Can Recipients Read Your Emails? Here’s How To Make Sure…

Can Recipients Read Your Emails? Here’s How To Make Sure…

Keeping Web pages consistent across multiple browsers is tricky. But with experience, publishers have developed tools and skills for controlling those variations.

HTML email is another matter. While its popularity has soared (68 percent of email marketing messages were HTML-formatted last year, according to Opt-In News), it can still be tough to ensure that it will be viewed as intended by your target audience.

More than 30 email readers are in common use, including various flavors of Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Entourage, AOL, Netscape Messenger, Lotus Notes, Groupwise, Eudora and WebTV; Web-based systems such as Yahoo!-Mail and Hotmail; and hand-held devices. “The capacity of these email readers to handle HTML varies widely, as does the way that even simple elements, like character fonts and URL links, may look,” points out Willie Lubka, an online business consultant/broker based in Thousand Oaks, CA. “Even Web-based systems handle some elements of HTML differently. The water is further muddied by variables such as user preferences, security filters, forwarding services and accounts that download email for offline reading.”

In addition, it can be difficult to determine which email programs are dominant within your customer base. “Web site testing usually focuses on the exact browser types that appear most often in Web server logs,” says Leanne Waldal, CEO of Otivo, a Web and email testing agency whose clients include Mother Jones, Forbes and Bright-mail. “Unfortunately, there’s no similar technique for tracking the email readers your customers are using, unless your target audience is a closed group, such as a corporate network in which all users are on Lotus Notes.”

As a result, carefully designed email messages frequently go awry for varying percentages of recipients. “A host of issues can botch the display of messages,” says David Wilson, president of Wilson Rusch, a New York City marketing/creative agency with clients in the publishing and financial service industries. “This may depress response and impact the sender’s credibility.”

While it’s nearly impossible to ensure 100-percent-perfect email display and functionality, here are some best practices, gathered by Lubka, which should help greatly reduce unreadability levels:


Don’t make assumptions about formats – test them. “Generalized debates about the results of HTML versus text-only email are irrelevant to specific lists,” says Wilson. “What really matters is what works with your prospects and customers. Depending on the list and the offer, we’ve sometimes seen better results with text-only messages. Just as with direct mail, the ugliest approach sometimes pulls best.”

Anna Zornosa, CEO at Topica, an online publishing service that handles email for the National Geographic Society, IDG and Van-guarde, agrees that some demographic segments prefer text-only messages.

“Tech-savvy audiences may not sign up for your messages unless you offer them the choice of receiving email in text format,” she observes. “However, graphic images are so essential for some marketing purposes that text versions are virtually a waste of resources. For example, we believe that a magazine cover image is absolutely required for circulation marketing messages.”

It is a valid marketing decision to send a 100-percent HTML email, says Zornosa, but you should make this very clear at the point where people sign up for your list. “Tell customers in advance that they will be receiving graphical email messages,” she advises. “If you don’t inform people that your email messages will be HTML-formatted, you risk alienating a number of groups, including some international readers, people whose software is not capable of displaying HTML, and anyone who prefers text.” Limiting your list to recipients who are willing and able to see HTML messages also helps conserve your email budget by reducing wasted deliveries.


Assure quality. “HTML email publishers should develop a standard testing routine,” advises Waldal. Set up a test mailing list that includes the email reader software that you believe is dominant among your customers and prospects. For Web-based email systems like Hotmail, be sure to test on the same set of browsers that you use for Web site testing. Include a text-only reader, such as Pine or Elm, to ensure that your messages are at least understandable to those using older systems.

Testers should follow a checklist that includes: receiving the message; checking the ‘from’, ‘to’ and ‘subject’ lines; checking the content and graphics; scrolling the message; maximizing the message window; clicking all links to be sure that they work and that the right external pages show up; forwarding the email to another email address; and, if appropriate, printing out the message. The unsubscribe function should also be tested.

In addition, testers should establish a clearly defined process for the recipient to report a problem, and for resending and double-checking the message once the bug has been addressed.

Be disciplined about tweaking your email message after the quality assurance routine has been completed. Even tiny last-minute changes can be perilous, warns Waldal.


Optimize your formatting. Advanced techniques such as style sheets, Java scripts and embedded forms increase the risk that some email readers will fail to handle the message correctly. Background images and redirect URL’s also can create problems.

“HTML code in email messages should be kept as clean and minimal as possible,” says Christine Manikas, account director at Wilson Rusch. “One of the ways we’ve gotten around some of the problems with email clients is to ‘dumb down’ messages by eliminating all HTML code except for personalization and opt-out or privacy policy links, then use a simplified, single-graphic image to convey the offer.

“We’ve also learned that some corporate firewalls and ISP’s set limits on the allowable file size of email messages,” Manikas adds. “Our rule of thumb is to keep HTML emails under 30K. Limiting message size also makes downloading speedier for recipients who use modem dial-up accounts.”

Make sure that your message will fit in email reader windows. Waldal cautions that the screen space in many email readers is smaller than that in Web browsers, so HTML emails formatted at the same width as a Web page often expand wider than the screen.


Be user-friendly. Offer recipients means of getting around email readability problems, and alternatives to accessing message content.

Entertainment Weekly’s Monitor email newsletter, for example, includes this nontechnical, user-friendly help message about email display: “Does this format look wrong? If so, change your email to the text version…”. In addition, this newsletter’s URL provides links to a pre-populated form where the user can complete the format change with just two mouse clicks.

Southern Living’s SLNEWS e-newsletter employs another smart technique: “Having trouble using this news-letter? Try our version on the Web site…”.

“We added this message after our customer service group told us that they had heard from some of our readers about problems such as links that didn’t work, and fonts being too small,” says SL online manager Robin Spooner. “We discovered several reasons for the problems. One is that some people are using old versions of software. The Web-page version of the email newsletter provides recipients with an easy alternative to struggling with email glitches.”


Heed customer feedback. As SL’s experience demonstrates, it’s important to keep a communication loop open between customer service and your marketing and production teams. Frequently reported complaints, for example, should be considered red alerts about bugs that need to be addressed immediately.

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