HTML Email and Lotus Notes

Although there’s no doubt that RSS is hot with the cool kids, when it comes to proactive methods of contacting an audience, almost every client we’ve spoken to in previous last 12 months is still asking for same thing — ‘Give us HTML email!’

That’s not really a massive surprise. Even the most ‘non-techy’ managers have usually been successfully using email for years and feel they understand it well. They know their audience understands email too. They’re also often already well-aquainted with traditional direct marketing methods, so taking the concept into an online setting isn’t a big jump for them.

This is all good work for us developers, but does force us to deal with some issues we might prefer to duck. Spam filters are more aggressive than ever, and deserve a separate post.

The other major issue is, of course, the huge variation in mail clients. While we may wring our hands and whine about having to cater for three IEs, Firefox, Opera AND Safari, the mail client landscape is a literal amazon (the jungle, not the bookstore) of peacefully co-existing biodiversity.

And despite what David Suzuki says, diversity is bad, Mkay?!

I’ve been made particuarly aware of this fact in the last few days. Recently, in an honest attempt to reduce spiralling bandwidth costs, we re-coded some of the internals of our newletter authoring system (Design View, Tech Times, etc). The original templates were consciously very ‘old school’ — tables enclosing ‘font tag-heavy’ paragraphs — so we decided to try to slim them down with the help of a little more CSS. The main table structure remained but we pulled the majority of the font tags and coloring in favor of head styles, shaving a little under 20% from each issue.

The testing we did checked out fine for Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Eudora, Gmail, Hotmail, Pegasus, and a host of other clients, but, judging from some helpful feedback from Mary Ransom, Donna Stegner and Pam Froemke, we’ve created some real issues for Lotus Notes users and users of some other less common clients.

Apologies to all three and to any other users who have received less useful newsletter content since the re-coding.

Notes has always been a problematic clients for two reasons. Firstly, it takes to the HTML it receives with ‘extreme prejudice’ cutting, slicing and trimming whereever it likes. Secondly, to my knowledge, there’s no easy and inexpensive way to test for this client.

However, I would like to share a really useful ‘Template Kit’ article on Notes and HTML email which does answer some of the question I had.

Two things in particular we’re handy to know.

1) Notes often converts carriage returns in HTML to entities, meaning:
http://i2.sitepoint.com/graphics
/grafitti5.png
can be converted to http://i2.sitepoint.com/graphics<cr>/grafitti5.png
breaking the image. The same thing can happen with links, so try to keep lines long and intact.

2) Notes likes to strip CSS from the header by default. However, according to this article, this can be resisted by placing each rule within standard HTML comments. In other words, this doesn’t work:

<style type="text/css">
#content{padding:11px 6px 11px 12px;}
#col{margin:0;}
</style>

But this should:

<style type="text/css">
<!--#content{padding:11px 6px 11px 12px;}-->
<!--#col{margin :0;}-->
</style>

I’m still testing this stuff out, so I can’t absolutely confirm this technique, but it’s certainly better than the complete blank I drew this morning. Of course, these fixes could unleash a tidal wave of issues in other clients that are worse than the original issue.

I’ll let you know the conclusions.

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  • http://www.warpspire.com Brak

    Quite honestly, I’ve found it’s just not worth the effort. The only sure-fire way to support Lotus notes is through nearly all inline styles. Also note that Lotus notes will not, under any circumstances, support background images. This is a major problem when trying to design complicated, well-designed emailers.

    Lotus notes is definately my personal enemy. Why is it always the only person using Lotus notes is the client you’re designing for? ;)

  • cob

    I am also in the same boat.

    I wanted to deliver a newsletter to empoyees in my company and eventually had to just create a site and emial a link because Notes cannot handle it.

    It’s ridiculous.

  • Jan Van Puyvelde

    A cheap way to test with Notes is to download the trial here:
    http://www14.software.ibm.com/webapp/download/preconfig.jsp?id=2005-04-20+03%3A32%3A17.821780R&S_TACT=104CBW71&S_CMP=&s=

    As noted in this technote (http://www-1.ibm.com/support/docview.wss?rs=463&uid=swg21117078), Notes 6.5.4 contains a group of fixes related to HTML rendering.
    This doesn’t help the users of an earlier version, of course.

  • Eric Parsons

    I’m very sorry that Notes is seen as such, but maybe these few words from an experienced Domino administrator will help.

    First, Notes is the client with Domino as the backend server. I don’t see in the article if we’re discussing an email sent through the Domino server, or possibly “popped” off a UNIX or M$ system by the client.

    Second, for each account, there is a “Format preference for incoming mail” setting that (IMHO) should be set to “Keep in senders format” leaving the Notes client to render, rather than have the Domino server do the rendering. Testing these two settings will result in differing formats.

    Third, I have not experienced issues from Domino to a vast number of other systems, until we add Exchange to the mix. Almost without fail, when there are issues, Exchange 6 is part of the mix, and the administrators have not patched as recommended by Microsoft. This is not to “bag on” Microsoft, but rather to illustrate that systems have settings and occasionally bugs that need to be explored.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Eric, thanks for the comments. Having access to someone who has day-to-day experience with Lotus is a real bonus.

    On your three points:

    1) Most Notes users I’m speaking to are in a company environment, using the company mail server and company client. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if significant numbers of Notes users were freely choosing the client and plugging it into Exchange/Qmail/etc.

    2) I certainly get the impression that it’s Domino that’s doing the damage. Would it be common for Lotus admins to either forcibly prevent users from selecting the ‘Keep in senders format’ option, or least strongly discourage them, citing security concerns?

    Or is it more likely that Notes users simply aren’t aware of this fact?

    3) The ‘Exchange meets Domino’ issue sounds quite plausible, but also very hard to solve from the point of view of email designers and newsletter senders.

    I’d be interested in your views.

  • Colin Williams

    Its simple – don’t send HTML email! How dare you assume that the recipients have an email client that can deal with HTML email.

    Content is king right? Targetting the lowest common denominator is important right? You want everyone to read the email right?

    Its so simple, it hurts! – Send a plain text email with a link to the full on HTML version should the content not be sufficent enough to get the message across.

    And if you must send bandwidth stealing HTML formatted emails (shame on you), for crying out loud include a link to the same content on the web.

  • http://www.SitePoint.com Matt Mickiewicz

    Hi Colin,

    We offer text editions for each of our newsletters and we ask at sign-up which format the reader prefers.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Content is king right? Targetting the lowest common denominator is important right?

    Quite simply ‘No’ is the answer to both those questions, Colin.

    As Matt said, we give subscribers complete choice of their format at subscription time, and include a link in each email that allows them to switch formats at any time. We’ve been giving readers that exact choice since May 2001 and have sent almost 500 different HTML newsletters in that time.

    Even from the beginning users were freely selecting the HTML Editions over the plain text at a rate of around 5:1. I can tell you that on any given day the Design View currently get rates of between 10:1 and 15:1. For whatever reason, people like HTML email, and I have no doubt we could very successfully decimate our lists removing the HTML option.

    If targetting the lowest denominator was the only concern, we’d all be building 200k font-happy, table-based sites that render like a dream in Netscape 4. In the end, you simply don’t do stuff for the sake of .25% of users if it in some way compromises the other 99.75%.

    We’ve been talking to 2 Notes users, and we’re working on a solution, but that solution will never be at any expense to the people reading any of the newsletters in Outlook, Gmail, Thunderbird, Evolution, Eudora, etc

  • Colin Williams

    Well done on offering your subscribers a choice – too many don’t and assume that HTML emails are acceptable. To me, HTML emails are not acceptable by default – and that has nothing to do with the fact that I run Notes.

  • Leonardo Naressi

    What about the multipart/alternative emails? Those one that have a “alternative” text version in it’s own code?

    Anybody had tested?

  • Suren

    hi,

    I’m not able to see images in lotus notes 6.5. I’m getting cross marks in image’s place holder. What is the setting

  • http://www.capitalwebhost.net CapitalWebHost

    I, unfortunately, have the displeasure of using “Notes” on a daily basis (corporate default). Sucks. Nothing can describe it any better then the word “Sucks”. I hate it…with a passion. It’s clunky, it uses proprietary standards and conventions that are NOT user-friendly, it does not properly handling HTML, and is slower then a one-legged tortoise.

    But I have no choice in the office. :(

  • MOONDA

    You can not really do anything against DOMINO-Reformatting, but at least you can get your newsletters compatible with the Notes 6+ :

    1. Download an evaluation copy at IBM

    http://www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/lotus/downloads/

    2. Change Notes.ini to activate the buggy 6.0 HTML rendering:

    *Note: The fixes for this and related sprs in Notes 6.0.5 and
    > 6.5.4 can be disabled via the Notes.ini parameter “Use60HTMLCode=1″.

    3. Try & Error to make a mail compatible…

    Happy testing,
    Cheers
    Rik – http://www.moonda.com

  • SpacerJoe

    I’ve been trying to send HTML email out from Lotus Notes (Mac V5) and they keep appearing as plain text and image attachments on web browers (hotmail, etc).

    Is this a Notes problem or something I’m doing wrong? Anybody else had the same problems?

    And yes, as many others have said, Lotus Notes is hell.

  • phil.foss@gmail

    I was all ready to send a large email campaign out, only to have the person who needs to give me final approval, tell me ‘my fonts are all huge’. I asked what email client, and they said, “Lotus Notes” all embarrased.

    I didn’t know Lotus Notes still existed. No idea what version they had. I had to strip out all my inline css and revert to font tags. Looks horrible. Thanks Lotus Notes.

  • Eugene

    Not only do we have to make emails work in Notes, but, alas, we use Notes corporately, and have our interested parties viewing the emails with Notes.

    Since we now also post the content online, we HAVE to use a subset of our site’s CSS to prevent weird conflicts.

    We found that if you duplicate the stylesheet AFTER the body tag, wrapped in standard HTML comments, it works. Sort of. Header tags (H1, H2…etc) get screwy, and font statements need to be made in a tag other than the BODY tag.

    So, we have the CSS in the header and in the body, and seem to get pretty good results. Table borders and background colors are another story tho’….

    Eugene

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  • http://www.strawbleu.co.uk strawbleu

    As an interesting?/pedantic side note – the phrase Lowest Common Denominator includes the word COMMON. This means you should look at users that are significant enough to be ‘common’ and ensure you don’t give a broken service to them.

    It is down to your (or your client organisation) policy as to which percentage point you decide to draw the line under ‘commonality’.

    What I’m saying, I think is – don’t feel you have to support Notes just because it exists, in the same way that you don’t have to support a specific browser just because it exists.

    [A Lotus Notes User]

  • shas

    I m trying to send an email from my appication to Lotus notes and outlook.Mails in outlook are appearing fine with all the formatting tags and most important things with images, but in Lotus Notes no image is coming. I have tried all other options but lotus notes doesn’t seem to understand HTML at all.Worst part is all my clients are using Lotus notes.Any help will be highly appreciated.

  • InPadure

    Yessss, Lotus Notes is hell. I use this email client and have no idea on how to copy-paste a html from my Notes to Word. It’s just driving me crazy. Makes me do stupid thinks like PrintScreen-ing an stuff. I just can’t do anything about it.

  • Stephanie

    in regards to Eric Parsons’s post on September 12th, 2005 at 11:07 am .
    does choosing the option to “user sender’s format” assume i’m also sending form lotus notes? i’m currently using a broadcast and a custom program to send HTML email to a number of corporate clients, and am now encountering Lotus issues.
    thanks
    Stephanie

  • Clay

    (This thread is months old, but I must respond.)

    Colin,

    Your logic is busted. I’ll grant you that content is king. But don’t underestimate the role that design plays in enhancing content. Good design makes content easier to scan, to read, to interpret, to understand. Apart from ugly ASCII characters, plain text provides no capability to properly design and lay out content.

    So your argument is correct, but your conclusion is flawed. HTML is important precisely because content is king.

  • fusion

    Not sure I follow… I’ve had to START embedding font tags in all corporate mailers lately due to Gmail… not remove them in favour of style sheets. I define – in CSS – only the font size (moving the entire CSS from head to beginning of the body), otherwise I use font tags for fallback size (font=”1″ etc), colour, and typeface itself. Pain to code and takes time, but it works seamlessly in Gmail when all CSS is stripped out. You mention you’ve gone in the other direction – wonderful if it works – but I found it didn’t.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    fusion, I totally agree that FONT tags are the default way to go with HTML email. This was recounting our attempts to slim down our HTML email by using more CSS and the pitfalls and hacks/fixes that we encountered in the process.

    (there were some formatting problems with the code in the post above that I’ve fixed)

  • Anonymous

    *brrrr* lotus notes blows *****. I can’t stand that thing :(

  • leon

    we all just need to start refusing to work in places that insist on running Lotus.

    the people united and all that stuff!

  • housejunkee

    I too am having the pleasure of working with Notes. I’m trying to get hold of a Notes v6.0 update as my client is running notes 6.0 (I’ve got versions 5.0.12 and 6.5.3 in my testing environment) but IBM stopped supporting all versions below 6.5 a few months ago!

    So if anyone could point me in the direction of this update, it would be greatly appreciated!

  • pj

    Hmmm – long time Notes user here (from R4.6 and now at R7) and my emails between Outlook and Notes were fine until I upgrade to Outlook 2007. Once AGAIN an MS upgrade breaks things that used to work. Evidently Billy G. never heard of backward compatibility.

  • HTMLemailDesigner

    Hi there, is there some place where I can get old version (5.0.X) of Notes to test html email. Thank you

  • fred

    Lotus Notes is a piece of crap.

    I once went nuts and adressed an email to IBM support with the ten first flaws i could remind of (like the inability to cancel more than 1 type back…)

    Regarding the HTML topic, my e-mails look so 1999. Can’t set table borders, images, CSS and so on… An HTML copy-paste in an e-mail takes ages even for a few lines and freezes the app (maybe it’s our admin who sucks but c’mon, how is that possible ?). Shame on these guys.

  • HTML Tables not rendered properly in notes 7 either

    Without hosting a website and providing a link is there some documentation that will tell what html tables are supported in notes, i tried embedding tables within tables, css styles and nothing seems to work…goodness it’s 2008 Lotus get with it, my html email reciepeints all say it works in outlook but not notes…

  • Phil

    Once AGAIN an MS upgrade breaks things that used to work. Evidently Billy G. never heard of backward compatibility.

    And Lotus’ programmers have never heard of the HTML 3.2 spec, it seems… I’d say that’s more of a worry. Outlook 2007 can still be worked around easily. Notes and Domino are the unholy union that destroys HTML designers’ souls.

  • Drew

    I just wanted to say thank you, all of you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. It has been good reading.

    Unfortunately – though I am a bit more knowledgeable I am still in need of a solution. Subscribed readers using Lotus Notes want HTML emails that look good and contain the content they have requested to receive. They don’t have the know how or ability to change the temperature settings on the microwave let alone talk to a tech guy about Domino.

    Lotus Notes provides no affordable or convenient way to test HTML emails in their environment and I can’t seem to find a solution. Can’t we do any better?

  • Chango

    HTML for emails sucks big time. Plain text is the way to go. Eye candy in an email message isn’t productive unless you are a spammer trying to get your victim’s attention or you have absolutely nothing to do.

    Link to a html page with all your html/css/images crap and stop complaining. Sending massive big fat html emails to thousands of recipients is a waste of disk space and bandwidth.

  • Karl

    Jesus what the hell are you talking about. The html emails we I send are no more than 5-6k in size…..are you using a dial up connection with a 1 gig hard drive?? Or is it that your brain cannot cope with the complexity of the graphical content??

  • HTML’er

    I stumbled upon this blog as I have a new client using lotus email, and I’m trying to find the source of the issues that cause layout problems for this email client.

    I don’t agree that emails should be plain text. It depends on your product, your target market, and the industry you are catering for.

    I create e-newsletters for clients every day. Most of these are for the fashion, creative and entertainment industries. The client on Lotus is a major makeup company who’s target market is young, hip 15-30 year olds.

    I can guarantee that if we sent plain text emails my client would have a conversion rate of zero.
    This target market has a short attention span, were brought up on technology and need sizzle to impress. Without images to accompany the textual content the newsletter campaign would miserably fail.

    Learning about the weaknesses of the various email clients and adopting techniques (using mixed-mode HTML4 as well as css-styled code) to fight your way around them plus providing a viewing alternative, and plain text version within the code is the best way we have found at dealing with non-confirming browsers.

    Stating that all email should be plain text displays a large amount of ignorance over the purpose and reasons for why users may subscribe to the email in the first place.

  • steve

    Wow
    I just stumbled onto this forum.
    Does anyone here remember that email is was created as a 7bit application? Not 8.

    SMTP needs to be re-designed.

  • acoffman

    I have been struggling myself. but i have found something that works. apple sent me a good email and i forwarded it to my lotus just to see what would happen and it rendered pretty good. I took there code and images to use as a platform. if you want the file let me know arthur.coffman gmail.com

  • iiq374

    For those dimwits that are complaining that Notes sucks because they are *still* using Notes 5/6 etc; please install Outlook 2000 and compare its spectacular [sic] HTML email support.

    Don’t rag on the technology because your admins don’t keep their clients up to date. Notes is now 8.5 if you’re on less but comparing it to Outlook 2008 you are a moron.

  • Woody

    For what it’s worth…
    I am one of many who has the job of sending html emails to Lotus Notes users. I have tried my hardest to get Notes to send out the email and never have gotten it to look like I want it.

    I believe it’s sending from the Notes that is the hardest part.

    I did find a workaround – if you use an outside (web based) email service and create your own html, it is possible to get it to render almost flawlessly in Notes 6.X+