Why Web Standards Matter for Email

It’s been almost 10 years now since the broader web design world was introduced to the ideas, and the importance, of web standards. The Web Standards Project taught us all that we shouldn’t have to code the same page twice for Netscape and Internet Explorer. By designing to web standards, and with the help of increasing browser support, we could reduce the time and money spent coding and make lighter, faster, more accessible websites.

Unfortunately, just like that Celine Dion song from Titanic, HTML email rendering has been left in 1998. Getting even a relatively simple design to work in the 10 or 12 major email clients can be a very frustrating task, and support is getting worse, not better. It’s time for web designers and email client developers to realise that we need to follow the path that web standards for browsers has cut so clearly.

HTML email is here to stay

Designers, particularly web standards designers, have not shown a lot of love for the idea of HTML email. Key figures in the industry have spoken out against it, and the general approach has been very much ‘Don’t do it’.

This approach has proven to be ineffective; The use of HTML emails has greatly increased, and there are some very solid reasons for that:

Every popular email client sends HTML email

Not only that, but most have HTML as the default sending format. Since the massive majority of email users are not web designers, they don’t have the same philosophical or technical objections to the idea of HTML in email, and are just happy to be able to paste images into their messages.

HTML email gets results

Businesses sending messages to their customers continually get better results, measured in clicks, interest and actual sales, with HTML than they do with plain text. Recent studies have shown that email marketing can provide a better return for each dollar spent than any other direct marketing channel.

HTML emails can be a better experience

If you signup for an email from Threadless, you probably want to know what new t-shirts are available each week. Having a photo of the new designs is a much faster way than trying to describe it in text. HTML can make a message clearer and easier to understand, especially by giving back typographic control - add real headings, line spacing and emphasis without needing *punctuation hacks*.

With some design thought, restraint and skill, an HTML email can be a significantly more effective way of making your point in email.

So HTML in email is going to be used whether designers agree or not. Given that will be sent, and somebody will design them, shouldn’t it be web designers rather than the marketing secretary? And wouldn’t it be great to be able to use the same semantic, light HTML and CSS you already craft for your websites?

Web standards make sense for email

Most people reading this will be well aware of the positives web standards offer for designing websites, but how do they apply to emails?

  1. It removes the guess work from email design

    This is an instant win for designers and everyday email users alike. If all email client developers aimed for something close to web standards, you could design an email knowing it would work for all your subscribers. Wouldn’t that be fantastic! Even better, you could rest assured that any subscriber with an HTML capable email client could read your message the way it was intended. Of course, you’d always send a plain text alternative for those who need or prefer it.

  2. Faster loading and reduced bandwidth consumption

    Well coded, standards compliant markup that separates content from presentation is generally much more compact than nested table and spacer-image based markup. In frustration, many designers have resorted to sending purely image-based emails (remember when websites where built like that!). This adds significantly to the file size and results in a poor experience for their subscribers because of the very common image blocking techniques in email clients.

  3. Make your email accessible to all

    Using standards does not automatically mean your email will be readable to people with disabilities, but it’s certainly a great start. By separating content from presentation you’re making it much easier for everyone to access your email.

Many designers who started web design in the last few years have never even coded a table based layout, which is a good thing. The current email environment means a designer not familiar with the table based approach will need to learn a completely different way of creating a page if they want to send HTML emails. Let’s not go back to those days.

I think we can agree that if we could have the major email clients all supporting at least a subset of web standards, we would be in a much better situation than we are now. If things continue the way they are heading, with designers ignoring the issue completely, this will never happen.

The Email Standards Project is an attempt to help move standards in HTML email forward, towards more consistent, reliable support. We’d love to hear from you as a designer or as an email client developer about how we can help you, or any contribution you can make. If you disagree with us, that’s ok too, and please do get in touch.