Add Life to your Emails

February 1st, 2003 DG, How - To, Tech

Email and Web surfing have the potential to be seamless together, and learning how to make the most attractive (and effective) emails you can isn’t too difficult. But there are pitfalls…

The Lowest Common Denominator

HTML emails are the darling of commercial operators for several reasons — not only do they look better, it’s easier to track how many people read them.

And there’s no reason you can’t send HTML emails to show family photos, portfolio samples to a prospective employer or just to entice people to visit your own website.

All you need to know is that HTML email follows the same principles as traditional web page design — to reach as broad an audience as you can, you must cater to the lowest common denominator.

That means deciding which email client, operating system, screen resolution & dimensions and Internet connection most of your audience will have.

Nine out of ten desktop systems in the world are PCs running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Outlook Express with a screen resolution of 800×600 pixels, so the safest bet for designing a page to fit within most email client message windows is 500 pixels wide.

A Mini Website

Construct your email as you would any other web page using whichever method and software you prefer (ie a WYSIWIG or text editor).

Whereas in a plain text email, links to other locations have to be copied and pasted into a browser, HTML emails can contain direct links just like other web pages. Not only do the suits love it because they can track traffic numbers, but it lets you devise your email like a website complete with a menu bar or navigation links.

The crunch comes when you’re placing images. You can instruct your HTML email to either take the images along with it from your local system (so they’ll download at the other end with the email text file) or source them from elsewhere on the Internet (such as your website).

Both methods have their ups and downs. The key to pictures in HTML email is whether your readers will be online or offline when they read your email.

If you embed your pictures with the email, they’ll go down the line as attachments and display fine (but will make for a bigger email). If it displays images from elsewhere on the web and your readers have downloaded it then disconnected from 56k dialup connections, the picture links will be broken.

Don’t Shut Out Non HTML Clients

Invariably, some people still use email clients that don’t display HTML. They’re not Luddites — it’s a valid and fairly popular choice.

HTML takes longer to download than a plain text message — some people just want the bare bones of the information. Some servers automatically strip attachments from email to protect against viruses. Hackers and virus writers have to program for popular software too, so some users stick with little-used email clients to avoid getting infected.

You don’t want to shut those people out, and thankfully it’s easy not to.

If you send HTML code in an email and it arrives at an email client that can’t read it, it’ll display the code as the body of the message — obviously it’ll be meaningless gibberish. You can get around it by adding a comment to your HTML code.

Originally devised to make notes for yourself in your HTML code, the comment tag (
A good place for the comment tags is within the head of the HTML document so it’s the first thing a non-HTML email client displays. It’s also common to include about 50 hard carriage returns after the comment text but still within the tag. That way, the rest of the HTML text won’t appear in your recipient’s message window.

Also, non-HTML email clients will still receive attached any pictures the HTML was supposed to arrange, so those users will still be able to view your pictures.

The Recipient List

Unless you’re a direct marketer maintaining thousands of addresses and sending emails every few days, it’s unlikely you’ll have to worry about the high-end automation database or CRM software offers. The address book of most popular email software can be transformed into a recipient list for your HTML email project.

If your intended recipients are already in your email client address book, you’re ready to go. Usually you can simply drag the recipients to your open email or create a new list that flags all of them as your recipients in one step.

If you are using some sort of list management software to manage contact lists, the best known programs such as Filemaker and Excel can export data in forms most major email clients can use.

In the case of Microsoft Excel data, the popular mail clients work in the following ways;

Netscape Communicator

Unless your address book and lists are saved in Netscape Messenger already, it’s quickest to just copy and paste addresses into a new address book list.

Microsoft Outlook

As Outlook and Excel come from the Microsoft stable, it’s as easy as copying your addresses from Excel and pasting them into the recipient window of your open email in Outlook.

Eudora

If your plan for a HTML email doesn’t extend further than pretty text, forget it. Eudora doesn’t recognise or send HTML code in emails apart from basic colour and text alignment tags, so links and images are out.

Again, it’s easier if your addresses are already in Eudora’s address book, although you can import all settings from other email clients on your system.

Title

With your HTML code written, images in the attachments box (or their URLs in the HTML code) and your recipients’ addresses all in place, it’s time to click send.

But be careful; now is the time to make sure you’re sending the message as HTML and not plain text. If you don’t, everyone might end up with the code — not as bad as it sounds as your comment tag will be in place — but not what you wanted after all that work.

Netscape Messenger

Select ‘HTML text only’ in Options panel

Microsoft Outlook

Paste your HTML code into the message body but select ‘HTML’ in the Format menu before you send.

Eudora

Like Microsoft Word, all you can do with Eudora is apply text attributes.

Remember

Know your audience. Few home Internet users in Australia have broadband access as yet whereas most business users do.

If you think most of the people who’ll receive your email will be home users with 56k dialup connections, ask yourself if they’ll read your email before disconnecting.

If so, you’re safe linking to images on the web somewhere. Otherwise you’ll end up with broken links where your pictures should be. Ask yourself which will suit your particular HTML email project better.

And if that sounds like a Zen-like question without an answer, welcome to Internet design and best of luck!


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