Design & UX
By Alex Walker

Who Sends HTML Email Anyway?

By Alex Walker

So, let’s get this out of the way: HTML email is not cool or groovy.

Hang in the lobbies at SXSW or Web Directions and the buzzy chatter will be all about HTML5 or iPhone development or CSS3. Mention putting HTML into email and you’re likely to be met with anything from disinterest to distaste to open hostility.

Designers will tell you it’s finicky and primitive. Fair call. Techies often bemoan it as unnatural and unnecessary, though that’s a bit of a late nineties outlook in my view.


However, I believe the most common misunderstanding with HTML email is what people believe it’s for.

Quiz most web people and they’ll tell you HTML email is used for:

  • spam
  • product or promotional shills
  • newsletters

Take a closer look at your inbox, though, and you’ll probably be surprised. Rather than sales and marketing shtick, most of the HTML you’ll find is actually being used to support basic business processes.

Let’s take a look at what you might find in a typical inbox in 2010. Exactly who IS sending all this HTML email?

1. Facebook

In the Facebook universe, the “Friend Request” is the basic building block. In theory, nothing really worthwhile happens until you start creating mutally agreed connections.

And how are most of these friend requests made? I suspect you already know it’s via the magic of HTML email, of course.


Think about that: the glue that holds together the world’s most ubiquitious social networking Godzilla is HTML email.

Whether you’re a Facebook fan or not, it certainly tells you something about Facebook’s thinking. Despite HTML email’s potential delivery and formatting headaches, they still believe plain text won’t cut it for this mission-critical task.

I think that’s telling.

2. Twitter

Every time a person starts “following” you, a neatly formatted, blue-rimmed email arrives in your inbox with the new follower’s avatar and count details. It’s easy to forget that this has only been the case for the past 18 months.

Twitter Follow

If you remember the original plain-text version, this is a huge improvement; now you can assess a new follower without leaving your email program.

In the Twitterverse, HTML email is the only way you’re ever told about new followers, so we can only guess that Twitter must send these emails by the millions daily.

3. Flickr

Flickr is a visual experience so it’s no surprise its email has a visual bent too.

It currently uses HTML email in two areas — to inform you of new contacts and when you’ve been tagged in another user’s photo. Like the site, Flickr keeps its mail simple, spacious, and elegant.

4. YouTube

Yes, the Web’s video behemoth also does a tasty line in HTML mail. Currently, if you subscribe to any YouTube user feed or channel, you’ll receive a weekly HTML email summarizing your feed.


The clever part is that in many mail applications (certainly Gmail), you can play the videos live within the email.

5. eBay

Now we’ve really reached old school. eBay was a pioneer in this area, trusting a huge chunk of their sales process to HTML mail since the early 2000s.

This was a gutsy decision at the time since, by its nature, HTML email is always more likely to be blocked or filtered than plain text. And when people’s hard-earned is involved, things can turn ugly quickly.

eBayNevertheless, eBay must have long ago concluded that the branding confidence and presentation benefits of HTML were still worth the risk.

So there you have it. Five of the biggest, hippest brands on the Web rely on HTML mail.

In each case, the email style is kept simple, but it’s in no way an afterthought. Rather, HTML email gives these sites the ability to proactively reach out to their users via their mail client.

In the era of tweets, walls and status updates, it’s easy to overlook how powerful that is.

Mat PattersonMat Patterson from Campaign Monitor was recently a guest on the SitePoint Podcast and I recommend you listen to his take on HTML email. There are simply very few people more knowledgable on this subject. Don’t miss the opportunity to tap his brain.

From Design View #71

  • Gumnos

    One of the key missing elements: of the above-listed services that I use, every single one of them transmits both a HTML version and a plain-text version in the same email. With my email software (mostly Thunderbird, but one instance of Outlook) configured to only show plain-text, I’ve not had much cause to notice that Facebook, Twitter or eBay bothered to send HTML versions. All their HTML efforts are wasted on me. How about addressing companies that assume everybody views as HTML, leaving the text portion of their emails as useless?

  • vinhkhoa

    HTML email is just a technology as everything else. Nothing bad about it. Just people use it in a bad way.

  • Stevie D

    For me, the main advantage of HTML email is the ability to add a layer of richness to business and personal communications that plain text doesn’t offer. I can highlight (bold) text, use colour to emphasis a point, embed tables and images and links. I’m not talking about marketing and mailshots here, I’m talking about emails to specific people or groups. No fancy layout, no trying to replicate the flexibility of a web page within the constraints of umpteen different non-compliant mail clients – just a way to make an email look that little bit more professional, to make the communication that little bit more effective.

    Web pages and word processors alike give you the option to do more than just type plain text. Don’t underestimate the importance of extending that ability to email clients as well.

  • Richard

    Gumnos has a good point, methinks. Does the ‘Create Stunning HTML Email That Just Works’ book cover the creation of dual HTML and Text mails?

    • Richard, Mat certainly talks at length about the importance of doing just that. The book is pitched at designers first and foremost so the technical aspect of setting up a server to manage multi-part mail is probably outside it’s scope.

      The book advocates utilizing a service that manages that stuff for you. Sure, Campaign Monitor is an obvious option, but we know Mailchimp is great, and Constant Contact has it’s fans. There are plenty of others.

      Louis (@rssadict) made the point like this: you probably don’t host your client sites in your basement server, because that isn’t what you do. I’d argue sending good email is harder to get right than hosting websites.

  • @Gumnos: that’s a very valid point, but we’re just talking about a bad implementations there. If you’re offering a plain text option (which you should), then including that version in the top of your HTML version is a no-brainer.

  • W2ttsy

    iTunes Music Store is another great example of nicely formatted emails that serve a purpose: to send you a receipt and show related content. Plain text just doesnt do that properly..

    The other thing that these sites (apart from YouTube) have in common is they all use Campaign Monitor for one or all aspects of their email sending.

    I am using their API to direct send bulk mail when certain actions are performed on my site. When a user signs up, their name is opt in added to new subscribers list, which is then split down to sub lists if they elect to get “new offers” or “whats new on…”

    The API also supports personalisation, selected templates and a bunch of other options, its a great way to release my app from doing the “build, send, report” heavy lifting.

  • That’s an awesome example I didn’t think of, W2tty. As the largest music retailer on Earth, you can only imagine how many of those mails Apple must send out every day.

  • Jeremy Dawes

    Email using HMTL? It’s like your telling me to eat food using chopsticks (no offense to the Chinese)! I’d rather use the conventional way of composing and sending e-mail, although HTML has its other purpose.

    Thanks for the share!

    Jeremy Dawes | Newcastle Web Designer

  • @jeremy: You’ve obviously got your own reasons for preferring plain text — it’s certainly technically easier to work with — but do you have genuine reason to believe that your users always feel the same way?

  • Effix

    I’ve been making html newsletters in outlook express for some time, I recently had to go Win7 and with that I was forced to abandon outlook. Windows live mail has no option to edit the source at all (:S Aaaaaaaaargh!!!) What should I do now? Can I do that with Thunderbird? Never tried that program.


  • @effix yes, Thunderbird handles making and rendering HTML email beautifully.

    Personally I write my HTML in Dreamweaver or Netbeans, start a new email in Thunderbird, click inside the body, go to Insert/HTML, and paste my HTML into the popup dialog that pops up.

    But using Thunderbird’s authoring tools is fine too.

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