Ensuring your HTML Emails Look Great and Get Delivered

Boy what a difference 18 months can make! In my last Vitamin article I was singing the praises of standards based email and encouraging the use of CSS in your email designs. While the browser market has continued to strive for better standards support, a major player in the email industry has unfortunately done the opposite.

With the release of Outlook 2007 earlier this year using the Word rendering engine instead of Internet Explorer, my recommendations just don’t make the cut any more. I’ve decided to revisit my original suggestions and bring them more in line with today’s baseline. I’ve also had a good look at the feedback and comments from the original post. Getting your email to look good is only one piece of the puzzle, so I’ve dedicated the second half of this article to recommendations on how you can improve the chances of your emails actually getting delivered.

Some things change, some stay the same

While the best way to code your email might have changed, a number of key email design fundamentals haven’t changed a bit. My original article focused on the importance of designing for images being turned off and making sure your design looks good in the preview pane. Not only are these notions still relevant, they’re more important than ever with more and more email clients using preview panes and blocking images by default.

In the last 18 months we’ve seen the new version of Hotmail, known as Windows Live Hotmail and the new Yahoo! Mail sport a preview pane layout that blocks images by default for unknown senders.

In terms of image blocking, it’s safe to assume that at least half of your recipients will receive your email without any visible images. Because of this, it’s still important to ask your recipients to add you to their contacts/safe senders list when they subscribe (and in each email subsequent email you send), which often results in your images being turned on by default.

On top of image blocking and preview panes, my other recommendations on essential content, the importance of testing and key things to avoid all still apply. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you check out these suggestions.

Learning to love inline CSS

You might ask why an update to only one particular email client might change my entire position on using CSS in email. That one’s easy. Outlook commands more than two thirds of the business email market. Admittedly, not everyone will have upgraded to the 2007 version so far, but many more will. Add the imperfections of Hotmail and Gmail to the mix and it becomes difficult to justify sending a garbled email to so many of your subscribers.

No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater though. CSS still has an important role to play, albeit in its non-semantic inline form — but it works. For example:

<p style=”font-family:Arial; font-weight:bold;
font-size:11px; color:#060;”>Look ma, no semantics!</p>

I know many of you probably cringe at the thought of this, but if you’re looking to get any kind of design consistency across the major email environments, it’s your best option. Not all CSS is supported though, you’re actually working with a limited subset. Here’s an outline of what CSS is and isn’t supported in 14 of the most popular email clients.

For a solid level of support in Outlook 2007 and Gmail, as well as other major clients, stick with inline CSS
for the following properties:

  • background-color
  • border
  • color
  • font-family
  • font-size
  • font-style
  • font-variant
  • font-weight
  • letter-spacing
  • line-height
  • margin
  • padding
  • text-align
  • text-decoration
  • text-transform

Using tables for basic layout

If you’re looking to add columns or any kind of significant design element to your email, then unfortunately structural tables are the only way to go. Float and width are just too poorly supported at this stage to consider completely CSS-based layouts. Don’t get too ahead of yourself though, just because you can use tables doesn’t mean pixel perfect design will be easy.

Just like CSS, different email clients handle tables differently. When you start to add in a bit of cell padding and maybe nest a table or two, things can get ugly fast. Again, there are some basic table guidelines you can stick to so you can at least maintain your sanity.

  1. Don’t go nesting crazy. As soon as you start nesting more than one table deep some email clients really start to choke, especially older clients like Lotus Notes. Even Outlook handles the padding in a nested table differently to that of the parent table.
  2. Instead of specifying your table width in the <table> tag, specify the width of each cell in the <td> tag. You’ll find this gives you more consistency across the board.
  3. Make sure you don’t mix cellpadding with padding via inline CSS. Some email clients really struggle with this, so stick to basic cellpadding and no CSS for the best results.

Here’s an example of some simple table code that will render most consistently across the major email clients. Notice the lack of width in the table tag and no CSS.

<table cellspacing="0"
cellpadding="10" border="0">
  <td width="120"></td>
  <td width="480"></td>

The takeaway from this really is to keep things simple, which I think is a good thing for email anyway. Avoid large images and complex layouts and instead focus on making your content readable no matter how your subscribers are viewing your email.

Looking ahead

While the current lack of standards support in the email world is discouraging, complaining about it isn’t going to get us anywhere. We need to start being vocal to email client developers and encourage them to embrace web standards when rendering HTML emails. It’s a big job, and that’s why we recently launched the Email Standards Project — a brand new initiative that will hopefully broaden the communication lines between designers and those responsible for how email clients render HTML email. Check it out and help spread the word if you think it’s an important issue.

Getting your emails delivered

Even though achieving consistency in how your emails are rendered is a challenge in itself, you’ve still got a long way to go before it actually arrives in your subscriber’s inbox. The world of email deliverability has changed a lot in recent years. Originally, content was king. As long as you weren’t blacklisted and your email content didn’t include lots of “spammy” words, then you had a good chance of getting delivered. Today however, ISP’s and spam filtering technology has got a whole lot smarter and more aggressive.

Who is sending the email is becoming more important than what the email says. ISPs are doing this by watching their customers reassign habits and use of the “Mark as spam” button, and then tying that back to the sending domain and IP address. If a subscriber is regularly opening your email then you should be in the clear, but if a decent number rarely open your email and mark it as spam then you might not make the inbox much longer. Known as your sender reputation, it’s the most important factor in getting your emails delivered today. Just like the real world, having a good reputation ensures trust, and if ISP’s don’t trust you, you’re in trouble.

This introduces a new challenge to anyone sending reasonable amounts of email. No longer is getting permission enough to assume your email will be delivered. If it’s not relevant and exactly what the subscriber asked for, you run the risk of them marking your email as spam. It’s a delicate but extremely democratic
system; your ability to deliver email truly is in your subscriber’s hands, so treat them with the respect they deserve.

Ensuring a good sender reputation

There are three major metrics most ISPs use when calculating your sender reputation, each of which are easy to maintain provided you use some common sense. These metrics are your spam complaint rate, the percentage of email you send to addresses that no longer exist, and finally the number of spam trap addresses you send to. Spam traps are generally email addresses created by ISPs and anti-spam companies to lure spam by never actually signing up to anything, but publishing them in spots where email harvesters will pick them up.

By following the simple guidelines below, you can ensure these three metrics never become an issue and
tarnish your sender reputation.

  1. Get their permission — File this one under “so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning”. Unless you have clear, explicit permission from everyone on your list then please don’t bother sending anything to them. There are no shades of grey here either — it’s like someone “sort of” being pregnant. If they don’t remember giving you their permission, they’ll mark your email as spam and shoot your sending reputation in the foot. This is also the only way to guarantee you won’t ever be sending to spam trap addresses.
  2. Set expectations and stick to them ââ
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