Email Clients and HTML: Readers Weigh In

Ah, reader mail.

As you may recall, last week I presented an online survey about HTML. Dr. Ralph Wilson of Web Marketing & E-Commerce had surveyed readers of his publication Doctor Ebiz about what email programs they were using and what they could see with them.

The case study generated so much mail that I decided this week to take the time to discuss some of it publicly. I also forwarded much of the mail (anonymously, unless the writer specified otherwise) to Wilson for his comments. I’ve included some of those here as well.

So here goes.

From the U.S.:

    Dr. Ebiz’s study found that only 8% of his surveyed users use America Online as an email client. We’ve recently developed an email strategy, and… about 35% of our users are AOL subscribers, most of whom probably use 4.0 and 5.0. With over 30 million AOL users, why is it only 8% used AOL if there are so many AOL users? Is it because users have identified the lack of HTML capabilities AOL has in its earlier versions and are migrating to more HTML-friendly platforms? Are they only using the AOL service and with different email platforms?

Good questions all, and I’ll take a shot at them. I’m hypothesizing that AOL attracts a certain user base, in general perhaps more of a consumer-oriented audience than a business-oriented one. (And no, I wouldn’t bet my house on it.) Doctor Ebiz is geared toward the small-business market online, so that could be one reason why he had a relatively low percentage of AOL users.

For many marketers — at least the ones I’ve talked to — a quarter or even a third of their databases are made up of AOL subscribers. (In fact, in another recent case study, I mentioned that Charles Schwab & Co Inc. was surprised that AOL users made up such a large part of the customer base. The company had anticipated between 10 and 20 percent, not nearly 28 percent.)

As for the latter questions, your guess is as good as mine. If you conduct your own study on this and wish to share it with the rest of us, please do.

A Swedish reader wrote:

    My feedback from Sweden is that we see problems with Lotus Notes… Do you see this as well and to what extent?

Wilson had this comment: “I’ve only seen a small problem with Lotus Notes among my Doctor Ebiz test group, but it [Doctor Ebiz] is aimed at small businesses, not major corporations that would be more likely to use Lotus Notes.”

Then there was this one:

    Sending out mass HTML email is generically a bad idea, regardless of mail client. It’s a massive security risk, given that hostile scripts can be planted in HTML and executed in most clients. It’s also a massive marketing risk, since the results are so unpredictable. The best practice is [to] use ASCII text in email and HTML on the web!

Well, I realize not everyone is as in favor of HTML email as I am. I respectfully disagree with the part about results being so unpredictable, because I’ve interviewed many marketers who report better results with HTML than with text. But I understand we all have different experiences with it.

As for HTML being a massive security risk, Wilson had this to say: “The security risk must be handled at the recipient’s end. Whether or not a legitimate Web marketer uses HTML email has nothing to do with security.”

Agree? Disagree? This might make for a good discussion on the ClickZ Forum. Speak your piece by heading to

Lastly, I got a couple of emails about the statistical validity of the survey. As they are much too long to include here in full, I strongly encourage the writers to take this topic up in the Forum as well. (Nancy, I hope you read this; I tried to respond but the message bounced back. The sample size was 450.)

They addressed two main points; here’s some of what one said:

    The results of the survey you quoted are neither valid nor reliable, in statistical language! The audience was NOT representative of the general population; they were a subset of people in the web industry who subscribe to his publication… PLEASE double-check and correct the misperception you have created!

I replied directly to the writer of this message, saying that I never claimed this audience is representative of the general population. In my case study, I mention that Wilson is surveying his readers (not the whole Internet population) and that another marketer will not necessarily see the same result — it depends on the particular customer base. Plus I end with: “Better yet, consider conducting your own survey. You might just find completely different results.”

And the reader responded with:

    I am talking about the one case study’s non-scientific results. What he discovered is *NOT* how much of his total audience can read HTML email; he discovered *which* email programs can read HTML email and which can’t. Look at his survey design… respondents SELF-SELECTED.

Good point, and one I wish I had emphasized in the case study. The study was not scientific. But in the real world, businesses need to make choices about where to put their time and energy. While this type of study may not have given a completely accurate picture, it did provide a manageable way to give Wilson some valuable insight into his subscriber base. As one reader wrote:

    In the meantime, data like this is a great hint, if perhaps blurry around the edges, of what is going on out there.

That’s all for now. And if you have more comments, you know where to send them!

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