One of my least favorite digital marketing tasks is creating an HTML email. It’s not that I don’t like HTML, or even email. It’s the marriage of the two — plus some classic Microsoft silliness — that spawned a monster. Once in a while (I’ve been trying to move up the value chain by pretending not to know HTML) that monster sucks the lifeblood out of me.
The problem has always been that you have to design HTML emails to look relatively good across multiple platforms and email client applications, like Outlook or gMail. Each email client seems to have its own particular ideas about how to render HTML. Therefore, you have to pick the least able email client and base your design on what it can (or rather can’t) do.
For years that lowest common denominator, for me, has been Outlook. There are worse email clients than Outlook (like Lotus Notes,) but Outlook takes the cake if you multiply badness times prevalence. So far as I have heard, Outlook still renders HTML based on how Word renders HTML, which in turn is based on an antediluvian version of Internet Explorer. Without a lot of work, and repeated testing against multiple clients, your HTML email will look like a web page from 1998.
The situation has recently gotten worse with the advent of smartphones. The best practice used to be to make your designs 600 pixels wide — that fits nicely on most preview screens. Unfortunately, it’s a lot wider than an smartphone is, so your design will either be shrunk to fit, making it illegible, or cropped, making it necessary for your customer to scroll to see the right side. There are ways around this, but the fact remains that the number of situations you have to develop for and test against is that much larger.
Fortunately, the testing phase has gotten a lot easier. It used to be that the only way to test an HTML email was to look at it on as many machines and email clients as you had handy. For me that meant keeping around old machines and laboriously sending, looking, fixing and sending, over and over again. Early this year I said enough is enough, googled “email testing,” and found Email on Acid.
This service lets you test against a pretty wide set of desktop, mobile and web-based clients, ranging from the antique Lotus Notes 6 to the iPhone 5. You just paste in your code, and a couple minutes later you see either screenshots or interactive previews of your email in about 28 different clients.
Not only does Email on Acid make the testing process go a lot quicker, it will also tell you how to improve your code. They provide really good boilerplate CSS and templating techniques to make your email look good everywhere, including devices with small screens. And they seem to be updating their supported clients consistently.
It’s $35 a month for unlimited testing. That’s pretty pricey for web developers like me who are used to getting tools and software free. But I’ve found it to be more than well worth it in terms of time and headaches saved. Plus I get confidence in how our emails will look on mobile.
If you send out marketing emails or newsletters, I really recommend signing up for Email on Acid. If you’re a client, ping me and I’ll show you how it works and why you need it.