HTML vs. text email: is HTML email bad practice?

29 Nov 2004 - 12:02pm
10 years ago
8 replies
1684 reads
Austin Govella
2004

I keep getting requests to create or facilitate dazzling HTML email
newsletters.

I reject the idea out of hand, insisting text email is the better route,
and for newsletters, having blurbs that link to articles as the best
practice. I realized today that my thinking is based on the environment
from at least two years ago.

Have things changed regarding HTML email? Or is it still considered bad
practice?

--
Austin

Comments

29 Nov 2004 - 12:49pm
Michael Bartlett
2004

I think this may depend on who you ask. I remember reading something
(reasonably recentish) from Nielson saying that HTML email is evil, but I'm
sure big important marketing folks will tend to disagree with him.

I think the problem you face is that in Outlook 2003, Mozilla Thunderbird
and probably other email clients tend to block HTML elements, in particular
images, by default and the user then has to enable them through one or two
clicks or add to the "Safe Senders" list.

The other problem is that a small percentage of email clients refuse to
display HTML - either through lack of capability (i.e. OLD clients) or
through draconian administrators disabling the capability. SMTP does support
a mixed-mode message contructor that enables you to send both plain-text and
HTML streams with the email and the client then displays whichever one it
can, which is probably your best option - albeit a little more work.

Personally I'm on the fence with this whole debate:

Pro's:
Nice pretty emails
Brand integrity

Con's:
Evil ugly emails (damn those emoticon toolbars!)
Spammers can use img tags as a way around certain spam algorithms.
Privacy - enforced "read-receipt". I've used this evil tactic before: Embed
an <img> tag that is distinguishable in your web server log file and you can
tell if that email has been read or not even with read receipts turned off.

-----Original Message-----
From:
discuss-interactiondesigners.com-bounces at lists.interactiondesigners.com
[mailto:discuss-interactiondesigners.com-bounces at lists.interactiondesigners.
com] On Behalf Of Austin Govella
Sent: 29 November 2004 18:02
To: discuss-interactiondesigners.com at lists.interactiondesigners.com
Subject: [ID Discuss] HTML vs. text email: is HTML email bad practice?

[Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted material.]

I keep getting requests to create or facilitate dazzling HTML email
newsletters.

I reject the idea out of hand, insisting text email is the better route, and
for newsletters, having blurbs that link to articles as the best practice. I
realized today that my thinking is based on the environment from at least
two years ago.

Have things changed regarding HTML email? Or is it still considered bad
practice?

--
Austin
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29 Nov 2004 - 12:50pm
Elizabeth Buie
2004

The third problem is that an unknown percentage of email *users* detest
HTML and tell their email apps to display plain text.

If you're going to offer an HTML newsletter, I recommend allowing users to
specify that they want to receive the item in plain text.

Elizabeth
--
Elizabeth Buie
Computer Sciences Corporation
Rockville, Maryland, USA
+1.301.921.3326

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29 Nov 2004 - 8:39pm
Jachin Sheehy
2004

Two more problems with HTML email I've come across:

1. HTML email newsletters are more likely to get picked off by spam
filters and many never reach their intended recipients. Usually
requires a lot of tuning before they are distributable.

2. There is huge discrepancy between HTML capable email clients in
what sort of HTML they can interpret and how it is displayed, how much
CSS they understand, etc... Designing a HTML email that looks great
("dazzling") takes more effort than web pages took during the browser
wars.

Agree with Elizabeth and Michael that a plain text option is necessary.

Am looking forward to the day when RSS readers are more common so that
we can dump the idea of email newsletters and just have people
subscribe to an RSS feed for the same information. Mozilla's
Thunderbird has taken a great step in this direction by integrating
RSS into the mail client.

Jachin
--- --- --- ---
Jachin Sheehy
Senior Web Developer
InternetFiji.com

30 Nov 2004 - 3:35am
Petteri Hiisilä
2004

Austin Govella wrote:

> I keep getting requests to create or facilitate dazzling HTML email
> newsletters.
>
> I reject the idea out of hand, insisting text email is the better route,
> and for newsletters, having blurbs that link to articles as the best
> practice. I realized today that my thinking is based on the environment
> from at least two years ago.
>
> Have things changed regarding HTML email? Or is it still considered bad
> practice?

It's possible to send mail that has both HTML and text part. The right
version is automatically selected by the client. Works with
Outlook/Express/Thunderbird/webmails etc.

If your message and your users benefit from layout, typography and
pictures, by all means go for the dual version. Just keep it pretty and
purposeful.

Most email clients do display "pictures have been hidden, click here to
show them" button, but if people really want to read your message, they
will click "download pics". And even if they miss the pictures, they
still get the layout and typography.

Get some Amazon.com newsletters and see how they have composed them.
I've included one here.

Best,
Petteri

--
Petteri Hiisilä
Palveluarkkitehti / Interaction Designer /
Alma Media Interactive Oy / NWS /
+358505050123 / petteri.hiisila at almamedia.fi

"I was told there's a miracle for each day that I try"
- John Petrucci

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30 Nov 2004 - 4:47am
Petteri Hiisilä
2004

> Get some Amazon.com newsletters and see how they have composed them.
> I've included one here.

... which seems to be broken by Thunderbird, if forwarded :)

But the first receiver will get a working dual version.

Best,
Petteri

30 Nov 2004 - 8:24am
Elizabeth Buie
2004

Petteri Hiisilä writes:

<<It's possible to send mail that has both HTML and text part. The right
version is automatically selected by the client>>

I would ask how it knows what the "right" version is.

For me, "right" is plain text, regardless of what my email software can
handle.

The other problem with HTML mail is its use of bandwidth. And sending two
versions in a single message just exacerbates that problem.

Elizabeth
--
Elizabeth Buie
Computer Sciences Corporation
Rockville, Maryland, USA
+1.301.921.3326

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This is a PRIVATE message. If you are not the intended recipient, please
delete without copying and kindly advise us by e-mail of the mistake in
delivery. NOTE: Regardless of content, this e-mail shall not operate to
bind CSC to any order or other contract unless pursuant to explicit
written agreement or government initiative expressly permitting the use of
e-mail for such purpose.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

30 Nov 2004 - 8:36am
Dave Malouf
2005

> I would ask how it knows what the "right" version is.

Well your e-mail client knows. You can tell your e-mail client to NEVER open
up HTML mail.

> For me, "right" is plain text, regardless of what my email
> software can handle.

In a way that is a shame. But a personal choice. HTML is more readable and
the style enhancements that can be added (when designed well) make for a
more appealing experience.

> The other problem with HTML mail is its use of bandwidth.
> And sending two versions in a single message just exacerbates
> that problem.

This is true, but is it really a problem? I mean is the extra K all that big
a deal? I mean, I use a palm-based device and I don't feel that much of a
hit even when I do things wirelessly over my cell account which is about the
same speed as a dialup (When I'm lucky!)

The MAIN problem w/ HTML mail is that it is too easy to do "bad" things in
it and thus the filters and such. But I feel it is worth the risk. I find
that plain text mail is quite limiting. I mean ASCII art is better than a
raster image by all those same standards, but I wouldn't want to go back to
that either.

What I really hate is rich text e-mail. Oy!

-- dave

30 Nov 2004 - 8:47am
Elizabeth Buie
2004

David Heller writes:

<<HTML is more readable and
the style enhancements that can be added (when designed well) make for a
more appealing experience.>>

It's not more readable on my screen when the specified font sizes are
teenincey.

It's not more appealing if *I* don't like it. Appeal is mostly
subjective, eh?

Plain text is more reliable; I know what I'm getting.

As for mail clients -- Lotus Notes does not allow me to turn off HTML
mail. (I know, I know, but I have no choice of email client at work.)
Eudora (which I use at home) says it does, but it still displays some of
the attributes.

But as you say, it's personal choice. And I strongly recommend giving the
readers the choice to receive only plain text mail.

Elizabeth
--
Elizabeth Buie
Computer Sciences Corporation
Rockville, Maryland, USA
+1.301.921.3326

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This is a PRIVATE message. If you are not the intended recipient, please
delete without copying and kindly advise us by e-mail of the mistake in
delivery. NOTE: Regardless of content, this e-mail shall not operate to
bind CSC to any order or other contract unless pursuant to explicit
written agreement or government initiative expressly permitting the use of
e-mail for such purpose.
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