When Netscape came out with version 2.0, they included an email client.  The big new feature was that it could display HTML in the email message, so suddenly you could have full blown web pages in your email.  Images, forms, sounds etc.  It was all very exciting, but people soon realized that HTML emails are a LOT bigger than plain text emails.

At the time, people were including the images and sounds and whatnot right in the email, so emails were suddenly 100 times bigger (literally).  Eventually people got smart and started linking to the images externally.  But the HTML to lay out a page is still quite large.  A simple message I just tested was 15-20% bigger with HTML layout.  That grows exponentially with the complexity of the message and layout.  If someone makes a bunch of tables, it can get HUGE.

A result of all of this is that the amount of Internet bandwidth required for email has grown by leaps and bounds.  Since email is one of the largest uses of the net, that kills a lot of bandwidth.  For that reason, I’ve always been fairly against the use of HTML email.  If you want someone to see a web page, make a web page and send them the address.

As the years roll by, and more and more people use HTML email, I get more and more pressure from people to use it at work.  Newsletters, updates, whatnot.  Several people have used this argument: "They’re proving to be very effective ways to not only communicate, but also raise money.  Not only could we raise donor dollars, but we
could also sell advertising."

I don’t think the argument works because MANY MANY things fit that argument.  Pop-up windows, porn, etc.  On the other hand, if it’s carefully crafted to not be st00pid, is HTML email really that bad?  I’m seriously questioning my decades long bias against it.

I’d like to know what you think.  I kind of expect the geeks to be against it, but I’m curious as to whether the non-geeks amongst us like it, hate it, or simply don’t care.

11 thoughts on “HTML Email, a sticky wicket

  1. I place my vote for giving subscribers the choice. Call it E-mail with pictures. πŸ™‚ Bandwidth is cheap. *Most* everyone has broadband and dialup isn’t as slow as it was in the days of NN2.0. Bandwidth between servers isn’t really your concern either.

    Freedom to the people…. πŸ™‚

  2. I would have to say html email can work. The file sizes dont have to be that big and you can control much of the look with basic css. I say keep it simple, use text type ads rather than big graphics, use bolds and color difference to emphasize things. I think html email has its place but it cant be over done. Why not use two options send a basic html email that has color and graphics but still make the focus of the email a call to action to go to an included web address for more info.

  3. I’m going to vote with Joel. If you’re offering email, offer the option. HTML mail that is tastefully done can be very cool. Sticking big images in the email is NOT tactful, and referring to remote images is foolish because anyone with sense NEVER LOADS remote images πŸ™‚ My $0.02 for free…

  4. Yes, HTML email does require more bandwidth. But the reality is that it is a great way for businesses and organizations to produce great looking newsletters and information. Unfortunately we have to put up with all the SPAMMERS that use this same technology for their purposes. On a daily basis spam consumes 98% of my mailbox. This is the real problem!

  5. All good marketing has a cost-to-benefit ratio that has to be evaluated. There is no doubt that an HTML e-mail can be effective when done right. The problem is, so few actually do them right (Nikon comes to mind).

    The beauty of an HTML e-mail is that you can communicate in more than one way to your reader. With that in mind, you have to realize that you need to be GOOD at communicating in more than way to your reader, and it’s been my experience that wordsmiths have a hard time communicating visually. Remember: Content is King – both semantically and visually. Just think how much LESS effective a Web site would be if you didn’t use visuals. They both essentially serve the same purpose – communicating your agenda.

    I’m all for HTML e-mail as an option. Let the user decide how they want to spend their bandwidth; just as you should with a heavy bandwidth Web site.

    One other thing to keep in mind: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. You really need to have a clear purpose and strong measurables in place before starting any new project, especially one that could send your bandwidth sailing.

    I get both of their newsletters, and they consistently do a good job with both content and presentation.

  6. Me? I’m still against it. Email is not really meant for that type of communication, even though many now use it for such. Add to this the fact that email client support is still not a standard thing (or the methods of support)….

    However, if you are forced to go down that road, the split offerings (where the customer chooses) is definitely the best way to go. And LINKING to the images instead of embedding them is also the Best Thing ™.

    All IMHO, of course…..

  7. Erm, addendum: When I talked about email support not being a standard thing, I meant:

    Email support for *HTML EMAIL* not being standardized very well….

  8. Nathan, can you keep going with that thought? What was e-mail really inteneded for? Keep going; I’m listening. =)

  9. As I noted, it’s my *personal* opinion πŸ™‚

    But I believe the origins of email were meant for communication on more of a personal level – and not so much on mass levels (such as marketing)…..that’s again JUST MY VIEWPOINT (did I emphasize that enough?)

    While I can certainly see the benefits (ie mass marketing for almost free) of people using email for mass types of non-personal communication, that doesn’t mean I have to like it πŸ™‚

  10. crazy how such a good thing can trun into such a BAD thing… I’m with you; less marketing in my inbox the better!!!

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