I’ve been sending out email newsletters or “ezines” for six or seven years now, so I’ve read a lot of information from the pundits about the pros and cons of plain text versus HTML ezines. The truth of the matter is that I avoided sending HTML ezines for years. As most people are aware, sending an ezine in HTML format has a number of drawbacks. In my mind, these are three biggest disadvantages:
1. HTML ezines are far more difficult to create than plain text email. HTML coding is vastly more complicated than just typing text.
2. HTML email is more likely to be caught in spam filters than plain text. Spammers, phishers, and other online scum use HTML extensively in many nefarious ways.
3. HTML ezines don’t render correctly in many email clients. Innumerable email clients exist and creating compatible HTML is difficult.
Of course, HTML has a few advantages too:
1. HTML is “prettier.” You can include fonts colors and images to make your message more appealing.
2. Most people who can read HTML email like it better than plain text. Some people even say plain text is “too hard to read.”
3. You can make clickable links more easily. For example, you can embed your super-long affiliate link in code that just appears as “Cool Product Name” to the reader
For me the disadvantages of HTML email outweighed the advantages, and I stayed with plain text for years. In December 2005, I finally moved my three newsletters to HTML kicking and screaming. Mostly I moved because readers were starting to request it and because I switched to a service that made it much easier to send HTML.
The switchover was an arduous process, mostly because I was unwilling to make concessions on any of the three points: simplicity, spam filtering, and compatibility. The last thing I wanted was to do the work to create an HTML ezine and then have them all disappear into a sucking vortex of spam filters and incompatible email clients.
Now that I’ve made the switch, I’m glad I did. The reader response has been overwhelmingly positive and I get extremely high open rates of 70% to 80% (and higher) on my newsletters. With that in mind, here is how I dealt with the three big HTML ezine problems.
The Wonderful World of Templates
For years, I used a plain text template to create my newsletters. The template included all the “administrative” stuff that every newsletter must have to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, including my mailing address and unsubscribe instructions. All I had to do was dump my articles in the content areas and send it out. When I moved to HTML, I know that I needed to create a template first. Then I could still just dump my articles in quickly and easily every week.
First, I looked at some of the email newsletters I receive to see if anyone had a format I liked and could emulate. The answer was a resounding no. I use a somewhat obscure email client called Barca, which actually is a good thing because unlike Outlook and all its variants, it doesn’t use the Internet Explorer rendering engine to show HTML. (Incidentally, this difference is also why it’s much more immune to viruses and other online vermin than Outlook.) I have Barca set NOT to show graphics as well, so it means that if an ezine is going to look like garbage in any email client, it will probably look bad in mine.
I also looked online for email templates and learned that most of them are, well, really ugly. Or cost a lot of money. Since these folks selling templates almost never address the issue of email client compatibility and never show you the code, there was no way I was going to spend money for a template.
I wanted something very clean and because I have THREE ezines (Logical Tips, Pet Tails, and the Sandpoint Insider), I also didn’t want to reinvent the wheel for each one. I decided that I needed a template where I could just change the color scheme to match each ezine’s corresponding content site.
The Logical Tips Ezine (HTML version using the blue template).
Of course, about three weeks, after I created my templates, my ezine newsletter service (AWeber) came out with HTML templates. If I had it to do over, I might have started with one of their templates. But I didn’t have that option, so I essentially did a bunch of research and started from scratch.
I learned that little has been written in the online world about creating compatible HTML ezines. Some clients, such as Lotus Notes are particularly difficult to deal with, however, if your ezine is going to business users, you’d better take Notes into account if at all possible. America Online is another major problem client, since being AOL apparently means it has to do everything differently.
Getting Through Filters
My template design needed to take spam and human filters into account. One of the things people had complimented me on in the past was that my newsletters were small. Many readers on dial up take issue with bloated ezines filled with embedded graphics. People are (rightly) becoming suspicious of large emails since they may contain viruses, attachments, or other badness. Plus, we’ve all seen those stupid ezines that are made up of nothing BUT graphics. Many email clients, such as AOL don’t show graphics by default, so if you think people will read that type of design, you’re dead wrong.
Because of these issues, I decided that the easiest thing would be to just opt out of the whole images thing entirely. My ezines use HTML for fonts and colors and that’s it. Sure branding with a logo would be nice, but I offer a click through to the content site for people who really want to see all the pretty pictures. By taking this route, it means my HTML ezines are only a few kilobytes larger (16K) than my plain text ones were (11K).
The Sandpoint Insider Ezine (HTML template converted to a green color scheme).
Another aspect of not alienating my plain text fans was including a plain text version of my ezine. AWeber actually lets you create an ezine with both. It’s not as hard as it sounds either. Basically, I dump the HTML code into AWeber, switch to the preview, and click and drag to highlight it. Then I paste it into the Plain Text window. It seems to work and not one reader complained about the switch to HTML.
Email Client Compatibility
Once I settled on my goals, I started researching how I could create an ezine that could be read by almost anybody. Compatibility requires some creativity in how you code the HTML of your ezine. One thing that actually IS standard is that most ezines are a fixed 600 pixels wide. I set up my template, as a two-column ezine with a colored banner at the top and bottom and a gray “administrative area” with unsubscribe instructions. The left column is wider than the right. I use the left side for content and the right side for our house ads.
When developing Web pages, I vastly prefer using Cascading Style Sheets. On the Web, the best practice is to use an external style sheet and reference it in the Head area. The bad news is that you can’t do that with email. For one thing, some email clients strip out or ignore the Head area entirely so calling out an external style sheet is a bad idea. Plus, you’d have to put the style sheet on a server somewhere as you would with images, which is a pain and potential source of big problems.
Because some clients use the Body tag and some don’t, I did opt to leave it in, even though there’s a small “hit” when it comes to spam filtering. Some filters are suspicious of the Body tag. However, some clients couldn’t render the email correctly without it. I used it just to specify the text, background, and link colors.
AOL and other clients support only a subset of HTML tags and an even more limited number of CSS features (http://developer.aol.com/htmlemail.html). Littering my articles with font tags wasn’t an option because I wanted to reuse the code in my content sites (which don’t use font tags at all for SEO reasons). So I wanted a paragraph (<p>) to be defined somewhere universal. I actually defined it in the overall table tag using the style attribute like so:
<table width="600" id="frame" border="1" cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" align="center" bgcolor="FFFFFF" style="font:12px/18px Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">
Anywhere the code deviates from the standard tag, I have to call out the font characteristics using a style tag embedded in the HTML tag, like so:
<p style="font: bold 12px/14px">
Headings work much the same way:
<h2 style="font: bold 14px/16px Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; color: #336699;" align="center">TALES FROM THE MOUSEPAD</h2>
In short, it’s a gigantic pain to set up initially and makes extremely redundant seeming HTML. However, the good news was that once I got the template created, I could just dump in my articles like I wanted without endless reformatting.
When putting in links, here’s one final hint. Use _target=blank, so that the Web page opens in a new window, such as:
<a href="http://www.logicaltips.com" target="_blank">Logical Tips Ezine</a>
If you don’t open in a new window, it’s possible odd things may happen, depending on the email client. Plus, it’s just easier on the reader.
Test, Test, Test
If there’s just one thing you take away from this article, it’s the importance of testing. We all have friends and odds are good that they use different email programs to communicate with you. In my case, my father still is an AOL user and I talked him into checking out my templates in AOL. My husband has a GMail account, and I have friends who use MSN, Hotmail, Thunderbird, and Outlook. I enlisted all of these folks to take a look at my templates before they were seen by anyone else.
I ironed out a number of truly hideous problems before my thousands of ezine readers were subjected to ugly emails. For example, my father told me on one initial attempt that one of my ezines that’s supposed to have blue bands of color actually appeared gray in AOL. I have no idea how AOL did that, but like I said, AOL dares to be different when it comes to HTML!
With a little advanced planning and a lot of testing, HTML email can work for you. It may sound like quite a bit of work and it is, but almost everything that’s worthwhile takes some effort. I think happy readers are worth the effort.