Building HTML Email

What Works For Websites Won't Work For Email

In recent years website design has undergone something of a revolution. To the casual observer the changes may have not been that obvious, but under the hood radical changes have been occurring.

Part of the problem is that not all browsers were created equal. This meant that when looking at your HTML in one browser may produce a very different result to looking at the same page in another.

In some cases this is because some browsers are simply ‘broken’. In other words they do not interpret the HTML the correct way. In other cases some browsers added ‘features’ of their own that were not widely accepted.

Although recently there has been more of a push towards ‘web standards’, based on recommendations of the W3C, designers have become accustomed to adapting their designs to suit the most common browsers.

At the same time there is an increasing awareness of issues of accessibility. Not everybody will use a standard browser to visit web pages, so sites need to allow for text readers (for the blind) or mobile devices (such as phones).

Much of this comes together in a recent standard called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets. The basic idea of this is that the content of web pages should be separate from the information determining their layout.

So these days most self respecting web designers will be well versed in building pages that are compliant with the agreed standards, accessible on a range of devices and use CSS for their layouts. And so they should.

The Trouble With Email

There’s just one small problem. When it comes to building HTML emails, most of the rules about how to do ‘proper’ web design have to go out of the window.

Firstly a large proportion of messages will be viewed not in web browser such as Internet Explorer, but in an email client such as Outlook. Unfortunately email clients have very different levels of standards compliance to browsers, both generally speaking and in particular in relations to CSS.

Secondly those that are viewed in a browser, using webmail services such as Hotmail or Google Mail face their own set of problems. Messages here are presented as a web page within a web page, which affects their composition.

In order to ensure that the HTML in the message doesn’t cause the browser to incorrectly display the webmail service itself, most webmail providers alter the content of HTML email and actually remove aspects of the code.

This can range from something simple like changing the font used in the message to be the same as that in the email client, right up to completely removing all of the information that relates to the layout of the message.

So What Does This Mean For Me?

With so many different email services out there, each with their own particular quirks, it can be almost impossible to ensure that HTML emails will look exactly the same across every platform.

And yet by not following web standards in the design of your HTML emails you take the risk that your messages may be intercepted as spam. Many ISPs will block messages where the code doesn’t follow the rules.

Unfortunately that this means that even the most skilled and experienced web designers will face problems in making the transition from building websites to creating layouts for HTML emails.

However with persistence it is possible to develop approaches to designing email that take full advantage of the potential of HTML, while retaining compatibility with the widest range of services.

Our experience developed across many years and hundreds of campaigns, along with extensive testing across numerous systems can help ensure your messages have the same impact wherever they are read. We believe this offers our clients the best possible results.

This is in contrast to many ‘self service’ email marketing systems that enable you to build your own templates, as the resulting HTML is unlikely to be standards compliant, and almost certainly won’t be optimised to display properly across the range of email services.