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Still Rearing Its Ugly Head: HTML Versus Text

  |  June 12, 2002   |  Comments

You might think this question has been hashed to death. It hasn’t.

After I finished discussing how to launch and maintain a successful e-newsletter at ClickZ Email Strategies two weeks ago, the audience asked one fundamental question over and over.

Which is better for business-to-business (B2B) e-newsletter readers: text or HTML? Which format should we send? Which does a business audience want? What are they capable of receiving? What about Lotus Notes users who can’t read HTML messages? And so on.

I poked around to find research results or useful guidelines. Statistics on the email clients used in business or corporate environments (Outlook vs. Outlook Express vs. Lotus Notes, etc.) are not easy to come by.

Rick Bruner, an industry analyst and consultant offered this tidbit: "I’m sure penetration of HTML support in email clients today is upwards of 70 percent."

I think it’s safe to assume that email clients used in corporations and small businesses can read HTML. That includes the most recent versions of Lotus Notes -- older versions cannot. Of course, many in your readership may be subscribing via a Yahoo or AOL account, although it’s a business publication.

Yes, you can receive HTML in AOL versions 6 and 7. You may have to turn off an annoying feature that asks if you know the sender and says you are about to open a message that "may have a virus."

I found a study on IDC’s site intriguingly titled, "Email Usage Forecast and Analysis, 2001-2005." It appears to offer hard numbers on how email is accessed in commercial settings (i.e., by what type of client). I couldn’t get IDC to call me back with the details. (Hello, anyone with IDC)?

A 2001 DoubleClick consumer study shows 41 percent of respondents use Outlook Express, 28 percent use AOL, 27 percent use Hotmail, 21 percent use Yahoo, and 20 percent use Outlook.

Let’s forget about stats for a moment. As with so many best practices in email marketing and e-newsletter publishing, wisdom stems more from experience than from hard numbers. Here’s my take on the text versus HTML debate, at least insofar as B2B e-newsletters are concerned.

Send It in HTML

Put your efforts into sending your e-newsletter in HTML, whether it’s a lead-generator, a revenue producer, or both. Response rates are almost always higher. It makes sense. Your subscribers are usually online when they’re reading, so they can click on your links. (This last bit of wisdom courtesy of Sharon Tucci, Sling Shot Media CEO. She’s been touting this fact to her clients for several years.)

An HTML version is visually pleasing and usually easier to read. Assuming branding and relationship building are a key piece of your strategy behind publishing an e-newsletter, you want your e-pub to reflect your company.

You Still Need a Text Version

But -- here’s the caveat -- offer a nicely formatted text version as well (wrap lines at 65 characters). Give readers a choice. Some people prefer to read an e-pub in a text format. It’s not a matter of their email clients’ capabilities. They want to scan it offline on their Palm or BlackBerry handhelds. (If anyone has stats on who actually reads complete newsletters on PDAs, I’d like to hear them.)

Or (here’s where I cringe after investing untold hours in the HTML design of my own e-newsletter, they may find the text version easier to read on the train or bus after printing it.

Tip: You can get around the "reading offline" issue by creating an HTML template for your e-newsletter that’s no wider than 650 pixels. The whole page will print.

Still Not Convinced?

I consulted Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome fame and author of "Poor Richard’s E-mail Publishing."

Chris has been publishing free technology e-newsletters for a huge geekie audience for years. He signs his emails E A T S L E E P A N D B R E A T H E T E C H N O L O G Y.

Despite anecdotal evidence tech audiences prefer to read text emails, Chris had this to say:

Text is dead. As long as the newsletter is sitting on a confirmed opt-in process, HTML should be the rule. I don’t even bother subscribing to text anything anymore. I’m a visual learner; graphics (when and where appropriate) can increase a message’s effectiveness. Some may cite the threat of email viruses, etc. As long as no scripts are sent along with the message, as long as the message’s equivalent URL is posted for those with noncompliant mail clients, as long as the sender does not abuse the medium, the recipients will be happy. Likely thrilled.

Bottom line: Send HTML. Offer text as an option. Above all, send your subscribers the format they asked for.

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Debbie Weil

Debbie Weil is publisher of WordBiz Report, which focuses on the business of words online. It was awarded The Newsletter on Newsletters' Gold Award for Online Subscription Newsletter. A former newspaper reporter with an MBA and corporate marketing experience, Debbie is an expert on B2B online content and marketing at both the strategic and creative levels. She was Web content marketing manager for Network Solutions (now part of Verisign) before launching WordBiz.com.

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