In the first two parts of this series, I’ve taken you through the steps involved in finding the addresses in your system to start your own newsletter, and verifying the addresses. In this part, I’ll take you through the biggest decision you’ll make about your newsletter: whether to send an HTML version or a plain-text version.
HTML vs. Plain Text: Tradeoffs
HTML vs. plain text is an ongoing debate. HTML is better than text for a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t mean you should use it. When you use HTML, you can lay out the newsletter exactly as you wish. You can include graphics (actually links to graphics), multiple columns, and various fonts and colors. The figure below shows a newsletter with three columns. By using multiple columns, you can include promotions for your own products in the margin, while still providing content of substance in the middle of the newsletter.
Typically, HTML mailings have a higher click-through rate than text email. In addition to the formatting and presentation advantages of HTML email, there are also the interactivity advantages. If you want to include a survey in your newsletter, you can include the FORM tags right in your HTML. When the user checks a box, a radio button, or types in an answer, and clicks “Submit,” the script on your server is activated and receives the form information. You can include a subscription box right on your newsletter, in the hopes that it will be forwarded to a new reader who will want to subscribe. You can also format your newsletter to look exactly like your Web site.
HTML formatting also permits you to include links to tracking code, which enables you to receive reports about how many times a message is opened by the recipient, or what percent of the messages sent were opened.
HTML Gone Wrong
In short, HTML emails are ideal if you can be sure the recipients can open them. You might have heard (correctly) that the vast majority of AOL users (with some small exception for some AOL 6.0 users) cannot read HTML-enabled email. This is true. You absolutely must do a plain-text version of your newsletter to send to AOL.com addresses. However, perhaps you didn’t know that Lotus Notes can also be set by the administrator not to accept rich-text emails. It’s impossible to know which mail reader recipients are using. Most people choose rich-text enabled mail clients, but many corporations prevent virus spread by delivering all email as text only.
Most people who are constrained by corporate policy to receive only text email messages are smart enough to look in the first line or two of a message for a link to the online version. This means that even those who get the gobbledygook of HTML in their messages can still pull up a rich-text version of the newsletter.
Plain-Text Done Right
Even your plain-text email should be formatted as well as you possibly can. Since you can’t really force white space – white space helps tell your eyes where to focus – in plain-text newsletters, make sure your newsletters include all of the following formatting conventions:
- Dashes, tildes or asterisks to separate sections of the newsletter
- Short sentences and short paragraphs
- Bullets or numbered lists to make points
- Headings and sub-headings to break up the text
Many, many newsletters send out only plain-text versions, but to me, that’s like formatting your Web site for 640×480 display, or even for Palm Pilot display, since some visitors might conceivably miss something or be annoyed if you format for higher resolution.
Pleasing All of the People All of the Time
Ideally, you’d send the HTML version to everyone who can open HTML email and the plain-text version to everyone who can’t. How can you possibly achieve this optimal arrangement? By sending both versions to everyone!
The secret is to use a MIME type of multipart/alternative in the header of your message. Unfortunately, most email software doesn’t allow you to change the header. You’ll either have to use software that sends in multipart/alternative format or a service that claims to auto-detect the browser so that the right version shows. All they’re doing is sending it in multipart/alternative format, but “auto-detect” sounds so much sexier.
Outlook Express Is Not Enough
Don’t spend the next week trying to make Outlook Express send multipart/alternative email (it won’t work), but start noticing how email is coming into your mailbox. In Outlook Express, while you have a message open (not just previewed, but actually open), click File|Properties, then click the Details tab and Message Source. You’ll see a line in bold that says “Content-Type: text/html,” “Content-Type: text/plain,” or “Content-Type: multipart/alternative.”
Next, I’ll talk about your choices for sending newsletters yourself. This may be much more time-consuming, but it will save you a few dollars. After that, I’ll discuss your choices for using a commercial service to send the newsletters.
Alexis D. Gutzman is an author, speaker, and consultant on e-business and e-commerce topics. She’s the producer of The Online Marketing Report. Her most recent book, The E-commerce Arsenal: 12 Technologies You Need to Prevail in the Digital Arena, was named one of the 30 best business books of this year. For up-to-date information about her research and speaking engagements, visit The Alexis Gutzman Group’s Web site.