SitePoint Podcast #58: HTML Email with Mat Patterson

Episode 58 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week, Kevin (@sentience) interviews Mat Patterson (@mrpatto) from Campaign Monitor. They discuss many things email-related, mostly the absolute nightmare it can be to design beautiful-looking HTML emails that work consistently across email clients. Thankfully, Campaign Monitor has some handy tools and templates to get you started.

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Interview Transcript

Kevin: April 23rd, 2010. The pain of HTML email, and how Campaign Monitor can help turn those headaches into a healthy revenue stream. I’m Kevin Yank and this is the SitePoint Podcast #58: HTML Email with Mat Patterson.

And I’m joined today by Campaign Monitor’s Mat Patterson.

Hi, Mat, how is it going?

Mat: Hey, Kevin, it’s going great.

Kevin: We’re here to talk about email, email, and more email today and your life just must be full of email.

Mat: My life is chockablock with email.

Kevin: I know most of us, email is like that thing that we have to deal with in order to get our job done but on top of that, email is your job.

Mat: That’s right. I mean I literally would look at thousands of emails every day. Not all of them are particularly nice to look at but a lot of them are.

Kevin: Why don’t you start by telling our listeners who you are, how you got where you are and what you do now at Campaign Monitor?

Mat: Sure. I guess like a lot of people listening, I was a web designer by background; I kind of fell in to web design after university when web design was quite young—at least commercial web design—in 1997. I started working on a helpdesk and that job tied into being a webmaster back in the day when we actually had webmasters. I guess there’s still webmasters but I mean like government departments, which haven’t changed their naming system since 1995 but basically became a web designer through that process. I worked a few places in Sydney and then I went overseas and worked in the UK for a company, which became Cross Line UK and then back to Sydney again doing freelancing, working for myself as a web designer, contracting at different places and working a few in-house positions as well. The last one of those was actually at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, which was quite a fun place to be a web designer.

Kevin: Were you working all on your own there or do they have like a web team?

Mat: They have like an IT team basically. My position was kind of half— Through some kind of weird political system it was specified officially as being half in the marketing team and half in the IT team to the point where there was two different desks. I left there basically to come to Campaign Monitor where I’m doing a job which is not actually web design specifically. I would say it’s web design related, but at Campaign Monitor I look after all our customers and basically trying to help them as far as running the support team and also helping them build up their businesses by adding email marketing as a new service.

Recently I’ve been writing a book for SitePoint.

Kevin: Yeah, and I’m sure we’ll get you back on to talk about that book when it’s ready for people to buy.

Mat: Absolutely.

Kevin: Coming back to Campaign Monitor, like, I don’t know, do you find this is true of a lot of your customers that email is kind of a necessary evil something that their clients want them to be able to do and their hand is forced to add that to their product offering?

Mat: That’s definitely true. I mean not so much necessarily their customers I think because at least the people we often deal with are the ones who’ve kind of come over to the dark side in a sense. But definitely, as far as the web design industry as a whole, there’s still a very large percentage of designers who kind of think that HTML email design shouldn’t actually exist, that it’s kind of an evil in the industry.

Kevin: Does this come back to the whole text email versus HTML email debate?

Mat: Yeah, it does. It’s a weird one. I think it’s somehow a bunch of people and I think it’s coming out of the web standards thing, which is weird, but it’s kind of the idea that email is meant to be text and therefore it should always be text and we shouldn’t change that. And when I do talks, I like to get and ask people upfront put your hand up if you hate HTML email and I usually get about 50/50. So there’s still some work to do there.

It’s a very odd situation actually because, of course, it’s not like the web was ever meant to have applications on it or was even meant to have shops and you could buy things from Amazon, right?

Kevin: Right, right.

Mat: It was all invented by scientists so that they could exchange scientific information but somehow we managed to move past that on the web but not so much in email, at least in people’s minds.

Kevin: Yeah and to some extent, for me, it comes from the order these things were invented in. When email was invented, the web wasn’t really there as a technology; or if it was, it was a glint in someone’s eye. It hadn’t proven itself as a document language that would be embraced so universally.

Mat: True.

Kevin: But when we look at technologies like eBooks, the EPUB standard for eBooks now, it has been very natural for that standards body to adopt HTML as like the base language for eBooks. No one is out there saying “books should be text!”

Mat: Yes. I do use that example myself actually is that even books which are literally just text that don’t use monospaced fonts… they use headings and spacing and nice fonts and that kind of thing just because it makes it easier to read and that’s pretty much our position at Campaign Monitor is like you might not personally want to receive that, which is fine because you should always have the choice but other people want to send nice looking emails, which are easier to read and if you don’t design them, if you as their web designers basically say hey, I don’t want to touch that, then it’s not like they’re not going to go out. It just made somebody’s marketing secretary’s going to get 10,001 pieces of clipart and stick them into a message in Outlook and send it anyway.

Kevin: I want to get a little disclaimer out of their way so that people know. I mean one of the reasons we’re talking to Matt today is that SitePoint uses Campaign Monitor’s service to send out all of its email newsletters, and Campaign Monitor has been kind enough to give SitePoint those services for free in return for promotional consideration you might say. We mention Campaign Monitor everywhere we can in relation to our newsletters and getting Matt on today is part of that arrangement but I certainly don’t want to make this podcast an ad for Campaign Monitor. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to dig in to some really interesting stuff like I feel we’re already doing so far.

One of the reasons we love Campaign Monitor at SitePoint and this is even before we managed to convince you to give us your services for free is because you do solve one of these hard problems that we really are glad we don’t have to solve ourselves.

Can you tell me about some of those problems that Campaign Monitor, you guys feel like you’re solving and you’re proud of that?

Mat: That’s also a common question I guess, especially for designers who are trying to sell the idea of an email marketing service to their customers is why should I pay for something which I can do for free?

Kevin: Yeah, I could open Outlook and start making things bold.

Mat: Yes. But there’s actually just a huge amount of work involved in, especially if you’re dealing with a list of any kind of size as you’d know at SitePoint, you’ve got pretty big lists there. But when you’re sending that many emails and purely the time that takes to actually send them is a big factor. A lot of companies come to us because they’ve been doing it themselves and then they’re finding we’re spending two days trying to get the newsletter to go out and we want to do it every week. It’s just a huge time suck, whereas we have obviously the capability to send that out within an hour or whatever.

We manage everything that comes from sending that volume of emails: dealing with hard bounces and soft bounces when somebody’s out of office thing goes crazy, handling the unsubscribe requests so they you don’t accidentally send to somebody again, dealing with the spam complaints when you do accidentally send to somebody that you shouldn’t have or for some reasons somebody complains, and then all the reporting around how many of those emails did bounce, who’s getting the email, who’s not getting it, who’s opening it, what are they clicking on, what are they interested in – all that kind of information that you would like to know and that will make your email more effective if you take it into account but which is really hard to get back if you’re trying to do it all yourself.

It’s basically just a massive big tangled ball of time and costs and technical requirements around email that you can kind of abstract the way and you can spend your time worrying about what content and what the design should be and not about all the technicalities of actually delivering the email.

Kevin: So as much as possible you try and make the process of designing and delivering rich email in bulk, in mass quantities, you try and limit the work that the designer has to do to the same work they have to do if they’re designing a web page. Is that fair to say?

Mat: Yeah, as far as it’s possible to basically take care of all those fiddly technical bits around actually handling the email. Any idiot can send email as we know, we always receive it from idiots. But sending an email, which is decent or which is useful is a different story and designers should really be spending their time on making the design effective and also working with their clients to make sure their clients are sending stuff which is actually useful and that people want, rather than spending all their time just worrying about whether they’ve removed people who bounced last time and whether that’s a permanent bounce or it’s a temporary bounce and whether they should send it again. There’s just a lot of information to deal with and if you can get rid of the stuff which is not your expertise and stick with the stuff which you can do better than anybody else, it’s a good way to make some money.

Kevin: One of the things that we admire about Campaign Monitor at SitePoint is that you guys go a bit above and beyond your, I guess, your moneymaking operations. Compared to your competitors, you guys are out there a lot more trying to push the standards related to HTML email forward, trying to tackle some of these things that make HTML email difficult and trying to make that space a better place for designers. Can you talk about some of those efforts.

Mat: Sure. For a long time, for pretty much the whole time that Campaign Monitor has been around, which is a bit over five years, it came out of the company before Campaign Monitor, the same two guys who started Campaign Monitor, had a web design business themselves. So they really know the pain of having to deal with email and all the rendering problems, how your email doesn’t look the same in Outlook 2007 as it does in Outlook 2003 and also the pain of trying to deal with programs that aren’t really aimed at designers. So I guess a lot of it came out of that kind of personal understanding and the pain point that they’d tried to get around themselves. That’s kind of become part of a company culture is we shouldn’t only be building a business because there is that pain there but we should be trying to remove that pain as much as we can. Better for us, better for our customers and then in the end better for people receiving email because the easier it is for people to actually do the technical rendering parts the more time they’re going to have to spend on making the emails useful.

A couple of things we’re doing: early on, we did a lot of the research about what particular CSS you supported in which particular email clients, which has been a really popular report over the years just to find out that okay, this Outlook 2007 for example, it doesn’t support background images. So instead of spending (like we did) forever trying to work out why is it not showing up, you can just go here and look and say look, it’s just not supported.

Kevin: There’s about five different ways you can try and make that work and then you get to the end of your afternoon and realize, oh, none of them work.

Mat: None of them work or even more annoying, one of them works but only in certain cases, which are not really clear at all, and it just seemed random. And why does the email strip out all my styles. If you don’t know that that’s what happening, a lot of this stuff is very time consuming. So we’ve got a lot of research in those areas – which email clients block images by default, does a form work if I send it in an email… all those kinds of things where it just takes a long time to test them. So we’ve gone out and done that and just stick that all in reports. So you can find it and save yourselves a lot of time.

Kevin: So as a designer who’s tackling an HTML email job and you want to make it as rich and beautiful as possible, is step 1 reading those reports? Do you have to read those reports?

Mat: If you just want to send a basic email where you’re not doing anything fancy and I guess if you’ve been designing emails—or designing web pages I should say—since, let’s say, 1999, if you were designing them in, you could pretty much take your 1999 design skills and keep creating emails with those, then it would be fine.

Kevin: As long as you don’t need background images.

Mat: Yeah, that’s right. If you’ve done anything in the 2000’s, you’re probably going to have to relearn a little bit how to do things old school to make it work. But yeah, you will quickly run into limitations and fiddly things where you’re not sure, is it meant to be working, am I doing something wrong, is there something wrong with my code, and you just save yourself an enormous amount of time, do that or you can go and grab one of the free templates we give out where we’ve done all that testing.

It’s definitely worth knowing what those reports are so that when something does go wrong, you can at least find out if it’s your fault or Microsoft’s.

Kevin: Speaking of Microsoft, one of the big campaigns you guys undertook was the fixoutlook.org campaign. Why don’t you talk us through that because I had so much fun watching you guys do that as it went but I’m really curious what was going on behind the scenes because at the end of the day, what you were trying to do was very gently twist Microsoft’s arm. And having interviewed people at Microsoft over the years and having spoken to people at Microsoft, and just as every web designer’s had to do over the years having to deal with the decisions Microsoft makes, you kind of get the sense that the harder you twist their arm the less they’re going to actually be willing to work with you.

Mat: Yes. That’s always the risk when you’re trying to make some change. I guess it came out of the Email Standards Project is the banner which that whole campaign took place under and we started that up separate to Campaign Monitor with the idea that we could get support possibly from other email service providers and people like that, people involved in the industry and then not just be a Campaign Monitor thing, which is still the idea. But what we found basically is that everybody was complaining about the situation, like why is it so hard to design for email, why make it possible but then make it incredibly frustrating by having wildly variable support across all the different email clients.

Kevin: And why actively make it more difficult over time.

Mat: Yeah. Why take a step back from Outlook 2003 in the case of Outlook to Outlook 2007 where the rendering got a lot worse because they swapped from using Internet Explorer to render emails, which obviously has its own problems but at least it is a known quantity, and then to use Microsoft Word’s rendering engine, which is just bizarre. So everybody was upset about it but nobody’s really doing anything and we kind of got to the point where we say well, if anybody should be doing it, it should be us because we’re the ones who are in this industry, we’re providing a service, we’re making money from basically helping people deal with it and it kind of seemed like the right thing for us to do is to try and improve things on behalf of all of our customers and all the people who aren’t our customers but who are in the same situation. So we actually started first with Gmail. I don’t know if you remember the Gmail Grimaces Project.

Kevin: No, I don’t.

Mat: Which was a simpler one but Gmail has a few issues mostly to do with it will work fine if you use inline styles but if you don’t use inline styles, it just strips them all out and your email looks terrible, which it just seems very odd because technically, there’s no reason they couldn’t like most other email clients just take those styles, render them safe in whatever way they need to and then apply them.

Kevin: Yeah, it seems a pretty shortsighted… like someone in the Gmail team on day 1 went what are some simplifying assumptions, some shortcuts we could take to make our job easier and they didn’t actually think through whether the shortcut would make their job easier, they thought well that’s something we might try and so they did it and they’ve never really looked back.

Mat: Yeah. I mean you can never know what was going on inside the head of someone at the time but a lot of these decisions I think are because the people involved don’t believe in the whole concept of HTML email, so they’re not really too fussed about making it work.

Kevin: Yeah, from what we hear about email culture inside of Google, it’s a lot of big mailing lists, which you assume are very texty; not very design centric.

Mat: Yes, exactly. So they design what they need, which is always the case; people design where they think products should go and there’s obviously some assumptions built into Gmail. We basically had no luck with getting in contact with anybody at Gmail even to ask them why they did it in that way because maybe there was some reason that we didn’t know about and we would have liked to have that conversation but we hadn’t had any success. And so the Gmail Grimaces Project was basically we got a bunch of web designers all over the world to take a photo of themselves making the face that they make when they see what their email looks like in Gmail, and there were some very interesting photos that came back.

Kevin: Is that still up somewhere?

Mat: Yeah, if you go to email-standards.org and you search on there for grimaces, Gmail grimaces, you’ll find that. So we took all those photos kind of made them into a little 30-second video with the dramatic voiceover basically appealing to Gmail to do something about it and stop these people from their suffering.

That got some attention and we did eventually hear from a couple of engineers at Gmail and some former engineers who said at least that they would be willing to spend some of their 20% time investigating and finding out what was going on. We still haven’t really seen anything change at Gmail but we do at least have the names of some people we can talk to and it’s a step forward.

The next thing we moved onto was Outlook, which was the one you’re referring to, the fixoutlook.org project and the idea with that one, pretty much the same thing, was we had actually spoken to a few people at Microsoft, nobody in the Outlook team, but I’d spoken to Chris Wilson, the IE team lead at the time, about why they’ve done that and basically the position that I had or that we understood from Microsoft was we get a lot of pressure about security and from the Microsoft Office team in general about creating emails with Word and that they should look good whereas we’re not getting any pressure at all about HTML email rendering, which is completely understandable because I can imagine most designers basically were just ignoring the idea at that point. So we felt maybe we can create that pressure, we can at least equalize things a bit and get some attention and we tried to make it as easy as possible because we’re constantly hearing from people who are upset about it but they don’t really know what to do about it, other than complain and obviously that wasn’t going to be that effective if everyone is just individually complaining to us or to their service provider.

So we created that website, fixoutlook.org and basically made it super easy for people to say look, I support this project, which has just evolved tweeting with the particular hash tag in it and then our Fix Outlook site would basically go out and grab all those tweets and get the avatar for the person who tweeted, kind of merge them into a really nice wall of faces showing what people were saying about that and it really just took off from that. Like on the first day there was, maybe first couple of days, 6,000 people retweeted it and then it’s up to 27,000 times now.

Kevin: It was astonishing, when you got to the page… I don’t know, going into it I sort of… I would see the mention of the campaign and I go wow, there’s actually someone else out there who cares about this issue as much as I do. I better go sign their petition so that they don’t only have 10 people on their petition and then you go to the page and you’re bombarded by this moving wall of faces and you realize this really is a massive issue that affects a lot of people.

Mat: Yeah, that’s it; it was trying to provide some visibility to the number of people that are really struggling with it.

Kevin: Microsoft likes to talk about their responsibility to not break the Web and they site like half a billion users for Internet Explorer and that wall of faces to me represented the fact that they had broken email.

Mat: Yes, and in a way that just wasn’t necessary because they were in a situation where… I mean much the same as they were in browser land where other people are showing it can be done, like Apple Mail basically just uses WebKit to render email and it doesn’t cause them any problems. I mean I can say that they might want to restrict some types of things and we have no problem with saying okay, JavaScript is not going to work in your email, fine. But as to why we have to – you know we can’t use floats and we can’t use background images and why the margins and padding should be completely wacky and then not consistent, all that kind of stuff.

So this was just an easy way for people to say I have this pain too and I want something done about it. And we’ve always tried to approach it in a very positive way, really following on from the Web Standards Project, which is to say we’re not here to attack you. We just want to basically start a conversation about how we can improve the next version of Outlook. And we got a lot of press from that. TechCrunch and Mashable and CNet and ZDNet and some print media, all followed up on that because it just took off so quickly. And then we did hear from Microsoft at least on the Outlook blog. Unfortunately, we heard them saying basically they weren’t going to do anything about it. That was the first time they had even acknowledged that there was an issue. We did talk to some people inside Microsoft and we managed to talk to the product manager for Outlook and at least get their position, we understand their position a bit better about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Kevin: So what was their position? Was it “Yes, we realized we made a tough compromise but we’re happy with the compromise we’ve made?”

Mat: Yeah. Essentially, it was to say we had competing pressures here. It was one to standardize and to do better rendering and the other one is for people who are creating emails using Microsoft Office to make sure that the email looks the same on the other end as it does when they send it. To us, it seems kind of shortsighted of you saying we’re going to make the experience good for the percentage of people who are using Word via Outlook to send email and using that to read it as well as opposed to everybody else in the world who’s having to put up with it. Microsoft Office is, obviously, their massive money spinning product and I can say that internally, they probably have a huge amount of power in that area.

We printed out a poster, a really huge poster of all those Twitter avatars and we sent it off to Microsoft and they put it up in their hallway, in the Outlook office. They sent us photos of that. So I think we did have some impact and at least they’re aware of it.

Kevin: So how does that work? Have you got like people on the inside at Microsoft who are sympathetic to the cause? Like someone made the decision to put that up on the wall and it wasn’t someone who thought that you didn’t have a point.

Mat: No, and I think they’re well aware that it could be better. And again, without being inside there you don’t know exactly why they could be on one hand quite sympathetic and willing to talk and on the other hand, not actually make any change and I guess you could be cynical about it inside that it’s a PR thing to just say “we’re listening” and then do nothing.

On the other hand, if you choose to see it in a positive way it’s just that there are some dissenting opinions and at this point, whoever it is that’s deciding to use Word, that’s the position that they’ve stuck with and they still standing there but we’re in a better position and closer then we where before to making it change. Unfortunately, Outlook 2010, we’ve tested that one already and it doesn’t make any difference in terms of rendering. It’s pretty much the same as Outlook 2007.

Kevin: So they haven’t even improved the Word rendering engine?

Mat: Not as far as we can tell. It’s pretty much got the same issues that we already saw, which is quite sad but the fight goes on. We at least now are in contact with people and we can, hopefully, keep working on that.

Kevin: You mentioned that you went through all the trouble of documenting what works where in these various reports and what it comes down to is you’re using late-1990’s-era web dev techniques, what does that really boil down to specifically?

Mat: Well, I guess the main thing is that you have to go back and get your old tables out again because very few of the major browsers will, at least the desktop browsers, the ones with the huge market share, the ones which don’t support things like floats and that kind of div based layouts, so you’re back to using tables to make sure that the structure stays together for everybody. And then you just have to accept that you’re going to get a lot more variation in terms of your design than you would on a modern web browser and things like images don’t show up by default for a lot of people. So if you send it, it’s got a nice big header at the top and they’re viewing that in a preview pane, say, and that image doesn’t load, which it probably won’t if you’re sending to Gmail or Outlook or Yahoo!, by default, they’re not going to see the image. You know at best case, they’re going to see the alt attribute and in a lot of cases they won’t even see that.

It’s almost like, especially with the preview pane, I like to imagine it’s Ned Kelly, if he was trying to browse in your shop through that little window in his helmet just seeing a tiny bit of it and having to judge based on that whether he’s going to actually purchase something.

If you’re not an Australian you’ll have to go look up who Ned Kelly is.

Kevin: How do you know as a designer, do you have to keep… just as you do for browser testing, do you have to make sure you have the ability to run all the major email platforms in order to see what you’re doing?

Mat: Well, certainly that’s an option. It’s so much harder for email than it is for the Web because you can run five, six, seven web browsers on your one computer especially if you’re using a PC or you have access to a Windows environment and you’ve pretty much covered all the major ones, and if anything that’s going to be of any decent size audience.

Kevin: And you make a change and you just hit refresh, refresh, refresh.

Mat: Yeah and you see it all there. It’s all instant. Whereas, obviously, for email you’ve got either 12 or 15 email clients, which have pretty significant share of the market and a lot of them, you know that obviously, the web based ones are reasonably easy to test because they’re mostly free and you can have an account and that’s fine. You still have to send the email and then wait for it to be delivered and hope that it didn’t go into your spam folder so you can find it. But then the desktop ones like installing a server based version of Lotus Notes is not really practical for most people. And unless you already have access to it that can be a bit of a nightmare.

That’s one of the reasons that Campaign Monitor and a lot of other services include a testing service where you send your email once or it automatically gets sent and it returns screenshots, browser cam style screenshots of how the email renders in different clients, which is a big time saver. It’s not as good obviously as seeing it in the actual email client but you can at least get a lot closer and when you see one of those reports you realize how many different email clients there are out there.

Kevin: Yeah, definitely, we use that preview very heavily when testing our email newsletters and it’s remarkable. You know just in a particular newsletter we might have a piece of sample code that we’re showing that’s a little wider than the template would usually allow for that part of the newsletter to be but as we’re developing that issue looking at the preview as we’re just building the newsletter as a web page, we kind of go oh well, that forces the template to stretch a little bit and it actually doesn’t look too bad but you go ahead and preview it and you realize that that small pressure blows apart the layout in one or two of the email clients that are important to you.

Mat: Yeah and some of them can be quite fragile in that way. And then if you don’t have direct access to test, the whole process becomes very time consuming because you – especially if you’re having to send through another service, get back a screenshot, try and work out with the screenshot, not really even with an active render, at least with a website, with a web browser you can you know fiddle Firebug, use it to change things and test it kind of instantly. But in an email you’re kind of waiting for that screenshot to come back and then try to work out what should I change, what is most likely to fix it then I can run another test. It is a more time consuming environment.

That’s kind of one of the reasons that Campaign Monitor includes a template system so that you can spend all that time upfront, get your template working and then kind of lock it down and just create some editable areas where you, your clients or whoever can log in add content and send those emails without the risk of destroying the whole thing.

Kevin: Yeah and we learned that lesson the hard way at SitePoint. The last designs we had for our HTML email newsletters where coded from scratch by us who thought we know what we’re doing, we can figure this out and it was really hard and even when we were done, it wasn’t completely figured out. And so when it came time to redesign them and we had already moved to Campaign Monitor services, we swallowed our pride and grabbed one of the simplest looking templates that we could find from Campaign Monitor and used it as a foundation and it really did— Just using that as the foundation points you in the right direction and steers you away from a lot of the things that are going to get you into trouble and waste a lot of your time.

Mat: Absolutely. Yeah, because we’ve just spent endless hours fiddling with those, trying to get them all working and testing and trying to work out why they don’t work and that’s a big part of why Campaign Monitor is different, I guess, to a lot of other services is that web designers by background and so we care about that kind of stuff. Whereas a lot of the other services are from marketing companies that come out of print marketing companies and they’ve added email where they will say here you go, you can send, you can use these two templates and just going to put your logo here and it’s just horrible for designers to use who are used to having control and who have the skills to actually do something better.

Kevin: So at SitePoint we use Campaign Monitor’s services directly to send newsletters that we want to send and as a result, I don’t have a clear picture of how your services fit into someone who’s working maybe as a freelance web designer or working in a web design company that’s working for clients. So spell that out for me. How does that work?

Mat: There is a second side to Campaign Monitor. There’s the one you’re just saying where you’re a designer or you send emails for yourself.

Kevin: Right.

Mat: That’s fine or even you can send on behalf of your client that you’re doing all of the design and just sending it out but there’s also a kind of white label aspect to Campaign Monitor, which is aimed at designers, freelancers or agencies, which is you can offer an email marketing service to your clients as an additional service that you give to them. Basically that involves you set up your marketing site or you put it on your normal website saying that we now offer email marketing services and then you link into a custom, a re-branded version of Campaign Monitor and this is completely white labeled. So there’s no mention of Campaign Monitor there, it doesn’t say anything about who’s providing the service; it just presents as your own product.

Kevin: And your clients log into that?

Mat: Yeah and they can log in through your own website and be directed into your re-branded Campaign Monitor account without ever knowing that they’ve kind of left your environment. You can use a custom domain to make that more re-branded. And then the idea is that you can then create for them templates based on their own unique brand and use one of our free templates as a base or create your own custom from scratch, whatever you like, set that up for them and then they can login, manage their subscribers and create lists and add lists and then create new campaigns based on those templates using an onscreen editor where they don’t need to have any HTML skills at all, they can just concentrate on the content, the stuff that they actually know about, upload images…

Kevin: Alright. So that’s the missing element that we don’t see at SitePoint because we do still author our newsletters by hand ourselves.

Mat: Yeah, which is great for designers because you can vary things every month, if you want to do something a little bit different you can just do that but if you’re not interested in doing that so a lot of designers kind of do a mix of both. They will sometimes send individual campaigns, which they’ve designed specifically for that particular occurrence and the rest of the time they’ll use a template where they just plugin new content each month or each week.

One of the big benefits to designers of the re-branding system is that you can then set the prices that your clients will pay. So they login, they send their campaign, they pay us—although they don’t know they’re paying us, they think they’re paying you—they pay us whatever amount you decide, you have set in their account, we take out the base price that we charge everybody and the rest we just save up and then once a month will send that back to you as cash. So I had a look this morning and I think we’ve given back in total to designers about $2 million worth.

Kevin: Geez.

Mat: Yeah. So there’s a lot of people making some good money basically from email and then of course the beauty of it is once you’ve set them up and you set their templates up, every time they send from then on, you can earn a little bit extra. So it’s kind of an ongoing income stream, which is a nice thing especially in a web design agency where so much work is kind of project base.

Kevin: And it’s not just an ongoing income stream from nothing; it takes what would be an ongoing nuisance of your clients sending you a Word document saying “please send this out to our 10,000 customers by this afternoon as a beautifully designed email.” It takes that work away and makes you that revenue stream.

Mat: Yeah. So we get a lot of feedback from designers—

Kevin: Do you get many designers who don’t charge their clients a markup at all just because it’s that convenience?

Mat: Yeah, definitely. There is a lot of people who they still do the re-branding side but they just basically they will pay us and they’ll then price into whatever they’re charging the client for. They’ll throw it in as an extra to the website design, and then there’s people who go the other way, who charge multiples of what we charge and make some good money. There are some people making $4,000-$5,000 a month every month and effectively for providing an ongoing service where they’ve done most of the work already and now they’re just doing a little bit of maintenance. So it can be very effective.

Kevin: So what are some of the new things that you guys are doing because it sounds like you’ve got a pretty sweet setup and it would be tempting to just spend all your time, I don’t know, marketing that product, which I’m sure you do plenty of that. But yeah, what’s some of the new innovations that you guys are coming up with to make email even better?

Mat: It’s a good question because one of the things about us is that we kind of in a 37signal-ey type of way, don’t have a lot of features that other products do have mostly because we’re very focused on designers and we try and we’re not going to add something just because everybody else does it if it doesn’t actually help the designer sell the product to their client.

Kevin: Can I put you on the spot and ask you for a specific example?

Mat: Well, what I’ll tell you is something which we are now doing but which we haven’t done for five years is auto responders. So autoresponders, it’s when somebody signs up to your list they get an email and then another week they get an email and then another week after they get another email, kind of a series, which is something that was very common when Campaign Monitor even was first built. But it doesn’t get used by a lot of people, it doesn’t make sense. It’s just an additional bit of complexity where it would just sit there and clutter up the interface with something.

Kevin: So an autoresponder being an email that is not sent out when you, the designer, press the send button but it is sent out as people subscribe to it?

Mat: Yeah, based on a rule of some sort or it might be based on the fact that this person said their birthday is the 13th of April and it’s now the 13th of April so that will trigger the email to send without you doing anything as the account owner. And that’s something we’ve—as we do with a lot of things—is we kind of actively resist adding complexity unless we really see that there’s a need for it in terms of designers really wanting to help them, which is not the case with autoresponders because designers mostly are not involved in that kind of the marketing side or where it’s a tool that will get some use but which will also help a lot of designers to resell their product. So that’s something which we’re working on and then sometime in the next few months will be released but we will do within in a Campaign Monitor type way, which is not to throw in every possible option just to cover the core things especially for the case where some company’s coming to their web designer saying we need a product that has this 483 features but actually, we’ll only use about five of them.

We’re just always trying to keep Campaign Monitor as simple as we possibly can but not so simple that it kind of stops you from being able to use that as a real world product.

Kevin: The last thing that you guys added along those lines was A/B testing.

Mat: That’s right, yes. That’s another good example of something that which was really highly requested and interesting, but actually, it doesn’t get a huge amount of use compared to most of the features in Campaign Monitor.

Kevin: Having seen A/B testing done with tools like the Google Website Optimizer, I know just how messy and confusing those interfaces can be but the way you guys implemented it, it’s basically one radio button that if you’re not looking for that feature it’s not going to get in your eye line and until you actually pick that, the feature, the A/B testing does not appear anywhere else in the user interface. And I think that’s a really nice way to do it, this thing that there’s one well placed door into it and unless you go through that door, it’s not going to make the rest of the experience any more difficult.

Mat: That’s right because most people still aren’t going to use it and we’ve seen what happens with products when you just add everything that’s requested. We’ve got an enormous list of things which have being requested. We do a very small amount of them.

The other good thing we’ve just added, the mobile web app view of Campaign Monitor. So if you go to your Campaign Monitor account on your iPhone or your other mobile web browsing device, you’ll see not the whole Campaign Monitor account, you’ll see kind of a simplified view which shows you what you’re most likely to be interested in when you’re on the bus or on the train or whatever, which is your reports and you can see who’s opening, like, how is my most recent view campaigns going, which is a really nice thing for people to have after they’ve just sent that email at 4:55 and then left the office.

Kevin: Well, I think that about covers everything I wanted to talk about today. Did you have anything else you wanted to mention?

Mat: I don’t think so. I don’t think we’ve got anything really to cover there.

Kevin: I put the word out on Twitter asking if anyone had any questions for you and I got a couple back and they were along the lines of “I would like to ask Campaign Monitor if they will marry me.”

You guys have a lot of fans out there. The people who use your service, I don’t know… you really must appeal to that designer group because certainly, once people start using you they don’t seem to be disappointed.

Mat: That’s always nice to hear and I think that we’re probably not technically allowed to marry people. I guess we could have an affair of some kind but maybe send us an email about that.

Kevin: There you go, Susan, you have your answer.

Mat: Because I think because we are designers mostly – at least half of the business we ever have is developers, web dev guys, so you know we know what we would have liked to have at the time when we were still doing client work and so that’s what we’re still working on and so we still keep in touch with designers that way.

The only thing I would like to say probably is if you’re a designer and you still kind of have that anti-HTML email viewpoint that maybe it’s time to kind of rethink that a little bit because whether you use Campaign Monitor or you do it yourself or you use some other service, which there are plenty of good ones, you know it’s something that’s going to keep growing and it’s a good opportunity for you.

Kevin: Definitely. Whatever you believe, your clients, your boss, whatever, are likely to believe something a little different.

Mat: Absolutely.

Kevin: Alright. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Mat. We really appreciate it.

Mat: Thanks so much for having me.

Kevin: And thanks for listening to the SitePoint Podcast. If you have any thoughts or questions about today’s interview, please do get in touch. You can find SitePoint on Twitter @sitepointdotcom, and you can find me on Twitter @sentience.

Visit sitepoint.com/podcast to leave a comment on this show, and to subscribe to get every show automatically. We’ll be back next week with another news and commentary show, with our usual panel of experts.

This episode of the SitePoint Podcast was produced by Karn Broad, and I’m Kevin Yank. Bye for now!

Theme music by Mike Mella.

Thanks for listening! Feel free to let us know how we’re doing, or to continue the discussion, using the comments field below.

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  • powerpotatoe

    Over the past year, I have been designing and sending a weekly HTML email newsletter for my church. HTML email provides a sense of professionalism to an email. I think it shows that a company or group is serious about their product or content. I use Firefox to develop the design and add content, then from the browser I copy and paste the design and content into Gmail. I recently switched to Thunderbird as my email client and I follow the same process. A few months ago I learned that Google Analytics offers a simple way to track email through links included in the email. This is a basic method for email marketing, but it works.

    I have not had much trouble using this method of design, development, and deployment. Gmail and Thunderbird accepts and receives the design just as I created it and it is received as I designed it in Outlook 2007. I also enjoy using the old development methods of tables and inline styles. It takes me back to the days that I thought I was the king of tables and didn’t need that new kid on the block, CSS.

  • rsturim

    I’m a long time fan of the podcast and been developing for the web since ’98. I listen weekly and love the variety of the subject matter. Sadly, this podcast fell short for me. The subject was completely relevant to work — so I was excited when I saw the title. As a matter of fact — I had been struggling with an html email the day this podcast came out. Unfortunately — the podcast proceeded exactly in the manner that Kevin hoped to avoid — one long advertisement for Campaign Monitor. Now don’t get me wrong — I have used CM and they are awesome – but, what I really wanted to hear more about were the coding strategies a developer should follow to achieved solid/reliable html email — not the many neat features that CM offers.
    I would have enjoyed learning more specifics about coding approaches (yes, tables and inline styles — but what else?) or hearing how to best communicate to (marketing) stakeholders the trade offs surrounding certain emails types (rich or plain, high graphics versus low, more copy versus less copy) — in addition to detailing which email clients are most important and must be accommodated versus which ones are less prevalent/important.
    I guess I’ll need to read Mat’s up coming book to get that perspective.
    Honestly, though — thanks for taking on this much overlooked topic.
    -Rich

  • ndlela

    Great show. i have been doing some work recently with html email and have been running into a couple of the issue that Mat brought up. The resouces on the Campaign Monitor site are a great find for me. Filled in a lot of gaps of knowlege I had about how different email platforms handle formatting.

  • http://www.debatepopular.blogspot.com Julio-Debate Popular

    Excellent article, it leaves much to rescue. In my case it could be said that the use of email is still useful and a good attraction can also be the name given to the poster.