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To HTML... or Not to HTML?

January 24, 2000 

THAT is the question. At least that's the question I've been getting over the last few weeks from readers who want to know how to use HTML in their email promotions for optimal results. So I thought this would be a good week to address the non-copy components that make up an effective and well-designed promotion.

Let me first preface all this by saying that there truly are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this topic. At least not yet. Things are changing too rapidly.

And while it's true that HTML CAN lift response - and, in fact, plenty of recipients actually prefer getting their email in the full color and graphics that HTML provides - it's certainly not for all online marketers thinking of venturing into this much-touted area.

My advice (as always): Test. Test an HTML-based message against a text one, but make sure that you set it up as a true "apples to apples" comparison. In other words, keep the offer and the copy exactly the same. The only thing that should be unique is that one promotion is designed... and the other is not.

With that in mind, here are a few current basic (but not always used) tips for enhancing most HTML promotions... without directly affecting the copy therein:

  1. Keep the design clean and simple. Depending on your offer, try to keep the layout's text contained in one easy-to-read column. The use of too many columns requires the eyes to move around too much, which is more work than most readers want to stick with. Besides, one easy-to-read column can keep readers focused on your message.

    Also, don't overload the promotion with too many busy images: One to three optimized graphics should suffice. Which brings me to my next point...

  2. Keep the overall file size small. There are too many server-clogging email promos out there that are - believe it or not - 40, 60... even 100k+ in file size. Click-throughs for promotions of this size are sure to be suppressed because of the length of time the emails take to download. So keep your promotions to a maximum of 15-20k, if at all possible.

  3. Fit the entire promotion in as small a window as possible. In other words, limit the design so recipients will see as much as possible of it within the viewing window. And speaking of windows, make sure to place at least one of your active links in this area "above the fold."

  4. Take advantage of HTML's tools for emphasis. Use color and bold to highlight key points and audience benefits. Embed complicated URLs within call-to-action phrases such as the ubiquitous "Click Here."

And just one word of caution with regard to the use of HTML: Make sure your readers want it.

While that's a fairly easy point to consider when dealing with your own house list, it's not something you can control when dealing with outside acquisition lists. Sure, many of them will accept and deploy your HTML message with the use of a "sniffer" technology that can determine which of their subscribers can, indeed, receive it. Yet, at this point in time, they don't have the ability to email only those who WANT it.

So whether or not you use HTML to bring in new customers comes down to a judgment call: If your offer is best showcased with the use of color and graphics, then by all means use it. At the very least, it'll make a worthwhile test.

And when it comes to building your own internal file, ask prospective customers if they'd prefer receiving your email offers in straight text... or in dynamic HTML.

Your extra effort may very well pay off in future promotions. And you may just learn a few things in the process.

Kim Macpherson,

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