Outlook 2007 and HTML email design: a summary

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Update: Outlook 2010 isn't looking any better.

As the dust settles on the big bust up over Outlook 2007 and how it displays emails, I thought I'd sum up the arguments, issues and implications. Here goes...

The story so far

Microsoft's new version of Outlook, the email client included within their forthcoming Office 2007 software, features an important change in how it displays emails.

Previously, Outlook relied on the technology behind its sibling web browser (Internet Explorer) to interpret the underlying code and instructions that HTML emails use to tell Outlook where and how to display all those images, colors etc.

The new Outlook 2007 now uses Word to do that job instead.

The big deal is that Word is not nearly as good as Internet Explorer at understanding HTML elements and style properties (CSS). Microsoft themselves published an article describing the various things that Outlook 2007 will not be able to cope with. These include:

  • Forms

  • Background images

  • Animated GIFs

  • Flash

  • Float or position commands

  • Alt tags in images


In a nutshell, this places a lot of restrictions on email design. Needless to say, email designers are not happy.

The fires of protest first sparked into flame via an article in Sitepoint's newsletter. This led to a now-famous blog post by David Greiner, with the memorable title "Microsoft takes email design back 5 years."

David's post in turn led to a slew of similar posts from outraged designers, who like him were upset at the limitations imposed on their work by Outlook. The story even made it to the front page of ClickZ and Digg.

Is this bad for email marketing?

The general consensus is that the implications for email marketing are not huge. This is because Outlook is predominately used by the business community.

Other email clients typically used by business folk aren't particular good with HTML and CSS either. So most B2B email marketers are already sending out Outlook 2007-friendly HTML emails.

For example, the folk at MailChimp point out that much of the "lost" functionality was never standard in HTML email design anyway. In other words, we're losing a lot of functionality that wasn't particularly valuable in the first place.

That opinion is echoed by Bill Nussey of Silverpop, who notes, "Bottom line, Outlook 2007's rendering engine is not a game-changing event for email marketers."

The counterargument is that these other email clients never had enough market share to make it compulsory to send out "watered down" HTML emails.

So some people will inevitably have to go back to their email template and redesign them again, on the assumption that Outlook 2007 will likely become the most popular email software among business people.

Even then, say experts, there's no reason why simpler HTML has to mean poorer response rates.

Some suggest that the negative reaction is more to do with the creative restrictions it imposes on designers rather than any likely marketing problems.

In other words, yes, design needs to take account of Outlook 2007's relatively poor rendering capabilities, but you can still send decent looking, effective email to people using it.

That argument is exemplified by Greg Cangialosi, who writes on the Blue Sky Factory blog, "This is a small blow to email marketers, but certainly not the biggest deal. What this really does is make all of that great creative talent we have out there revert back to nascent HTML email design"

So why the fuss?

To some extent the uproar comes from a reopening of two traditional divisions in email marketing.

The first is between the creative folk and the marketing folk.

Some marketers have made relatively offhand comments along the lines, of "tough, get over it," which is a touch disrespectful to the trade and art of email design.

If you took away the color green from an artist's palette, she could still paint great works of art. But you wouldn't expect her to be happy about it.

The second division is between the email marketing community and a section of the anti-spam community...those who believe marketing email in general and HTML marketing email in particular is an abomination. See, for example, this article by Jack Schofield.

The anti-HTML-in-email brigade have welcomed the move, though it's a pyrrhic victory: it won't change the number of HTML emails around, it will just make them less creative.

So are there any practical implications?

Yes. If you are tackling a business audience with your list and never bothered to consider problems with how your emails display, then this is a necessary wake-up call. Various versions of Outlook have a market share among business users of over 50%. So expect Outlook 2007 to be widely used.

The change should be seen as a further reminder that how your emails display is a critical part of email marketing.

The more complex the email and the more fancy the coding within it, the less likely it is to be seen as you intended. It doesn't mean the end of email design creativity, but it certainly means you need to take a more circumspect approach to the whole topic.

People view your emails using different software. Some use a desktop email client, others use webmail. There are different webmail services. Some people read emails on their mobile device. This diversity needs accommodating in your email design.

Equally, the less creative flexibility you have in terms of layout, images and colors, the more thought needs to go into other aspects of the email, such as the words you use and the offer you present.

So while Outlook 2007 may not prove to be the disaster some have called it, it's certainly another good reason to take a longer deeper look at the email we send.

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Permalink | January 18, 2007 | 18 comment(s)
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18 Comments:

This makes it sound like there's no cost associated with the removal of HTML features, as if designers just do design for the creative expression. As a result of Microsoft's decision, thousands of small business owners have to pay designers to re-do their e-newsletters. And for designers who work on the Macintosh, there is no inexpensive way to be able to test designs to ensure they're Outlook 2007-friendly. In all, there are a lot of extra costs associated with making the changes, all to achieve less functionality. What a waste of business, productive and creative resources! Businesses who send out e-newsletters will not benefit from this change, nor wiill people who read e-newsletters. As far as I can tell, the only beneciaries are Microsoft for forcing compliance with their way of doing things, and some PC designers who will have to charge their clients for work that will undo a design that they have previously paid for.
By Blogger Barry Shuchter, on 31 October, 2007  
 

Hi Barry and thanks for your input. Appreciate that some small businesses will need to pay for changes. Though I think that was going to happen anyway with the great mix of display environments now out there?

The good news though is that there are some inexpensive services which allow you to test designs in Outlook 7 without having to install it.

MailChimp's Inbox Inspector is $39 for three tries. And Litmus gives you a month of unlimited tests for slightly more (but with less features).
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 31 October, 2007  
 

Mark--

Hi. Thanks for the links. I imagined someone would come up with a workaround at some point. It certainly will help us Mac users.

And yes, your point is taken that small businesses occasionally have to do re-designs to keep up with the latest environments. However, usually those changes are optional, because they include new features and possibliities. In this case, the changes are mandatory, because they remove functionality that is already there and that is supported everywhere except Outlook 2007.
By Blogger Barry Shuchter, on 31 October, 2007  
 

Hopefully we won't have to go through this kind of thing in the future if email design standards move forward like browser standards did. Campaign Monitor are leading the initiative...but who knows how long it will take...
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 31 October, 2007  
 

Strange, but my html email looking fine in all mail clients like Foxmail,Thebat also in outlook express what come with windows xp standard programs. I'm just wondering why design broken in Office Outlook?
Spent a lot of time for creating good html newsletter for site http://www.oscommerce-packages.com and now trying find decision.
By Anonymous Anonymous, on 12 December, 2007  
 

I found a GOOD solution to creating HTML emails that you can send out in Outlook. This works very well and you are NOT limited by Outlooks html rendering.

First, create an html email in a separate program like Dreamweaver. Make sure that all of the image references are to images that are on a web server and available to the web (if you donít have access to a web server then you can embed the images but itís much trickier). Make sure all image source references are absolute links (full address). Then open the html file in IE 7. Select File > Send > Page by Email.

Bingo, IE 7 imports your code into an Outlook email and your done and you werenít restricted by Outlooks html rendering and you can send it out to any list you have. If you designed your html email with good code (you may have to use a few hacks) it should display perfectly in all email programs, even Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and AOL!

This is somewhat of an advanced solution but actually works very well and bypasses all of the problems mentioned in this post.

Good Luck,
Wes
By Anonymous Wes, on 10 February, 2008  
 

Thanks Wes. The problem covered here, though, is not really sending HTML email via Outlook. We're more concerned with how your HTML email looks when viewed in Outlook 2007 by your subscribers.

So neat solution, but a different problem!
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 10 February, 2008  
 

I had worked on making a scalable rich html email that works well in all clients.

http://commadot.com/the-holy-mail/

I hope it's helpful. Glen
By Blogger Glen Lipka, on 19 April, 2008  
 

Thanks Glen. More on Glen's template in a post about HTML design here.
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 20 April, 2008  
 

It probably depends who you're targeting - dumbos or intelligent people. Most real people (as contrasted to advertising professionals) detest flash, animated GIFs and floats even in web pages, let alone in e-mail messages. Doing something just because you can, regardless of its impact, is not 'creativity', it's foolishness. 'Creativity' is tailoring your message to the people you are targeting, without pissing them off.
By Anonymous John, on 22 April, 2008  
 

True, we do tend to confuse creativity with complexity and funky stuff. Thanks for the reminder John!
By Blogger Mark Brownlow - Email Marketing Reports, on 22 April, 2008  
 

Hi,

You said Wes's solution was to a different problem, however there are some 'very' small businesses out there (ie mine) who don't have people to do their HTML emails for them, and therefore used to send them in an Outlook signature. That functionality is now removed, which has a great impact on our HTML email mail-outs! Well at least I thought it did until I saw Wes's comment. So a big thanks to Wes for the tip - I'm off to try it now!
By Blogger Mart, on 21 July, 2008  
 

Unfortunately Wes'es solution does not work. My properly formed HTML email looks equally bad.
It's disgraceful that Microsoft are trying to dumb down web design and associated skills for the masses, and punishing those of us who actually work in the industry!
Has anyone tried sending a RTF email instead? How does that look in older versions of Outlook?
So annoyed!!
By Anonymous Rachel, on 17 February, 2009  
 

Rachel, I think many share your creative frustration.

The problem with any Outlook-specific design (like using RTF) is identifying who exactly is using Outlook 2007. Your other subscribers not on a clear webmail domain would also get the plain-looking rtf version?
By Anonymous Mark Brownlow, on 17 February, 2009  
 

I made some more nice looking templates.

https://marketo.helpstream.biz/View.jsp?procId=8a7feaaf1deccf7c011df868e9d86136

Glen Lipka
By Blogger Glen Lipka, on 17 February, 2009  
 

Seconding thanks to Wes,

Sorry if different thread - but Wes' comment is how I ended up here... pulling hair out over Outlook once again. But now have sending html email solved.

Thanks Wes!
By Anonymous Anonymous, on 20 January, 2010  
 

Wes, Thank you for your work around regarding creating/sending html email in dreamweaver and then having outlook translate it.

It fixes a pretty huge issue for me!
By Anonymous Anonymous, on 27 January, 2010  
 

My biggest complaint is that you can no longer right-click on an embedded image (or image link) and save it. You now must save the whole email as an HTML file and pull the picture out of the files directory.
By Anonymous Mike, on 23 April, 2010  
 

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