Kay lives here

working with the web


Do we really need standards for HTML email?


There’s been some posts cir­cu­lat­ing lately about HTML email, and the hor­ri­ble things that email clients do to dis­play them, and the need for stan­dards. Many peo­ple in the web stan­dards com­mu­nity, while sup­port­ing the idea of stan­dards for every­thing, have a dis­tinct dis­like of HTML email.

I can under­stand where they are com­ing from. HTML email, when used for ordi­nary email exchanges, is hor­ri­ble. They are larger — even with­out images, we’re talk­ing 7 — 10KB for a small mes­sage ver­sus 1 or 2KB for the plain text equiv­a­lent, which over time adds up when you save every­thing. Then there’s the issue of overuse of fonts, and gar­ish, hard to read colours, and “email sta­tion­ary”, and hideous tiling back­ground images, and even (please, god, no, make it stop) ani­mated GIFs.

How­ever, there is one kind of HTML email that I do like to get: HTML email newslet­ters. The Freshview team have ele­vated these to an art form through their excel­lent (and heartily rec­om­mended) prod­ucts Cam­paign Mon­i­tor and Mail­Build. A well-crafted, pro­fes­sional email newslet­ter can be a joy to receive.

Yes, the com­pany could put that infor­ma­tion into an RSS feed. Yes, we could get it from there instead. But for those of us suf­fer­ing infor­ma­tion over­load, or not yet ready to explain RSS to our par­ents, vary­ing the for­mat and mak­ing it inter­est­ing with some nice design can mix it up a bit. For some sites, we don’t need to know about what’s new the sec­ond it hap­pens — and a monthly or quar­terly digest is a good alter­na­tive. From a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive, HTML email can also be very effec­tive, so it’s a good thing for our clients.

Regard­less of which par­tic­u­lar view you sub­scribe too, it’s gen­er­ally accepted that HTML email is here to stay, so some stan­dards would be nice. A cou­ple of weeks ago, Dave Greiner from Freshview answered the ques­tion of why we need stan­dards sup­port in HTML email, then fol­lowed up with “a call to arms”: Help us form a base­line for stan­dards sup­port. Appar­ently the response from the com­mu­nity was good, and a web site ded­i­cated to the “move­ment” will be launched soon.

The out­come will cer­tainly be inter­est­ing: this issue is one to watch. But I still wish that indi­vid­u­als would switch to plain text for their every­day con­ver­sa­tional email!


  1. Like the mobile web, HTML mail needs to have stan­dards we need to get behind any stan­dards move­ment. We really need to engage the ven­dors on this one from day one and learn from the lessons of the past. Good post Kay.

  2. Thanks for the great post and link Kay. You are right that for most per­sonal email HTML is not adding much, and plain text is the best choice.

    How­ever, there is times when some well coded HTML head­ings or inline images can make a mes­sage much more quickly under­stand­able and useful.

    It’s going to get sent any­way — let’s work to make it bet­ter for everyone.