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.