Is Your HTML Broken?

As you can imagine, we get zillions of HTML emails in our offices, which lets our IT department analyze them for problems with both their design and delivery. Lately, we’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the incidence of HTML emails containing assorted errors — errors that can not only turn people off, but can also create delivery problems. As marketers, we liken these errors to newspaper ads where pictures are missing; TV spots without the company or product name; a call to action with the wrong 800 number; or direct mail pieces with typos and misprints.

The blunders we are seeing range from careless typos to links that don’t work, from graphics that don’t display to problematic coding that affects the way emails appear when they arrive. Some of the email messages we receive contain so many of these problems that users were unlikely to read them even if they were paid to.

As I was writing this column, a couple of reports crossed my desk, including one from email service provider Silverpop concluding that 42 percent — that’s right, 42 percent — of HTML emails contain major errors such as missing graphics or raw HTML code.

Yikes! That’s a huge number, and it indicates that many email marketers and publishers are sloppy. That’s certainly no way to run a business! And, by the way, many ISPs have developed systems that spot these errors and filter the emails so they never reach the targeted recipient.

If you’re thinking that these kinds of problems never happen to you, think again. They happen to everyone. Fortunately, this issue, unlike the spam dilemma, is easy to fix. It doesn’t cost much and everyone can do it, but it does require carefully implemented protocols.

Simply put, there is absolutely no excuse for letting emails go out — especially in large quantities — without testing them. We’ve implemented this at our company and it does catch the errors. That’s critical if your company, like ours, sends out tons of email.

What you need to do is create an HTML email testing program. It needs to be thorough and rigorous. It needs to be implemented as a standard part of your production schedule, and you need to allow time for it to run, without deviation, every day — especially when you are sending out complex and larger content emails. Here’s how:

  • First, analyze your database and identify the top 20 domains to which you send email, then create a table of the mail readers used by those companies. For example, for AOL, it would be AOL 4.0 through AOL 8.0.
  • Add to this list the major email readers used by companies that don’t use AOL, MSN or Hotmail, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Lotus Notes, etc. Do some research to find out what versions of these readers your clients use most often.
  • Next, create a list of people within your company who have these accounts. Your list might look like this (if you don’t have all these services, subscribe to them. It will pay off in spades.):
    • Outlook: tom.johnson@xyz.com
    • AOL 7.0: maryjones@aol.com
    • Hotmail: billsmith@hotmail.com
    • Lotus Notes 5.0: vgreen@xyz.com
    • AOL 8.0: tonyp@aol.com
  • Let each of these people know that, as a standard procedure, you’ll be sending them test emails on specific dates at specific times. Upon receiving the email, they should review it and send your email testing coordinator one or more of the following comments:
    • Link(s) did not work
    • Picture(s) did not display
    • Typos and/or grammar errors
    • Raw HTML code showing
    • Offer/content/copy confusing/misleading
    • Offer/content/copy does not make sense or is not clear
    • Tables or images were distorted or stretched
    • Copy overlapping with other copy or graphics
    • Form fields missing
    • SUBMIT button does not return a confirmation page or pop-up
    • Video or rich media did not perform
    • Any other problem that makes the email harder to read
  • The email testing coordinator should have a spreadsheet for each campaign, and make sure everyone on the testing lists responds.
  • All the errors are then fixed before the email goes out to the full distribution list.

This is so critical because, according to IBM, 95 million people rely on Lotus Notes, and an additional 35 million or so use various incarnations of AOL. Based on those numbers alone, some of Silverpop’s findings are downright scary:

  • 80 percent of emails to Lotus Notes 5.0 were broken in some way
  • 30 percent to AOL 6.0 were broken
  • 25 percent to Hotmail
  • 22 percent each for Outlook 2000 and Eudora 5.0

As I said earlier, it’s an easy fix. Yes, it takes time. But it’s well worth it to make email marketing more successful in 2003.

If any of you can think of other errors folks should be looking for, let me know and we’ll include them in a future column.

To all my readers, have a healthy and prosperous New Year!

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