Earlier this year, Microsoft launched Vista, the largest update to the Windows operating system since Windows 95. Simultaneously, the company introduced the newest version of its Office suite, which includes Microsoft Outlook 2007. Although widely anticipated for its many new features and enhancements, Outlook 2007 now uses only the Microsoft Word HTML engine for composing and rendering e-mail messages, instead of also using the Internet Explorer engine previously employed for displaying HTML e-mail. The result is that Outlook 2007 no longer supports a variety of design techniques that are commonly used in HTML e-mails, affecting their creative interactivity and functionality. These include:
* No Flash or form functionality
* No animated GIFs
* No background imagery in HTML table tags or Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
* No embedded style sheet support
These limitations greatly influence the way HTML e-mail campaigns need to be created going forward. By adhering to the following best practices, marketers not only will be able to develop e-mail messages for Outlook 2007, but also will ensure that their customers continue to have a high-quality, engaging experience using any HTML e-mail client.
1. Always include hosted links to render the e-mail and any forms in a Web browser. This will resolve any issues caused by the e-mail client’s HTML-rendering capacity by using the forgiving engine in Internet Explorer, Safari, Mozilla or other W3C standard browsers, and should be considered a requirement on all e-mails. Further, since search forms and polls often are the most active and popular links in an e-mail, ensure that any form in the HTML e-mail is accompanied by a link to try it online.
2. Make the first frame count. Ensure the first frame of any animated GIF includes and communicates the message or objective of the image, because this is the only frame that will be rendered in Outlook 2007.
3. Use inline font style attributes. As Web mail clients differ on embedded style-sheet support, it’s strongly recommended that e-mails be styled using inline font style attributes rather than Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). These inline styles will render fine in Outlook 2007 and should provide the most compatible and supported solution across all e-mail clients. The lack of support for embedded style sheets should have little impact aside from CSS positioning tactics, which should be avoided as a general HTML e-mail best practice.
4. Be “graceful” with e-mail creative. By disabling all images as a default setting and ignoring background images set in tables and CSS, Outlook 2007 has created a real challenge for HTML e-mail designers. Ensuring that e-mail design degrades gracefully will keep the message intact. Use “alt” attributes to provide text behind the disabled images to communicate the images’ intended message and provide an accessible experience for visually impaired users with talking Web browsers. Set “height” and “width” attributes on all images to maintain the e-mail’s structure (with the added benefit of loading enabled images faster), and allow space for the “alt” text to appear. Finally, for Outlook 2007, make sure the e-mail’s call to action is prominently placed outside of any possibly disabled background images.
5. Test extensively across all e-mail clients. Use a service, such as those available from Return Path or Pivotal Veracity, to see how e-mail messages will display on all clients. Microsoft also offers a utility (http://tinyurl.com/yh58z3 ) specifically for testing Outlook 2007 e-mails. Not only will any layout problems be resolved, but marketers also will see what happens “above the fold.”
6. Educate customers and prospects. Inform them about e-mail rendering challenges in Outlook 2007. And since white-listed domains will enable images in Outlook 2007, explain how to white-list, add-to-address book, enable images, etc. Make this information stand out in your e-mail communications.
John Doub is director of technical services at e-Dialog, a provider of e-mail and database marketing solutions with headquarters in Lexington, Mass. He can be reached at (781) 863-8117.