Sending HTML Formatted E-Mail, Part 1

Stephen Yagielowicz

They are all the rage: brightly colored, stylishly designed, high-impact presentations delivered via email. Whether used as marketing tools or as venues for information dispersal, the promise of HTML based email is alluring. It is no wonder then that so many Webmasters and online marketers strive to use this tool, with all too-often mixed results:

There is no denying that direct, opt-in e-mail marketing is a tried and true vehicle for profiting from the many millions of online consumers seeking everything from fortune to fame, golf clubs to paperback novels, and yes indeed, even porn; lots and lots of porn. Today, the most engaging and often most successful tactic is the use of HTML formatted e-mail to attract the prospect's attention, and deliver the marketer's message.

While this article will not focus on the propriety of using opt-in e-mail lists exclusively as an alternative to the evils of spam, it will try to provide some helpful insight for those trying to successfully make use of this sometimes challenging technology, and help you to maximize your online marketing efforts.

What It Is
Combining the targeted "content push" benefits of traditional e-mail marketing along with the flexibility and power of hyperlinked Web pages, tastefully attractive designs, and common multimedia elements such as graphics, audio, and animation, HTML formatted e-mail is an easy to use, rapidly evolving communication medium that has become the venue of choice for many savvy online marketers.

Available to nearly all consumers with Internet access, and creatable by nearly anyone with the slightest knowledge of HTML coding, this powerful marketing tool has become ever more commonplace over the last several years - a trend that I foresee only increasing in the future.

While many people have come to associate HTML formatted e-mail (and traditional e-mail, for that matter) with spam, this 'enhanced' form of e-mail, like text based e-mail, has a wide variety of legitimate and highly productive uses, including serving as cost-effective 'virtual brochures' sent by auto-responders in reply to a consumer's query, newsletters, and personalized greetings, to name a few of the typical applications.

With the infinite variety of creative styles and uses these alternatives to 'boring' text only e-mails provide, Webmasters might wonder why they are not even more pervasive than they already are. As effective and accessible as HTML formatted e-mail is, it is not without its various problems, limitations, and concerns.

Common Concerns
One of the biggest concerns with HTML formatted e-mail is the time it takes to download. E-mail that is delivered at the speed of a Web page will make recipients on slower connections wait for longer than they might want to, and in some cases, will be undeliverable due to mail server limitations on the download size. Just as with traditional Web pages, the actual size of the e-mail and its download time is not so important as whether or not it was "worth the wait" - and not to you, but to your audience. YOU might think that your latest, greatest spam was a work of art; the recipient might consider it an unproductive waste of bandwidth.

Beyond the concerns of excessive download time, another major issue is client compatibility. Although this was once a much more pressing issue than it is today, ensuring that your primary target audience is actually able to receive HTML formatted e-mail is still important. A newsletter for a highly technical audience that relies on command line based mail readers may not be able to properly view your creations, while those mailings targeted towards consumers will almost invariably be received the way you intended, since the bulk of this market relies on the latest user-friendly OEM mail programs, such as Microsoft's Outlook Express, or on a browser based, or Web based e-mail package. Even if the client is capable of rendering HTML formatted e-mail, the challenges of maintaining cross client appearance uniformity is much more daunting than the old 'designing for MSIE vs. Netscape' quandary...

Even if the client is capable of rendering HTML formatted e-mail, the challenges of maintaining cross client appearance uniformity is much more daunting than the old "designing for MSIE vs. Netscape" quandary, and as with designing for cross browser compatibility, you should test your e-mail template in as many of the most popular clients as possible, such as MS Outlook, Netscape Mail, Pegasus, and Eudora, as well as in the leading Web based clients such as HotMail and Yahoo! to name a few.

While good design sense and effective marketing presentations are the hardest part of the equation, and well beyond the scope of this article, the technical aspects of successful HTML formatted e-mail creation are not as difficult as some might make it seem, even though the procedures are specific to the process. Stay tuned for Part 2, and learn all about it! ~ Stephen