How Well Can Your Audience Read HTML?

HTML email, many marketers have learned from their own customers, gives better response rates than text email. Catchy graphics, attractive formatting, varied text style (color, size, and font), and other factors help make such messages appealing to the eyes.

And HTML email can do more than look nice; it can be used to up the interactivity you have with your audience. To see one such example, let’s revisit an old friend of ours, Dr. Ralph Wilson of Web Marketing & E-Commerce. (You may recall I wrote about his testing of fonts a couple weeks ago.) Wilson uses HTML to send out forms that allow readers of his publication Doctor Ebiz to resubscribe directly from within the email messages.

But we all know that not all email clients are built alike. Pick any two at random, and it’s likely they will not deliver messages in the same way, even if they both advertise HTML capabilities. For instance, send a Web page to someone via email, and your recipient may see a link only, an attachment, the full page, or a garbled page.

So Wilson decided to find out a little more about the members of his audience to see what email clients they were using and what features were supported. With the information he gathered, he was able to design a better newsletter.

In January, Wilson sent out a survey to his Doctor Ebiz readers, asking them to tell him what email programs they were using and what they could see with it. He and a staff member (his daughter Ann) cataloged the responses, manually looking at the X-Mailer line of the header to help confirm that readers were identifying the mail programs accurately. The survey gathered about 450 responses.

Here are some of the more interesting results:

  • About 87 percent of the audience could read HTML quite well. And of the 13 percent who couldn’t handle HTML entirely, some still had some of the functionality, such as clickable links and enhanced text. And no, you will not necessarily see the same result — it depends on your customer base.

  • The most popular email client? Come on, take a guess. (OK, if you want to peek at the chart, click here.) Yes, it is MS Outlook, with more than half the recipients using some flavor or another. MS Outlook 2000 was the most popular — and I’m not surprised, given the target audience — followed closely by MS Outlook Express 5.0 and 5.5.
  • For practical purposes, we can say that almost everyone except users of earlier versions of America Online can see HTML in some form or another. Pity those AOL users. Those who hadn’t upgraded to AOL 6.0 — and well more than half of the AOL users hadn’t — could not read any HTML. Wilson recommends sending them text-only versions or multipart, multipurpose Internet mail extensions (MIME) with text first and HTML second. Fortunately, AOL was only a small portion of the user base.
  • Eudora was somewhat disappointing. The survey found that even those using Eudora 5.0 did not necessarily have full HTML support. The main factor was whether the user had MS Internet Explorer configured. If so, support was there. If not, the program did not control font size well or allow for form submission.
  • Mac users still get shortchanged. For example, with Netscape Messenger 4.5, PC users see standard HTML, but Mac users have no color or clickable links and see everything on a gray background.

So if you’re sending out HTML messages, consider Wilson’s results when designing your own newsletters, email offers, and other customer communications. Better yet, consider conducting your own survey. You might just find completely different results. And if you wish to share them, please email me.

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