, and never delivered or bounced back. Campaign Monitor can’t tell that is what happened, because no bounce message is sent. This problem will not affect your customers at all, because their email addresses are not at the same domain as your ‘from’ address. How to make sure test emails get through To prevent this problem, you just need to get your mail server administrator to specifically let emails from Campaign Monitor come through. Sometimes this is called ‘whitelisting’. They will need to know the IP addresses we send from, and you can find them in our help page. Then you will be able to receive your test emails and make sure everything is perfect before sending out your campaign, always a good idea.

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

Performance Improvement Update

The changes we have put in place since the slowness and disconnections earlier in the week have made a big improvement. We are still progressing on our longer term changes though, to make sure we can maintain a reliable service as more customers come on board. We know that you need to be able to rely on Campaign Monitor to be there when you want to send your campaigns, and that’s our priority too. Thanks again for your patience, and your feedback.

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

Thank You for Your Help with Our Call for Email Standards

We announced our intent to create email standards and asked for your help with establishing a baseline for support. The response has been outstanding. We’ve heard from the web-design community—your help has been invaluable and we’re ready to take action. In the coming weeks we will be developing a website dedicated to this movement based on the consensus of those who participated. Upon going live we will announce it here on the Campaign Monitor blog, so keep your eyes peeled. We are working to finalize our acid test and will collect final data on how our suite of email clients performed. This will be the foundation for our call to email-client developers for standards support. Again, thank you for your kind words of support and participation. Together we can make a difference for web designers who design/build emails and for those who receive them. Onward…

Blog Post

How to Personalize Your Permission Reminders

When you make a business call, you don’t just launch right into the conversation without introducing yourself, right? Instead you say something like “Hi, I’m Mathew, we met at the Widget Summit and you asked me to give you a call”. You should do just the same with your email newsletters. Over at Clickz, Stefan Pollard has a great article titled “There’s No Excuse for Trust Abuse“, about doing permission reminders the right way. His point is that a vague permission message — “your address was subscribed to our list” — can be even worse than none at all. It makes you seem lazy and possibly suspicious. Your message needs to be as specific as possible, to help people remember how they actually did ask for your emails. This is particularly important for lists that grow regularly, as new subscribers have no background of newsletters to remember you by. A great technique to make your reminder messages more specific is to keep track of exactly where addresses came from, and refer directly to that. You are receiving this email because you gave us your address at the Widget Summit in September. Or perhaps You are receiving this email because you subscribed on our website to the Widget Newsletter. With some smart use of custom fields, you can personalize that message for each subscriber. The first step is to keep track of where people came from. Create a custom field for your list called ‘source’ or similar. Now you need to fill in a value for ‘source’ for each person. If you are importing a file of new subscribers after a tradeshow, use ‘gave us your address at the Widget Summit in September’ as the source column for each subscriber record. For your online subscribe forms, make sure you have a hidden ‘source’ field prefilled with ‘subscribed on our website’ as the value, so that each time someone signs up using the form, the right value is set. Now in your campaigns, you can just insert something like this: You are receiving this email because you [source]. If you are no longer interested, you can <unsubscribe>unsubscribe instantly</unsubscribe>. It’s that easy. Now your permission reminder messages are much more specific, and they will be much more effective in showing people you are legitimate and serious about having their permission. You can also use that same source information to start segmenting your list and offering different things to different groups. Even though permission is not enough anymore, an accurate, specific permission reminder will go a long way to avoiding spam complaints, and help build up trust with your subscribers.

Blog Post

Help Us Form a Baseline for Standards Support

The response from my call to arms a few days back has been phenomenal. We saw some great comments, loads of inbound links from other designers and some very encouraging “how can I help” emails from many others. As I mentioned in the original post, an important part of moving forward is first establishing a set of baseline standards that we can encourage email client manufacturers to meet. This baseline is crucial as it will form the crux of our recommendations and hopefully shape minimum standards for email rendering across the board. It’s also something you can help with. Working closely with our resident email design guru Mark Wyner, we have established what we think is the core set of features that will form this baseline. What’s important to remember here is that we’re not crossing our arms and demanding perfect standards support. We’re simply asking for the more critical CSS standards to be supported so we can properly separate content from presentation and ensure a simple design will render consistently across all of the popular email clients. With this in mind, here’s the list so far: margin padding float/clear type-selector :hover background-image a:hover background/inline images font inheritance/sizing/line-height UL, OL, DL properties List-style-image background-image positioning borders different link colors content centering This is where you can really help make a difference. Please leave your own comments with anything you think is missing or might not be of crucial importance to standards support in email. Once we’ve received your feedback, we’ll make any amendments and get stuck into the testing/recommendations for each manufacturer. A new site bringing all this together isn’t far off either.

Blog Post

Why We Need Standards Support in HTML Email

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now. I’ve been delaying it purely because I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to write with Zeldman-like virtue on why email, just like the web, needs to pay attention to web standards. Sadly, in the time between the idea for this post and actually getting it published, web standards support in email has gone seriously downhill. I can’t delay it any longer. My role at Campaign Monitor has given me a great opportunity over the years to research and speak to other designers at length about the standards issue. Each time the topic comes up the result is always the same – getting an email to display consistently in all of the popular email clients is by far the most frustrating part of the job. It’s a painful and always moving target that’s getting harder instead of easier. There’s really no justification for it and it’s about time something was done. Accepting the reality of email today Let me preface this by saying I completely respect everyone’s choice for the email format they prefer to send and receive. I also understand that it probably wasn’t the original purpose of email to go beyond one-to-one plain text messaging. I really do. This is one of the biggest reasons we encourage everyone to include a plain text alternative whenever they send a HTML email. But we need to be realists. Every popular email client supports HTML email and most use that format out of the box. Out of the box means it’s the format of choice for anyone outside of the design and early adopter community and there’s no indication that’s changing any time soon. No amount of angry comments on Slashdot singing the praises of Pine are going to suddenly force email client developers to drop HTML support. It’s just not going to happen. So, it’s not going anywhere and it’s broken. If we can all get past this point together, it’s obvious that the best path forward is to work with desktop and web-based email client manufacturers to improve how HTML emails are rendered, not argue amongst ourselves about personal preference. What’s wrong with the current picture? Today there are at least 10 popular email clients out there, each offering different levels of standards support ranging from perfect to virtually non-existent. I often hear comparisons between the current state of standards in email and the web circa 2000. While there certainly are some similarities, there are also some big differences. The web standards movement faced not only poor browser support, but also an uneducated design community. They had browser makers and designers to convince. Today we’re lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of these giants in a world where web standards have well and truly been embraced by browser developers and the design community alike. People want to build HTML emails using the same approach they build for the web. Another big differentiator is the fact that there were 2 or 3 browsers to consider back then and we knew exactly which web browsers were popular, making it much easier to know where to focus our energies. There is almost no data like this for the email world. Are more of my subscribers using Thunderbird or Apple Mail? It’s almost impossible to know. So, we’ve got 3 to 4 times more variations to cater for and we don’t even know which ones we should be targeting. Because of this huge variation in standards support, email designers have been forced into a corner. There have certainly been valid attempts at encouraging the use of web standards in email, of which I’m proud to say we’ve played a part. The W3C has even jumped on board in realizing something needs to be done here. With the recent and unfortunate news from Microsoft however, it’s been getting harder and harder to justify this approach. What we’re now left with is building for the common denominator. This means bandwidth hogging, image heavy emails with nested tables and font tags. Yes, I said font tags. I see hundreds of these designs being sent every day purely because it’s the only way to achieve consistent rendering across the board. Type in the URL of those creating these designs however and you’ll often find a beautifully coded standards compliant site. Email design truly is stuck in the dark ages. Revisiting the benefits of web standards Many of you are already well aware of the positives web standards offer, but I’ll focus on those I think are particularly relevant to email. It removes the guess work from email design – This is an instant win for designers and everyday email users alike. If all email client developers aimed for something close to web standards, you can design an email knowing it will work for all your subscribers. Stop and think for a second how awesome that would be. Your subscribers will win by no longer receiving garbled, hard to read newsletters because their email client doesn’t support standards. Faster loading and reduced bandwidth consumption – Well coded, standards compliant markup that separates content from presentation is generally much more compact than nested table and spacer-image based markup. Further to this, many designers have given up on rendering issues altogether and send purely image-based emails. This adds significantly to the file size and results in a poor experience for their subscribers because of image blocking. Make your email accessible to all – Using standards does not automatically mean your email will be readable to people with disabilities, but it’s certainly a great start. By separating content from presentation you’re making it much easier for everyone to access your email. Further to these intrinsic benefits of web standards, there’s another significant win that would follow. Using tables for layout is a dying art in the web design community. Many designers who started web design in the last few years have never even coded a table based layout, which is a good thing. The current email environment means a designer not familiar with the table based approach will need to learn a completely different way of creating a page if they want to send HTML emails. We’re fast approaching a fork in the road where email design will become a niche, expensive service that fewer designers can provide. Sure, a few designers win by being able to charge more for their work, but everyone else loses. Where to from here? This much is clear – arguing about HTML vs plain text or complaining about standards support in email isn’t going to get us anywhere. It’s time to get off our butts and actually help email client manufacturers to introduce better standards support. I also think it’s important to realize that these manufacturers don’t have a problem with web standards. Supporting standards might not always be the easiest option, in fact for web-based providers I’m sure it’s quite the opposite. It’s our job to demonstrate why they are important and then make them as easy as possible to embrace. We’ve been hard at work on this for the last few weeks, focusing on the following areas: Establishing a baseline of what standards we need supported in email – We certainly don’t expect perfect standards support across the board initially, but there are a number of key properties that we can encourage manufacturers to support sooner rather than later. Document the important changes each of the major email client manufacturers need to make in order to support web and related standards – Once we’ve established the baseline, we can put together a basic wish list of the changes each manufacturer will need to make to meet this target and then work with them in any capacity possible to help make this happen. Create a simple acid test that makes it easy to see if an email client supports this baseline – Much like WaSP’s Acid2 test, we should make it easy to see if these important standards are being supported by creating a simple test page that can be viewed in that email client to confirm at a glance if the baseline is being met. We plan on bringing this all together in a dedicated site launching soon. Obviously the more of us that can get behind this the easier the job will be. Even the king of web standards, Jeffrey Zeldman agrees (emphasis his): Learn how HTML mail works (or doesn’t) across as many platforms as possible, and work with the manufacturers to improve support for web standards. This is not my job. I did my job where web standards are concerned (you’re welcome!), and turned over The Web Standards Project to a new generation of leadership. And as I never send HTML formatted mails, not only is it not my job, I wouldn’t even be qualified to do it. But standardistas who are compelled by their clients to create HTML mails (or who choose to do so) are gently urged to do their part in diminishing wasted bandwidth and enhancing semantics. We’ll be posting more about this initiative soon, including how you can help make a difference. Jeffrey’s right, it’s not his job – this one’s up to us. Update: You can start helping right now. Check out the initial list of baseline standards that should be supported and add your own thoughts.

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