HTML vs. Plain Text: Tradeoffs
HTML vs. plain text is an ongoing debate. HTML is better than text for a lot of reasons, but that doesn't mean you should use it. When you use HTML, you can lay out the newsletter exactly as you wish. You can include graphics (actually links to graphics), multiple columns, and various fonts and colors. By using multiple columns, you can include promotions for your own products in the margin, while still providing content of substance in the middle of the newsletter.
Typically, HTML mailings have a higher click-through rate than text e-mail. In addition to the formatting and presentation advantages of HTML e-mail, there are also the interactivity advantages. If you want to include a survey in your newsletter, you can include the FORM tags right in your HTML. When the user checks a box, a radio button, or types in an answer, and clicks "Submit," the script on your server is activated and receives the form information. You can include a subscription box right on your newsletter, in the hopes that it will be forwarded to a new reader who will want to subscribe. You can also format your newsletter to look exactly like your Web site.
HTML formatting also permits you to include links to tracking code, which enables you to receive reports about how many times a message is opened by the recipient, or what percent of the messages sent were opened.
HTML Gone Wrong
In short, HTML e-mails are ideal if you can be sure the recipients can open them. You might have heard (correctly) that the vast majority of AOL users (with some small exception for some AOL 6.0 users) cannot read HTML-enabled e-mail. This is true. You absolutely must do a plain-text version of your newsletter to send to AOL.com addresses. However, perhaps you didn't know that Lotus Notes can also be set by the administrator not to accept rich-text e-mails. It's impossible to know which mail reader recipients are using. Most people choose rich-text enabled mail clients, but many corporations prevent virus spread by delivering all e-mail as text only.
Most people who are constrained by corporate policy to receive only text e-mail messages are smart enough to look in the first line or two of a message for a link to the online version. This means that even those who get the gobbledygook of HTML in their messages can still pull up a rich-text version of the newsletter.
Plain-Text Done Right
Even your plain-text e-mail should be formatted as well as you possibly can. Since you can't really force white space - white space helps tell your eyes where to focus - in plain-text newsletters, make sure your newsletters include all of the following formatting conventions:
Dashes, tildes or asterisks to separate sections of the newsletter
Short sentences and short paragraphs
Bullets or numbered lists to make points
Headings and sub-headings to break up the text
Many newsletters send out only plain-text versions, that's like formatting your Web site for 640x480 display, or even for Palm Pilot display, since some visitors might conceivably miss something or be annoyed if you format for higher resolution.
Pleasing All of the People All of the Time
Ideally, you'd send the HTML version to everyone who can open HTML e-mail and the plain-text version to everyone who can't. How can you possibly achieve this optimal arrangement? By sending both versions to everyone!
The secret is to use a MIME type of multipart/alternative in the header of your message. Unfortunately, most e-mail software doesn't allow you to change the header. You'll have to use software that sends in multipart/alternative format like MaxBulk Mailer. In fact, MaxBulk Mailer gives full support to multipart/alternative format.
Outlook Express Is Not Enough
Don't spend the next week trying to make Outlook Express send multipart/alternative e-mail (it won't work), but start noticing how e-mail is coming into your mailbox. In Outlook Express, while you have a message open (not just previewed, but actually open), click File|Properties, then click the Details tab and Message Source. You'll see a line in bold that says "Content-Type: text/html," "Content-Type: text/plain," or "Content-Type: multipart/alternative".
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