Best practices for coding HTML emails

Even if you're able to code complex website layouts, coding an html email is a hard job and there's lots of things to take into consideration. This article features the most important things I've learned in 5 years of coding html emails.

Keep it simple and lightweight

If you have to remember only one of all the tips I’m going to give you in this post, it should be this one. In fact, an html email is not a website, so you shouldn’t try to embed a website into an email.

Some years ago, I used to work for a French TV channel and I often had to slice some PSD’s into html emails. The PSD’s contained gradients, funky fonts, and even animated gifs. As a result, the work (despite all efforts I’ve put in it) looked different from one email client to another, the fonts had to be replaced by Arial, and the whole email was extremely heavy and highly relied on images.

On the other hand, a simple html email will loaded smoothly, and will be more pleasant to read.

( Newsletter)

Don’t abuse images

An image is worth a thousand words, but it may also take forever to load. I have received many emails that consisted of a few lines of text and nothing else but big images. As a result, the recipient had to wait until the image was loaded (Which can sometimes takes up to 5 seconds!) in order to read the information embedded in the email.

This is, in my opinion, a waste of time for the recipient, as well as a waste of money for the sender: Most people won’t wait 5 seconds in order to have the big image you send them loaded. They’ll trash the email. It’s as simple as that.

An html email should be beautiful and pleasurable to view, but don’t over do it. Like I’ve just said, keep it simple, you won’t regret it.

Work with tables

As many email clients handle CSS worst than IE6 (Yes, I’m not joking), you shouldn’t even try to make advanced layouts using CSS. Instead, you should do a jump 10 years ago and say hello to tables, tr‘s and td‘s again.

If you’re like me, you’re a CSS fan, and this might sound very frustrating. In fact, having to code the dirty way is never pleasant, but you don’t have much of a choice. Do not hesitate to test by yourself: Chances are that you’ll soon be using tables again.

Always use images from your server

Among html email worst practices I ever saw, embedding images directly in the email definitely arrived at good place. This is wrong in many points: First, it will make the email heavier (I’ve seen 300ko messages!), and secondly, there’s a strong risk that the recipient email client block those images.

What you should do is to create a hierarchy of directories on your server, for example Newsletters and then May_2010, and upload images for your html email in it. Once done, simply call them using absolute url paths:

<img src="" alt="A cat" />

Write your CSS inline and use html attributes

In email clients, the lack of CSS support is definitely something to keep in mind. Don’t try linking to an external CSS file, and try to avoid as many CSS declarations as possible in the <head> section of your document.

It may be dirty, but the best way to make sure your CSS will be (quite) correctly interpreted by the recipient’s client is to code your CSS the inline way, as shown in the example below:

<p style="background:#069; color: white;">A new background and font color with inline CSS</p>

Another “dirty but effective” option to consider is the use of html attributes, such as background or bgcolor:

<body bgcolor="#069">

Don’t forget the text format

It may seems a bit obsolete in 2010, but many people, including myself, prefers the good old “plain text” format than html emails. When creating an email list subscription form, try to allow the visitor to choose between the html and plain text format.

Make sure your emails display in various clients

When creating a website, any serious developer will test its render on various browsers. This should be the same with html emails: people use a wide variety of clients and in order to be professional you should try to support most of them.

In my opinion, the following clients should be supported: Gmail, Yahoo mail, Mozilla Thunderbird, Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook. below, you’ll find two great guides about CSS in html emails:

  • Guide to CSS support in email clients: A very interesting guide describing which CSS properties can be used depending on the user’s email client. PDF and Excel versions are downloadable.
  • CSS3 support in email clients : Enjoying CSS3? Here’s another great resource brought to you by Campaign Monitor, showing the few CSS3 properties you can already use in your html emails.

Use Google Analytics to track conversions

Sending a good html email is definitely a great thing, but your goal is to have people click on it and visit your site. There’s lots of way to track clicks on emails, but one of the easiest is to use Google Analytics, that you’re probably already using on your website.

I’ve never been a big email list sender so I never experimented with Google Analytics conversion tracking. Though, it looks like doing so is very easy: All you have to do is to add some GET parameters to your links, as shown in the example below:

<a href="">Click here</a>

However, if you want to know more about click tracking using Google Analytics, you should have a look at this article.