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Time to Wake Up to Email HTML Standards

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In the mid-'90s, email experts strongly urged, for varied reasons, against using HTML formatting in email marketing messages. But those reasons have largely been made anachronistic by today's technology and the overall evolution of the email channel.

HTML was said to detract from the message, decreasing the functionality of email. However, if you subscribe to any e-newsletters, you know that HTML, especially when it includes images, actually makes messages clearer and easier to understand.

HTML also got a bad reputation for falsely alerting spam filters. Today, however, spam filters are much more sophisticated, taking the sender's reputation into account and looking beyond content.

The argument that HTML emails are larger, implying longer downloads, has also been thrown out the window since high-speed Internet gained popularity.

HTML email marketing is now thriving and widely encouraged for its strong ROI and results. The DMA predicts an ROI of $45.65 for every dollar spent on email marketing in 2008. Email was also voted best marketing vehicle for customer retention, according to Jupiter Research.

HTML email has come a long way, but there is one major pain point that remains: compatibility across all major email accounts.

The purpose of email marketing is defeated when the message never gets through due to coding and design issues. Broken links and images could make the difference between a sale and an opt-out.

That's why, with HTML here to stay, many in the email industry are getting behind The Email Standards Project and its mission to drive the use and support of HTML standards to ensure messages are rendered consistently across all major email clients, including Outlook, and Web-based email such as Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, etc.

When email designers create a message, they have to take 10-12 of these email clients and their various coding nuances into consideration. Getting even a simple email design to work can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. Having standards in place for even half of the major clients can greatly reduce the cost and time it takes to ensure compatibility.

With HTML coding taken care of, marketers would have more time to focus on the content of their emails. Consumers would benefit from clean formatted emails with working HTML and, potentially more relevant, thoughtful messages.

Unfortunately, a few challenges must be overcome before the email industry can realize the benefits of HTML standards. For one, there are 10-12 major email clients and services that would require HTML standards, and the prospect of getting their support is declining, not improving. Gmail and Windows Live, two of the most popular, offer little to no support for HTML standards.

Ten years ago, the Web Standards Project faced similar challenges in its fight for standards to reduce the cost and complexity of Web site development. Eventually, as more browsers began to support Web standards, designers were able to reduce the time and money spent coding and as a result were able to make lighter, faster, more accessible Web sites. A major difference was that, back then, there were only three or four Web browsers that mattered to site designers.

In addition, email clients are consistently evolving their offerings. Email designers have to deal with coding issues not only across clients but also across the various versions of email services being used.

Some who are involved in the fight for HTML standards have begun establishing guidelines that outline why standards are important and how email clients can support them. The Email Standards Project has created an acid test to help determine the various nuances between clients. However, it is a long process as those email clients continue to evolve and HTML coding must be constantly updated to accommodate the changes they make.

Businesses that are using HTML effectively continue to see better results from email marketing: more clicks, qualified interest and actual sales. Standards are essential to the growth and evolution of the email channel. Email marketers and designers can support the cause by spreading the word via blog posts and articles or by contributing information to the Email Standards Project.

Until those standards have been achieved, here are some things you can do to help ensure that your HTML messages render properly:

  • Use table-based positioning—CSS positioning is one of the least-supported email HTML features among the major email clients.
  • Use a good balance of text and images, and always send HTML emails with a text version as backup.
  • Use multi-part alternatives to allow the email client to choose between text and HTML versions of your message. This is especially important for customers who receive your messages on mobile devices.
  • Test, test, test! Test in every email client you can think of to ensure that your message is being properly rendered.
  • Avoid embedded Flash, as it does not work consistently in most email clients.

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Adam Covati is a product manager at Bronto Software ( Reach him via

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  • by Astralis Wed Apr 30, 2008 via web

    Good article. Remember when everyone was talking about the death of e-mail? The funniest was how RSS was going to kill e-mail marketing.

  • by Neil J. Squillante Thu May 1, 2008 via web

    As barbaric as it may seem, you should also use font tags instead of CSS for style. Yes, we need email standards, but with Outlook so dominant on desktops and so many people using Webmail clients don't get your hopes up.

    Also, we have found it's better to give people a choice of plain text or HTML and send pure versions of both rather than a hybrid.

  • by Gary Levitt ( Thu May 1, 2008 via web

    Neil is correct... font tags do comply better than font-family in an inline style tag. However, if your inline style is nice and clean, you can get near 100% cross compliance with the major rendering environments.

    Mad Mimi actually does this for you, and takes care of these formatting issues... (this sounds like a plug, but it's totally relevant).

    Nice article.

  • by A. Reis Designs Fri May 9, 2008 via web

    Very good article! I believe as much as people want to argue against HTML emails, it is not going to go away, and standards are a must. As little time as it could take in designing and creating an HTML email, testing can take so much time. I am glad to see this is the road we are on, unfortunately, I think it will take quite awhile to catch on and get the email clients on board. I look forward to seeing more.

  • by Daniboy | Marketing Copywriter Mon May 26, 2008 via web

    Good article. I'm just about to start publishing an email newsletter and -- by luck more than design -- find that I covered all the "must-do" points mentioned in the article.

    The most important tip for me is TESTING. It's essential. I also asked a number of friends to help out by checking "beta" versions of the newsletter, and their objective advice was incredibly helpful.

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