Understanding HTML Email

Nov 13, 2012 | E-mail, HTML

By: Matt Litzinger

Email marketing is a challenging yet essential strategy for today’s growing businesses. We’ve all received those emails from companies marketing a new product or service in engaging designs that look and work more like a webpage. Well, that’s pretty sweet, right? This format is much more interesting than the text emails we use everyday and it allows us to visualize more of the message’s content without ever clicking an external link.

The Need

If you are simply sending emails for personal use, I don’t see why you would bother. HTML emails take much more time than writing a simple text email and fail to operate effectively in day-to-day communication. Why communicate in many words what you can say in few?

However, if your emails will be sent to any form of a mailing list, HTML emails may be the best solution. Let’s take a look at the advantages. HTML emails use a standard framework, which can be styled once and applied to future email campaigns with changes only to the content within the design. The popularization of HTML email campaigns has led to a better solution for rendering these messages in web and client-based applications. Lastly, HTML emails allow you to stay relevant. Nothing is worse than receiving a marketing email with no logo, no images, and a mystery link with no discernible context. If that email doesn’t get caught in your spam filter, I suggest you find a new email application. Creating interest is much easier when your product is presented in an appealing and trustworthy format.

The Challenges

Challenges still exist despite the fact that HTML emails have been around since 1992 [1]. These challenges all stem from one significant root. That root, the root of all evil, is compatibility. Ask any programmer what the single greatest issue is with cross-platform development and they will almost always say compatibility. This problem is amplified in the scope of email development because there are so many applications and each has a separate set of restrictions.

Even the most vivid designs that are compatible in every conceivable mail application still offer a plain-text version. The people want a simple option and you are obligated to give it to them. It’s simple to understand; websites require accessibility for the impaired. In the same way, HTML emails must offer a solution for such cases as well as those who choose not to display HTML emails. Ultimately, you want to give your end-user every reason to trust you.

The Future

Managing campaigns of this caliber can prove to be very frustrating. Even if you have a solid understanding of mail protocols, tracking message delivery and impression statistics can be quite a headache. Also, preventing your mail server from being blacklisted because of the amount of email you are sending is a nightmare.

There is a solution to this and it is one that has gained a lot of ground in the past few years. Email Service Providers (ESPs) exist as a gateway to launching email campaigns. ESPs, such as MailChimp and Constant Contact, offer subscription-based tools for managing mailing lists, sending HTML emails, and tracking results. These companies have earned their place by creating a trusted way to send mail with little work from those creating the emails. They even allow you to use your own HTML templates. These services eliminate much of the frustration associated with sending HTML emails. It is also comforting to know that because of their importance, they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Some may suggest that HTML should never enter the scope of email messages [2]. They would argue that we have yet to find a suitable solution for layout-based email. Perhaps there is validity in these claims. It is plain to see that HTML is not an elegant solution to this quandary. In fact, the mail extension that we use to send and display HTML emails (MIME) was not originally intended for such a purpose. It is the same mail extension that allows us to send attachments in a message.

One thing is for sure – HTML emails are a prominent method of delivering email content. Whether that be for marketing or simple brand consistency, it is a solution that has been adopted by the masses and it is worth understanding. Web trends are always changing and the web itself is a very young media format, so we can expect to see changes for a long time. Learning everything we can about these trends and adopting them when necessary is a great way to stay savvy and innovative.

Matt Litzinger
Front-End Developer

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