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The Myth of Multipart

  |  December 20, 2002   |  Comments

Think multipart messaging gives you the best of both worlds? Think again.

As someone who sends email for a living, I'm constantly being pitched the latest and greatest systems. Without fail, one of the bells and whistles hyped in the pitch is the ability to send multipart messages. No doubt you've heard about this oft-hyped feature as well.

In my opinion, it's just a bunch of malarkey -- the undercarriage rust protection of the email marketing industry. Sounds great but does nothing. "It slices, it dices, you must have it!" Baloney.

Multipart Defined

So that we're all on the same page, let me explain that multipart MIME email (sometimes called multipart/alternative) refers to the ability to encode both a text and an HTML message within the body of one email. The theory is that enlightened email clients with the capability to render HTML messages peer into the email, see the multiple parts, and only decode the HTML part. Stone Age clients, which can only read text messages, will, in turn, only decode the text part, ignoring the HTML message. This means everybody gets something, no matter what email application she's running. (If you want the full explanation, go for it.)

It's great in theory and sounds wonderful in a sales pitch -- problem is, it has just about zero impact in the real world.

Is Anybody Out There?

The first problem: You have to work really hard to even find somebody with a text-only email client. I work at a technology company; one would think we have some geeks locked away in some basement corner somewhere who live on the command line and only read text emails. However, when testing multipart emails we found even the "techiest" techies could read the HTML versions. Even those with command-line "text-only" email clients decoded the HTML, though the clients only displayed the text from that part of the message (as opposed to decoding the text part to begin with).

But don't take my anecdotal experience of email client preferences as gospel. I did a survey -- read for yourself. Somewhere around 1 percent of respondents indicated they had a text-only email client. Nearly 3 percent said they could only receive text email, but that number didn't match up with the actual clients people reported they were using on their desktops.

So, at maximum, you're looking at about 2 percent of users being unable to read HTML messages. And don't forget, we're a Web publishing company focused on a technology audience -- consumer audiences probably contain even fewer Unix geeks with text-only readers. If you're spending more than 1 percent of your time crafting the text message for your multipart delivery, you're spending too much.

But Wait -- There's More!

The other major problem with multipart messages is that some clients -- even newer email clients -- fail to follow the rules and decode both the HTML and text parts. I don't have any exhaustive numbers yet, but I suspect this problem occurs more often than the 1 percent mentioned above. What usually happens in these cases is the client decodes both parts of the message and then usually displays both messages (the HTML first, followed by a text message). Occasionally the client fails more dramatically, and the user sees a bunch of gobbledygook code. People aren't delivered the most professional-looking messages in either case.

The Solutions

Given the above problems, there are really three possible courses of action:

  • Give users a choice. Let users choose between text and HTML messages. Then, send an HTML-only message to the HTML subscribers and a text-only message to the text subscribers. You won't have any problem with multipart decoding, and you'll still be reaching 100 percent of your users -- and I bet they'll appreciate the choice. It's important to note some people prefer text messages. Multipart messages don't give the recipient a choice -- you just read whichever message your email client decides to decode.

  • Only send HTML messages. You'll avoid the (larger) problem of people decoding both parts of the multipart messages and at most be missing a tiny portion of your audience (see a couple of workarounds for this issue below). This doesn't mean sending a multipart message and just leaving out the text message; it means making sure your system can send true, HTML email (ask your techies to check if you're unsure).

  • Continue to send multipart messages. You can continue to use this feature, but you'll need to vigilantly check your users' clients aren't decoding both messages. (Don't worry, they'll let you know. You are providing a feedback address in your emails, right?) I'd suggest spending minimal time crafting the text message, as very few recipients will ever see it.

HTML Email Tips

My email operation generally employs a combination of the first two bullets above. If possible, we like to give users a choice. When we can't offer that choice, we often send only an HTML message (as opposed to text, for all the obvious benefits).

To make sure those very few people who can't read HTML messages are still seeing something, we often employ the following two quick tricks rather than sending multipart messages:

  • We include a brief text message in the head of the HTML document, wrapped inside HTML comment tags. This way, if someone can't decode the HTML, instead of getting a window full of gobbledygook, he'll see the text message first. If he scrolls down, he'll see the gobbledygook.

  • We include a link to a Web-based version of the mailing as the first thing in the body of the message. We usually word it along the lines of "If you can't read this message, see the Web version here: http://url_here.com." If you're reading this column as a newsletter, you should see this line at the top of this page.

In an upcoming column I'll expand on this topic and discuss how to deal with AOL. Do you need a special version of your message or do the most recent versions of AOL support HTML well enough to eliminate that need? I'll also address Lotus Notes -- the biggest thorn in my side when it comes to HTML emails.

Got a question? Think I'm full of it? Let me know -- send me email!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Grossman Formerly vice president of Web operations for Jupitermedia's internet.com network (ClickZ's parent), Edward Grossman was responsible for newsletter operations and unflappably oversaw the production and distribution of over 200 e-newsletters. He's been an online editor, producer and developer since 1995 on sites including internet.com, WebDeveloper.com, JavaScript.com and Gif.com. Edward's articles on newsletter publishing, Web development and the Internet industry have appeared online and off. Currently he's EVP of Digital Media at CMP Medica.

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