logo_gmailIf targeted intelligently, used responsibly and well crafted, HTML email is still a very powerful way to reach potential customers, clients and associates.  Unfortunately, while the rest of the web continues “grow up”, HTML in email remains a murky and contrary place for would be designers, developers and marketers.  If you think web browsers can be picky about how they render your painstakingly designed work, let me tell you, they have nothing on the things an email platform can do to your HTML  Instead of focusing on the quirks and curiosities of every platform, program and device that might receive an HTML (though some of the Worst Offenders and Solutions, might make a great article at some point down the road) I’m going to knock out the three biggest things anyone considering doing HTML Email should know right out of the gates to avoid those quirks before they happen.

What Can I Put In My HTML Email?

First off, forget about the multi-media extravaganza (Flash, Audio, Video, Interactivity, etc). Quite simply, most email platforms are either going to choke on it, fail to render it altogether or send your HTML email straight to the spam bin (possibly at the server level before a recipient even encounters it).  If you really MUST get this sort of content out to your audience, consider putting a link in the HTML email that sends them to an actual web page containing this sort of material. If you must have some rudimentary motion within the HTML email, the best you can probably hope for is an Animated Gif.

From a coding point of view, it’s time to step into your time machine and travel back to a simpler time… avoid external CSS files, positioning elements, JavaScript and so on.  Dust off your table layout skills and inline CSS, as they’ll probably be your best bets for consistent appearance and performance across the most platforms.

Graphics are  reasonably well supported on most “rich” email readers but exercise special care with PNG transparency (consider reverting to Gif if you experience problems) and always host the images on a server, instead of attaching them to the outgoing email.  This will make your distribution/sending much quicker and also avoid taxing mail servers and clients.   Plain text is still a winner and should be used where possible. Some of the most successful HTML emails are actually just well enhanced text mail with an attractive and compelling header/footer graphics and images that support & clarify the copy text or otherwise engage the viewer.  For those print/layout heavy designs, an all image HTML email is still feasible, but be aware you may isolate text-based audience (but see What Should Every HTML Email Contain? as well).

What Should Every HTML Email Contain?

This part is almost painless and should be systematic in all your HTML email endeavors.  First, no matter how certain you are that your entire audience is capable and configured to view HTML email, I strongly suggest that you have a contingency plan; something as simple as “Click Here to View Text Version” or “Click Here If You Cannot View This Email”. The former sends the recipient to a simple web page with the relevant text of the email on your web server, while the later can be a “mini-site” of the HTML email also residing on your web server. By hosting both on an actual web server, you avoid any further frustration on the viewer’s part and can bring the advantages of a real web browser to bear (better rendering and analytics that will help determine your audience better for future mailings)

No one likes a spammer, not your audience and not the US government.  Give your recipients their fair chance to opt out of future emails. Don’t make it confusing, frustrating or difficult.  If you do, you may find them hitting the “Report Spam” button in their email programs which will cause even more trouble than losing a single subscriber.   DO considered breaking your email campaigns up into more precise targets, so that a recipient that doesn’t want to be contact about one product/topic can still receive information on others that interest or concern them.

“Smart” email campaigns make use of at least basic analytics and tracking.  If you are operating on a tight budget, consider some basic Google Analytics.  It will give you an idea if your message is getting out and even some basics on what’s being clicked.  Google’s privacy policy is pretty recipient-friendly, so if you need intense data about your audience and their interaction with your emails, you may have to upgrade to more robust, paid solutions.

Smart emails also make use of customization.  Depending on your distribution method you may be able to customize portions of each email with your recipient’s name (if known), location specific details (if known or inferred) and other targeted offers and information.

How Do I Distribute and Manage My HTML Emails?

I don’t believe in “one-size fits all” solutions regardless of whatever the salespeople say, but there are some “few sizes fit most” solutions worth considering.

If you are a small company or individual that just wants to the weekly/monthly newsletter out to a hand-full of associates, you might be able to run the whole operation from your desktop with little more than Microsoft’s Office Suite or Mozilla’s Thunderbird.  Your ability to do customization and analytics may be a bit limited, so as your needs (or volume increase) you may want to graduate to a dedicated desktop solution.

If you regularly send out batches of the emails in the hundred and/or need more ability to customize individual email content and incorporate click tracking, analytics, etc, you may consider investing in a desktop or web-based emailing solution.  These are a significant upgrade in terms of functionality and performance, so I recommend using them from the get-go if you have any budget or volume-growth expectations whatsoever.  Along the spectrum of solutions I have encountered are MailChimp, PHPList, GroupMail, etc.

If you are sending volumes of email in the amount that I call “epic”, it might be time to reach out to a dedicated email “blasting” service.  It is very easy to get accidentally categorized as a spammer with a single poorly implemented email working in the realm of tens of thousands or more recipients.  The repercussion of this can be blacklisting of the hosting/sending server (probably you), cancellation of internet or hosting services, civil/legal ramifications and serious damage to your reputation.  Untangling the fallout from one such mistake can be a long, painful and/or expensive undertaking.  Proceed with caution!

A Short Note On Testing

Aside from the practical limitations, you really can’t test enough scenarios.  What seems like a trivial change on last week’s HTML email may seriously affect your quality on a single, but vital recipient platform.  Identify your most common recipient environments and see if you can’t replicate them with a test transmissive before releasing your HTML email into the wild. Remember, there are no “take backs” in email.  Some of the most common recipients may be web-clients (GMail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, etc) but remember they can still perform differently on different browsers and operating systems.  Desktop applications may include the likes of Outlook, Outlook Express, Mac Mail and Thunderbird.  Know your audience, but give yourself wiggle room.