There’s a lot to like about HTML email. Studies show the response rates are higher than with plain old email which makes sense. Nothing to open and your message gets across right away.
There’s also a lot to like about email marketing services like Constant Contact, Aweber or MailChimp. Templates that look good in most email software, text and mobile options, statistics and tracking… But they’re not for everyone. Whether it’s the cost, lack of multi-user controls/permissions, clunky interface or slow performance, some people would just rather do it themselves.
But creating DIY HTML emails on your own can be a frustrating experience. The biggest problem is that there’s no “standard” for HTML email – each email client creates and displays them differently. For web mail users, display can also differ depending on what browser they’re using. Here’s a rundown on major email clients and how they handle HTML email creation. First, some tips for creating your HTML emails from scratch:
- Build your design using a table if you can. If using a fixed width, don’t make it larger than 600 pixels – 450-550 is even better especially if you know your recipients will be reading emails on mobile devices.
- If using relative values for your table, make sure your images aren’t too wide as the widest image will set the table’s minimum width.
- Use a container table or empty columns if you want some white space around your message.
- Use nested tables within cells instead of relying on padding attributes.
- All styles should be inline – avoid style sheets as they tend to get stripped out by email software.
- Don’t rely on the <body> tag for background colors or images. Use table cell attributes for background color (skip background images all together…).
- Since you won’t be able to offer a text version, either include a link to a webpage where you’ve stored a copy of the email or stick with a simple design that someone can scan without too much trouble.
- Ideally, all images should be stored somewhere (your web server, Flickr, etc…) and available for download into the email. However, some software embeds images (with mixed results) or it’s just not possible to link to images in your email.
Outlook 2003 and 2007
Outlook does a reasonably good job with images, though sometimes they’re sent as separate attachments that users need permit to be displayed (or not…there are some real quirks with Outlook…). First, you’ll need to have HTML email selected in the options AND use Word as your email editor.
You can create a template in a new email or in Word. If using Outlook, use the design tools for fonts formatting, cell colors, insert images and so on. SAVE AS a template file (.oft) so you can re-use it. To send an email using the template, open it, then make your changes and send.
If using Word, SAVE AS a Word template (.dot, .dotx). When you want to send an email, open the template, make your changes, then copy and paste into a new email.
Note that Outlook 2003 creates a much simpler HTML email than in 2007. Outlook 2003 references Internet Explorer’s HTML engine plus the design tools in Outlook 2003 are less robust than in newer versions. Simple is better when creating HTML emails, though.
Outlook 2010 is supposed to have the same HTML engine Outlook 2007 does (Word’s). But my testing shows that it’s less reliable in how HTML email sent from Outlook 2010 renders in other email software/browsers. If you regularly send HTML emails from Outlook, and you’re thinking of upgrading to Office 2010, you might want to reconsider. And if you think you can upgrade the rest of Office and still use your older version of Outlook, think again. You won’t be able to create HTML emails at all unless your version of Outlook matches your version of Word.
Most webmail clients have only basic composition tools and while older versions of some actually let you insert HTML or even view the email source, not so anymore. If this is all you’ve got, you’ll be limited to very simple designs – no tables and no images!
Gmail’s templates are called “canned responses.” You can create them from scratch with Google’s limited tools or create one from an email you receive. You’ll need to install/enable the “canned response” tool. Once you do, you’ll see an option to select a “canned response” whenever you compose a new email.
Unfortunately, photos added (copy and pasted…) to your Google template won’t necessarily “travel” with the email to some email clients, so avoid adding any. Google also tends to make the text larger and change the spacing so it’s not the best choice for complicated designs.
Save a composed email as a draft. When you want to use it again, copy ALL then paste it in a new email message. As with Google, avoid images as they are not embedded and there’s no way to link them in the email.
Though I haven’t tried it, I hear Thunderbird does a good job with HTML email creation. The main reason is that you can insert HTML directly into a new email. So you can use pre-made templates you find on the web besides creating them from scratch.
Bulk Email Software
Desktop software/bulk email programs like Sendblaster might work for you. When I tried a few of these several years ago, they were difficult to set up and you may need your own SMTP server. Some come with statistics and tracking packages/add-ons.
And speaking of tracking, the primary advantage of using an email service is automated statistics. Most email software has an option to track email (opened/ deleted) and you can use that to get an idea of how many (and who) opened or deleted your email. But if your list is large and you send mailings often, your inbox will be cluttered with “read reply” messages so create a rule to send those replies to a separate folder.
Another way to check to see how many emails were opened is to place a unique image in the email. If there’s a server request for the image (you’ll see that in your analytics software), that means the email was opened. You won’t be able to know who opened the email, however.
You can simulate link tracking (click through) by using a URL shortener service like bit.ly for all your links or Google Analytics tracking tools (append your links with a special code). If using a URL shortener, the URL should be unique to the email – usually a landing page. If you’re using shortened URLs for your website or other static, non-unique pages, the best you can do to measure click-through responses for a specific email is to check your click statistics for the day you sent the email. Otherwise use Google Analytics to create a special links for that email. Once again, you won’t be able to tell who clicked through – just a total number of click-throughs.
There are add-ons and services that will turn Outlook into an “email marketing machine” but they all looked a little sketchy to me. If statistics are of primary importance to you, then your best bet is to go with a service.