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I am a big believer in the effectiveness of HTML email marketing.  It’s inexpensive and the results are easy to track.  However, the world of HTML email marketing is one filled with pitfalls the uninitiated can quickly fall into.

Creating the HTML code

We’ve all received an HTML email (one that uses images and has a layout like a web page as opposed to plain text) and somewhere on the top of that email we’ve likely seen a link to click if we’re having trouble viewing the email.  Why is that?  Unlike websites, email clients have no standards for rendering HTML.  (For further reading visit the Email Standards Project.)  There are over twenty email clients (both desktop and web based) that all support code used in an HTML email differently.

But wait, don’t despair just yet!  We have ways to deal with these differing environments.  Utilizing best practices, HTML email can be coded to render as good as possible in as many email clients as possible.  Perfection in each email client is not achievable (thus the “click here if you’re having trouble viewing” link).  And even if we did achieve perfection many email clients will block images by default and some may even toss our email to the spam folder.  How rude!

Tips for coding an HTML email

Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Include a link to an online version of the email.  Some email clients will simply make a mess of anything we do.  Plan for this!
  • Use images sparingly and never use an image for a main headline.  With images off the message should still be clear.
  • Use CSS code sparingly and abide by current standards (see Campaign Monitor’s Guide to CSS Support).
  • Make sure all images are uploaded to a server and references to those images use absolute URLs.
  • Abide by the CAN-SPAM Act.  We must include an unsubscribe link and our physical location.
  • Test the HTML email in as many email clients as possible.  There are online services that will do this for a fee but we can also create test accounts with webmail clients (Yahoo, Live Mail / Hotmail, Gmail) and install desktop clients (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mac Mail) on testing machines for this purpose.
  • Create both an HTML and a plain text version of the email.  Not all email clients will accept HTML email.

Sending an HTML marketing email

As if the pitfalls for creating an HTML email weren’t enough, we now must figure out how to send the message out.  First, do not attempt to send HTML email using Outlook (or any email client)!  You will need to use specific software or an online service designed to send multipart emails.  Multipart emails send both an HTML version and a plain text version.  This is required for any HTML email marketing because not all email clients will accept HTML emails.  For folks using such a client we need to deliver a plain text version.

For delivering HTML emails I have used two different approaches.

Install mailing list software on the server

Installing mailing list software on the server will allow us to both manage email addresses, send emails and handle unsubscribes in an automated manner.  The pros of this approach are that it is relatively inexpensive and we can integrate the software with our website to create such things as signup forms. We also don’t have to worry about exporting mailing lists to a separate service. The cons are that if the mailing list isn’t clean we run the risk of getting our server blacklisted, which will prevent our messages from being delivered in many cases.  The mailing list software that I like the best is ListMessenger. It is also worth noting that many content management systems have a mailing list module built into them, although I have found some of them to be unreliable.

Use an online service for sending your HTML emails

Subscribing to an online service will accomplish all your HTML email marketing tasks as well.  The pros of this approach are relative ease of use, enhanced reporting and no concerns about our server being blacklisted because sent messages use the services servers, not ours.  The cons are that we do incur additional costs (most are based on the number of email addresses we have) and we have to import our mailing list into their interface, which can lead to maintaining mailing lists in two places. I have used several of these online services and the one I like the best is Campaign Monitor.


There are some who believe that HTML has no place in an email.  This has led to varied support in the numerous email clients used today and has forced HTML email marketers to step carefully around the pitfalls encountered along the way.  Until there are standards in email clients this situation will not change.  However, using the tips above we can begin to develop a successful HTML email marketing campaign!

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