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It's Ugly! and Other Reasons Not to Send HTML

By Jessica Albon
Posted Monday, July 19, 2004

Have you noticed it too? This sudden change in email newsletters? Lately, newsletters I've gotten for years in plain text format have been switching to HTML.

And I don't like it. Not at all.

Aside from changing my subscription without my permission (a huge, big-fat no-no, if you're building reader trust), most of these publishers are also making four other errors in judgment in the switch.

Ask yourself these five questions so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

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Is it up to your reader?
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Always, always, always let your readers decide which version to choose. Sure, you're excited about your great-looking new HTML version, but there are at least a dozen good reasons why readers may prefer text. And it's not up to you to change their minds.

Look at Newsletters in Focus--I design HTML email newsletters, and yet I still let people choose a plain text version if they'd prefer. And many do. (And yes, they still go on to be clients.)

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Did you keep it small?
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File size is crucial to your readers on dial-up. It's also a big deal to those readers who route subscriptions to limited-size email boxes (like Yahoo accounts).

HTML automatically means a larger file size--don't make readers mad by sending bloated code, too.

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Is the decision good for your readers?
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I'm a huge proponent of the financial reasons to do HTML. It results in higher click-thrus, higher profits, and lower unsubscribes. It's an easy way to deliver ads to your readers when you sell products.

BUT there has to be something that makes the HTML version better for readers, too. If you can't think of a single benefit to the HTML version for your readers, then now's not the time to make the switch.

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Is it ugly?
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Designing HTML newsletters isn't nearly as easy as designing a website. For one, the space you have to play with is a lot smaller. For another, readability is crucial. There are a thousand little elements that go into making a newsletter readable and it'd be impossible for me to cover them all here.

Line length needs to be optimal (40-60 characters). Contrast needs to be just right. Fonts need to be large enough (but not too large). If you don't have the budget for a professional designer (yes, I know this is self serving, but it's true), you need to stick with plain text.

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Is the content a good fit for HTML?
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I get a lot of email from people interested in having me create their HTML email newsletter template. And to at least half of them, I recommend they stick with plain text for their newsletters.

Why? Because their content makes more sense in plain text than HTML. If you write one long (long) article, plain text makes more sense. If you write lots of articles, HTML is a better choice. If you have more than three or four sections, HTML will probably be easier to navigate. For under three sections (including ads, articles, and about us sections), stick with plain text.

By asking yourself these five questions before you start an HTML option, you'll have much happier readers, and you'll ensure the extra time and expense make sense for your plans.

About the Author
Want more tips on newsletter design? Subscribe to Newsletters in Focus for free tips every two weeks on creating wonderful newsletters. Visit (http://www.designdoodles.com/free_newsletter.htm) to sign up and receive your free copy of "Do You Make These Six Mistakes in Your Company Newsletter?"