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Email standards and formatting

There is a lot of buzz on twitter and the email blogs today about Microsoft’s decision to use the HTML rendering engine from MS Word in Outlook 2010 instead of the HTML rendering engine from Explorer. The people behind the Email Standards Project have set up FixOutlook.org and are asking people to join twitter to and tweet the fixoutlook.org URL to send a message to Microsoft.

I’ve been thinking about this much of the morning, and considering Microsoft’s history with implementation of standards. Microsoft has never really followed many of the Internet standards. They adopt what they like, and create new “standards” that work with MS products. This has worked for them, given their position in the market. Companies and software developers that wanted to interoperate with Microsoft software had to comply with Microsoft, Microsoft never had to comply with them.

I find it extremely unlikely that this effort will cause Microsoft to deviate from their course. Based on Microsoft’s history, the solution is not for Microsoft to change rendering in Outlook, but for everyone else to change how they do things.

Mark Brownlow blogged on the topic, too, and makes another of his insightful points. Email marketers and email designers are not an important user group to Microsoft. Instead, they’re focused on the actual people who use Outlook to send and receive email.

Put your email user cap on. The vast majority of messages you consider truly important are nothing more than text and maybe the odd image or attachment. Mails from friends, family and work colleagues, and simple transactional emails.

Of course there will be exceptions, but the vast majority of “important” messages received by Outlook 2007 users look fine. A few bulk marketing emails may look a little weird as not everyone has adpated to the constraints imposed by Outlook 2007. But do these users care?

In my own case, I prefer emails that actually have useful content without images. My email client defaults to images off, and unless marketers put a little effort into giving me something useful without images, I’m not going to load images. Can’t bother to design something I can read? I’m not going to bother to click “load images” and read your mail. Look at these two mails I received this morning:

Screenshots of mail I received this morning

Can you guess which one I clicked through and made a purchase from?

I’m not going to tell you formatting isn’t important, because clearly it is. But formatting should take a back seat to content and relevancy. Window dressing isn’t going to engage users, content will engage users. A pretty email is just a pretty email. I useful and relevant email, now that’s something recipients want.

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