When Microsoft releases the next version of its Outlook e-mail program later this year, there will be significant changes to the way the system processes HTML images embedded in e-mails. And those tweaks could create problems for many e-mail marketers.
While previous versions Outlook used the rendering engine from Internet Explorer to process images, the Outlook 2007 version will now use the Microsoft Word engine instead.
The issue stems from how individual e-mail systems process the coding for images within e-mails, using a system called cascading style sheets (CSS). How an e-mail system reads CSS information regulates things like how to position items or change colors. While other e-mail systems can handle CSS as either a specification of rules at the header of a message or as an inline system before each creative image, "this newest release of Outlook has thrown that out the window," said Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services for EmailLabs, an e-mail service provider, and a columnist for ClickZ.
"E-mail clients in general for years have had different ways of interpreting CSS, some clients have done it really well, and others have not done it so well. Outlook has done it pretty well for awhile," said Pollard. "But this new release is kind of a step back, it's taking away the functionality and the creativity of the designer, and that's where the complaints are coming from."
Several Web designer blogs are rife with scorn for Microsoft's move from a more powerful engine to a less dynamic, but possibly more secure, engine, said Pollard.
"The Web designers are the ones that are upset, because CSS simplifies their job. Marketers need to focus on what I have to do to get this message to render properly, and if that means my Web designer has to work a little harder, that's what it's going to have to be," he said.
To prepare for sending images to the latest Outlook 2007, which has a high level of adoption with businesses, Pollard said Web designers will have to rethink their designs to remove rich media formats like Flash and animated GIFs, which will not be rendered. "That means hard coding fonts, tables to control layout, no back ground images. Simple, short clear designs," he said.
Although many are crying foul, the move to the Word rendering engine does make logical sense, according to Charlie Speight, VP product management for Acxiom Digital, an e-mail marketing firm.
"When I compose an e-mail message with Outlook I'm using Word as my authoring tool," said Speight. "The inconsistency from a corporate email perspective was that I was composing in one rendering engine and reading in another rendering engine."
Speight recommends marketers prepare for another level of Quality Assurance testing to reach Outlook 2007 clients, and check with their service providers to be certain they are prepared as well. "This doesn't change the rules of the game or make it impossible to do thing we used to do," he said. "But it does require you to go back and say are my templates going to work in this new world?"
Separately, the E-mail Experience Council just released a study of image rendering in B2B and B2C e-mail. The examination of 1,000 messages found 21 percent of e-mails appeared completely blank when images were turned off (or stripped) inside a variety of e-mail clients. An additional 28 percent did show at least some relevant copy, but had no working links.
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