HTML e-mail is crap

There are many conflicting opinions about HTML e-mail, how effective it is, how secure it is, and if it should even be used. HTML e-mail should absolutely never be used, for several reasons:

  1. Not everyone uses it. Every e-mail user can view plain text e-mails. 100%. The same cannot be said for HTML e-mail. No matter what the reason, not everyone uses HTML e-mail. So when you decide to send an e-mail in HTML format, you’re deciding to exclude a percentage of all recipients. Imagine if your state decided that it was going to build roads that can only be used by Chevrolet vehicles. It just doesn’t make sense. Why not make a road that can be used by all vehicles so no one is excluded?
  2. Most major e-mail clients and hosted services now block the display of remote images. AOL, Earthlink, Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook 2003, Outlook Express, Yahoo Mail, Thunderbird, all block the display of remove images by default. So an e-mail that arrives with such images is not going to look like what you want it to look like. Users do have the option of turning images on, but this is rare. They are off by default for a reason. According to an HTML E-mail Study by MarketingSherpa 2005, the percentage of HTML e-mails whose images were blocked by AOL 8.0 was zero. 0%. Okay, fine. But the percentage of HTML e-mails whose images were blocked by AOL 9.0 (one version later) was 52%! What does that mean? AOL is now protecting its customers by disabling remote images in HTML e-mails by default. By the way, the percentage in Gmail is 100%. Outlook 2003? 100%.
    These aren’t opinions. And the study doesn’t address the reason. But the reasons don’t matter. E-mail clients are blocking image display in HTML e-mails. It’s a fact.
  3. E-mail campaign companies frequently use transparent 1×1 pixel images to track e-mail usage. This just goes against everything I believe in. They do it to track each time an e-mail message is open, who opens it, and how often they open it. So, what’s so wrong with that? Simple. It is done without the recipient’s knowledge! It’s a covert action to track the recipient’s e-mail usage, and that’s just wrong. If it wasn’t meant to be secret, then why not use a big image that contains the words, “The fact that you opened this e-mail has been recorded by the sending e-mail server. The company who sent you this message now knows that you read it and when.”Security and privacy are huge issues on the internet today! Absolutely huge. And when we use tricks to get around these issues, it’s just wrong.
  4. Sending plain text e-mail is so simple and it works for everyone. Sending a plain text e-mail forces you to get to the point with your message. Be clear and simple and say what you want to say. If you want, include a link to a web page, with information in the e-mail that compels the recipient to click on it.

So, why do companies use HTML e-mail? If you ask them, they’ll say it’s simple. Because it works. According to this article from 2002, HTML e-mail messages garnered 11.3 percent click-through rate versus a 6 percent click-through for text messages. You can’t argue with those numbers. But to that, I still refer you back to my point #3 above. Displaying images in e-mails to track recipients’ e-mail usage habits is wrong, unless you tell them. If you must do it, and you feel that what you’re doing is not against accepted privacy practices, then just be up front about it. Tell each e-mail recipient what you’re doing. And don’t make your e-mail campaign a covert operation.

With all of the flack about HTML e-mail, why would any company want to be associated with it? It’s just not worth it.

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