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An introduction to HTML email...

You know when you wake up suddenly and find yourself not where you were just a moment ago? A heavy dissonance ringing between where your mind wanted to go and where you find yourself now. You take a moment to make sense of the jumbled jigsaw in front of you. This may repeat for what sometimes seems like an eternity. These folks know what I’m talking about.

Behind the continuous advancement of online technologies can be heard a constant call for standards. This establishes common ground upon which communities can build — agreements in language and foundations that aim to ensure innovation. But of the Internet technologies used today there is one that remains complacent in its compliance: email.

In a recent study by Radicati Group, Inc., the number of worldwide email accounts is projected to increase from over 2.9 billion in 2010 to over 3.8 billion in the year 2014. Though most users may not be aware of the inconsistencies in standards (as a majority limit usage to plain-text emails) the application of HTML in email is akin to that of the Internet Stone Age.

In danger of deletion

Too often, this is the unfortunate reality of the HTML email. What should be a convenient way to deliver tasteful content to a regular audience can backfire. Left at the mercy of misfit email clients and browsers, email designers are unable to take advantage of techniques used elsewhere on the web. Would you be content with your telephone company only guaranteeing transmissions spoken in monotone 1920s slang? You might think it to be the bee’s knees now, but it’d get old real fast.

Dumb it down

For now there are tricks to getting around these shortfalls in standards. You just have to dumb things down. Forget what you know about the latest advances in HTML and CSS and travel back to a simpler time. Organize your information into nested tables. Avoid linking to external style sheets and rely on inline CSS. Keep imagery small and rather than embed (causing bloated filesizes), link to them using absolute URLs. It’s smart to keep an eye on what happens to your emails after delivery. Take advantage of the many tools like Google Analytics or Campaign Monitor. They can go a long way in measuring your effectiveness.

No matter the shortcuts you employ, the most important tip is to test. Test in each major email client (Outlook, Yahoo!, Hotmail, and Gmail to name a few) and test after each significant change. At first it can seem to be an endless loop but by distilling down to the essentials and progressively harmonizing your designs through testing, you’ll find yourself conducting quick and reliable HTML emails like a regular maestro in no time.