Dave Greiner on the Future of Email

Matthew Magain

At the Web Directions South conference last week, I managed to corner Dave Greiner from Freshview (the company responsible for Campaign Monitor and MailBuild). We chatted about HTML email, the push to promote support for standards in email, and how to build a successful web application.

SitePoint: Lately I’ve been unsubscribing from a lot of email newsletters. Do you think that email, as a mass communication medium, is on the way out?

Ah, you’re sticking it to me from the start, aren’t you? Right!

SP: Ha ha! Well, what can I say? One of the most commonly uttered phrases in the SitePoint office is "email is dead!"

Yeah, right, I’ve heard plenty of that. But I think in the early-adopter niche — the tech community — it’s pretty easy to jump the gun without thinking about the rest of the world and what they use.

From a marketing perspective, email still has by far the biggest return on investment of any online marketing effort — it kills search, it kills banner advertising, it kills pretty much everything else by a fair chunk. So I think that, from a marketing perspective, it’s very much alive. And I haven’t seen anything, besides a few early adopters doing the "unsubscribe" thing, that would suggest to me that email can’t exist with RSS.

Obviously it’s in our best interests to make sure that it’s going to be around, and that we keep a close eye on it. We read all the "email is dead!" posts, don’t worry! We’re well aware of what some people think. But I personally don’t see the mainstream losing faith in email. The spam problem is definitely a problem. But I think we’re definitely starting to make headways on that, and in the next five years or so we’ll see a bit of change in that regard.

SP: You mentioned RSS briefly — do you think that RSS is ever likely to be adopted by the mainstream?

Probably not in its current form. But I think it depends on how the operating systems go in terms of making it as absolutely easy to use as possible, so people aren’t required to learn what is still a new term, and a new technology that requires you to launch a separate app to use it. I guess the fact that it’s being integrated into Outlook and Apple Mail is going to help, for sure. But I think RSS and email are still two different things, especially in terms of the one-to-one and one-to-many relationships with email. You can’t reply to an RSS feed; you can’t start a dialogue. It’s much more difficult to create a customised RSS feed.

So if you’ve got a particular message that you know somebody is interested in — because they’ve said they like surfing, and you know that they’re this age group — then you know you can send them a targeted offer about that surfing product, and they’re going to be interested in it. And then you can get a reply and start a dialogue with that person. That’s probably the biggest difference.

Besides, there’s still a massive number of people who don’t know what RSS is. These people just want to get something in their email, because they know how email works, and that’s what they’re used to. They don’t want to go to a web browser or some other application.

There are some things that RSS is better for, though, and it’s good to get those out of your email, because you don’t want them there taking up space — stuff that you just want to read. With RSS you can track it and get it out of your face.

SP: Let’s talk about spam. You hinted that you thought we were getting on top of it — my dad might disagree with you a bit, there. In fact he’d probably say it was getting worse rather than better.

Yeah, I probably wouldn’t get too far ahead of myself and say we’re on top of it. Definitely not. But I think the seeds are starting to be sewn now that will start to add more accountability to email, and that’s a really important layer.

SP: What’s an example of that?

A big thing would be email authentication, things like Sender ID from Microsoft, and DomainKeys from Yahoo! Basically these just add a layer of accountability by requiring people to prove who they are when they send an email. And I think that’s an important first step.

That won’t stop people, of course — a spammer can set up authentication records too. But once we start tying in identity with reputation — for example, if a particular IP address was sending lots of email, and a DomainKey was set up for it — as soon as that IP address starts sending dodgy email, then that identity’s been damaged.

So they’re two big things, reputation and authentication. And they’re starting to take off — again, they’re probably more popular in the savvy email crowd — but more and more ISPs are starting to get behind this, and that’s a promising thing, for sure. These things certainly take time.

SP: A lot of people poo-poo HTML email. But you guys have taken some steps in dispelling the myth that HTML email is bad. Tell us about what you’ve done.

I think again that that’s another early adopter myth — there are a lot more purists in our community who live for plain text, and we’ve had a few people coming up to us at this conference telling us "HTML email is evil" and "It’s the devil!"

I guess people have to realise that it’s not going away — it’s the default format of choice for every single popular email app out there these days. I think that, just like the Web, it’s open to more abuse than text is: there are just as many bad emails being sent as there are bad web pages being designed. And I think the important thing is for manufacturers to move towards supporting some common standards, so that people don’t have to build big, ugly, shocking HTML emails.

SP: Let’s talk about that. The latest version of Outlook took HTML email backwards in a pretty big way, and you guys seem to have taken it on board as your mission to make amends.

It sure did take it backwards! We spent probably the last year and a half, since that news came out, looking at the direction that other email clients are going and complaining about it. We’re now realising that’s not going to get anyone anywhere. It’s time for someone to try and do something about it.

We’re in the process of setting up an organisation, a movement, to try and reverse that trend, if we can. Everyone’s quite hard on the email client manufacturers, but sometimes supporting standards — especially for the web-based email clients, when it’s a page within a page — can be very hard. It can be a challenge. The first step is realising that, and then working proactively with them, and helping them to improve, and telling them what needs to be improved.

What we’ve done is we’ve set up a baseline of standards that we think should at least be a good start, for everyone to meet. And we’re currently working through all the major email clients, putting together a wishlist — a top 10. The message is, "If you could do anything, do these 10 things and it will get you pretty close to where we need to be."

And we think that’s a pretty important first step, and the feedback from everyone has been awesome. We’ve had plenty of people stopping by the booth saying, "Congratulations, awesome, thanks so much!" Even some SitePoint guys have come by and dropped us that one, which is cool!

Again, like the spam problem, it’s not something that’s going to be fixed overnight. But I think there’s a really good chance, based on the reception we’ve received so far, that most of the larger client developers will be receptive to what we’re asking for.

SP: So will this lead on to a book, "Designing With Email Standards", with you in a beanie on the cover? Published by SitePoint, perhaps?

Ha ha! With the Zeldman pose! I like that, it’s an option! I can just see it!

SP: Well it’s basically exactly the same fight that was fought on the Web, isn’t it?

It is. Honestly, it’s a dead-set mirror image. There are a couple of subtle differences. But everyone’s reaction has been the same … there’s always a good chunk of people for, and a good chunk against.

SP: So have you registered emailstandards.org yet?

We first grabbed email-standards.org. But we’ve actually had someone get in touch with us and say "I’ve got emailstandards.org, and I’m happy to donate it for the cause." That’s an example of people getting behind it. So yes: email-standards.org should be around in about a month or so, we’re hoping.

SP: Like SitePoint, you guys are based in Australia but your customer base is mostly based in the US and Europe. How do you address that geographical hurdle, to make sure you can still serve your customers well?

From a customer support perspective, we try and do everything we can to make sure that people can get their questions answered without having to approach us. So we’ve got a pretty comprehensive help system built into the app: we’ve got customer forums, we’ve got loads of information and resources on the site, and there’s a lot of inline help in the app. So we’ve really focussed on that user experience to minimise the amount of help people need, which inevitably some do.

We’ve also set the expectations at the right level. We don’t offer phone support around the world, or anything like that. We just offer email support. And we find that if we get back to people within 12 hours, they’re always more than happy. We just make sure that the people at our end answering the support questions know all about the product and about HTML email, so they can give them a good response, straight up, instead of lots of back and forth.

Another thing we do is we tell people straight up, in the application, on the support form, "Hey, it’s 2:00am in Sydney right now," so they don’t expect an immediate reply. And when they do get one six hours later, it’s like "Oh, you’re up, great. Thanks for helping me out."

SP: So you haven’t found that making it known that you’re based in Australia has hurt your reputation at all?

Not at all, no. Certainly no feedback has come through to us about that. I mean, if the product works, and does what they need it to do, and if there’s a bit of relationship that they have with us, then they’re happy. We’re open about everything, and there’s that element of trust — I think that helps as well. I think if we were presenting ourselves as this big enterprise, and then all of a sudden a customer found out we were this small company in Australia, then that might be an issue. But I think that transparency helps with that as well.

SP: You guys definitely do get a lot of praise for the apps you’ve written being very usable and intuitive. So tell me, how do you make a usable, beautiful web app?

Ha ha, thanks. I guess you’ve just got to be passionate about it. It’s very easy to whip up an interface and think "that’s good enough." But we’ve got a lot of fussy people on the team who say "Well, how about this, how about that?" We have heated arguments about a single element on the page — about which is the best way to do it. I guess you’ve got to have that passion, first and foremost.

None of us has a formal design background, or training background or anything like that. I guess it’s just a matter of looking at how some of the industry leaders are doing things and taking out the bits you think work for you, and adding the bits you think will work for your users, and melding it all together.

SP: So what can we expect in the future from Freshview?

Right now we’ve got lots of new stuff that we want to add to both apps. We’re always about only adding things that everybody can use, and we certainly won’t be bloating them. But we’ve got a few killer things we think are going to be really handy.

Next week we’re launching a new feature that lets people generate screenshots of their email in all the major email clients, and run it through all the spam filters before they send it to their subscribers. So there’ll be a small fee for that. But in terms of the time it saves people testing their emails, it should be well worth it. This HTML email consistency issue is basically the nightmare of sending emails. So this should hopefully take the pain out of it.

Longer term, we’ve got a few ideas. But I think right now we’re just going to stay focussed on our two email apps and make them the best they can be for designers.

SP: Dave, thanks for your time.

No worries. Thanks Matt!