The death of email newsletters?

I must admit I was surprised when the Email Standards Project ( launched recently. The project aims to explain why Web standards are important for email. To any techie worth their salt the whole idea must grate horribly. After all, the Web is not email and email is not the Web.

I, and I can’t be alone, just want plain text emails rather than the bloated rubbish punted out by the marketing department (because they can and not because they should). I read my mail on a variety of different devices from my mobile to a desktop PC and using a number of different clients from Thunderbird to Pine. I don’t want to waste time/money by downloading HTML email to my phone (by paying for the extra bandwidth) and is my experience of reading an email really enriched by having it rendered in whatever colour/font the sender thinks I need to see?


I’m red/green colourblind I definitely don’t want people sending me emails that I possibly can’t read without changing my setup. Given that the Web Standards Project ( has difficulty getting your average Web developer (i.e. people paid to do Web work) to stick to Web standards is it likely that the Email Standards Project will reach every person who sends email? No, it’s not possible and, even if they can reach the people who send corporate newsletters (surely the main source of HTML email) will these people care or have a piece of software up to the task?

Wouldn’t it be better to encourage/educate people to send plain text email rather than trying to make HTML email and support for HTML email “better”?

HTML email – don’t believe the hype

Let’s focus on email newsletters since these are likely to be the largest source of HTML email. There’s plenty of research showing that email newsletters offer the best return on investment (ROI) for marketing. However, if you dig a bit deeper you find that the ROI for email newsletters is diminishing.

Also, I’m not aware of any recent studies that have compared the effectiveness of plain text versus HTML email either. However, a study from 2003 showed that plain text was more effective than HTML email!

So, HTML email is bloated and arguably inefficient in terms of bandwidth AND effectiveness! Do we really need standards for it then…?

Email newsletters – a relic of a bygone age?

A second issue, and I surely can’t be alone here, is that over the last 6-9 months I’ve been actively unsubscribing from email newsletters. Aside from them filling up my inbox I’m finding them increasingly inefficient ways of getting information. I can understand a shop sending out emails of latest offers. However, I think the “what’s new on our site” or “what the company has been doing recently” emails have had their day.

Do people still read these or do they just collect in your inbox until you guiltily delete them without reading them? Once you reach that point it’s simply better to unsubscribe – in my case I haven’t missed them at all.

I’ve been using RSS since 2002 and over the last year or two a lot of mainstream Web sites have adopted either RSS or ATOM as a way of disseminating content. In my case, most of the sites I would usually subscribe to an email newsletter from now provide an RSS or ATOM feed instead so whilst I’ve been unsubscribing to email newsletters I’ve been subscribing to news feeds.

This means that I see if anything has changed that day/week and the update is on my terms and not emailed to my inbox (relying on me to read it at that time or store it and remember to read it later).

The big advantage of a news feed from a marketing perspective is that it drives interested parties directly to your Web site. An email newsletter, by its definition, has to give away a lot of information (other wise it’s just an email of links) and so people can find out all they need to know from the newsletter.

If that’s the case, why would they then visit your site? A news feed is more lightweight and people read titles and will visit your site if they’re interested in the item. Not only do you get a much more targeted response but this is a friendlier way to get your message to people. They choose what they want to read, when they want to and don’t have to plough through an email.

Using RSS feeds has meant a much more efficient use of my time and, surely I’m preaching to the converted so, I’m not going to persuade you to adopt RSS or ATOM…for most of us this is all old hat anyway. What I will suggest is that the day of the bloated email newsletter filling up my inbox is over, I for one don’t miss them at all and don’t see the point in issuing standards for something that’s already well past its sell-by-date.


  1. Thanks for the post and thoughtful comments Kieren.

    As tech people, we are so far out of the normal range for email users that we really can’t generalise our own opinions too far.

    “The project aims to explain why Web standards are important for email. To any techie worth their salt the whole idea must grate horribly”

    This is clearly the position designers and techies has held for 10 years, but to what end? HTML email is far more popular than ever, and email is growing, not dying.

    You are of course welcome to try to convince people to only send plain text, because that is what you think is better, but honestly your chances of that having any impact are pretty low.

    That’s not to say that some things are not better send via other mediums, but email, and HTML email, is not going anywhere anytime soon.

    The Email Standards Project is asking designers to recognise that HTML email is a fact of life, it will be sent whether you personally like it or not.

    Everyone should be sending multipart plain text and html, so you should always have a nice plain text alternative.

    But for the many people who prefer HTML, they should be able to get lightweight, accessible, well designed HTML.

    That’s what we are trying to achieve.

  2. Matthew, thanks for taking the time to post a comment, I really appreciate it.

    I agree, my chances of convincing people to send plain text emails are low but I also think it important to highlight that users have a choice. With the Web you have to use one of the flavours of (X)HTML and standards are applicable whatever you do. With email you don’t have to send HTML email, you can make a choice and I suspect a lot of people don’t realise that.

    I also wonder if the days of HTML email, and particularly HTML email newsletters, are numbered?

    I’m sure many people feel overwhelmed by the amount of mail they get in their inbox. If you couple the deluge of marketing email with the fact that HTML email makes it considerably easier to run phishing attacks etc. Your average user could easily start voting with their feet and unsubscribing to email newsletters (or opting for plain text) on the grounds of increased productivity and increased security.

    A further consideration is the time needed to effect change. It’s taken the best part of a decade to really hammer home the concept of Web standards and even now the vast majority of sites don’t stick to the standards.

    With email the problems are likely to be much greater, I think it’s reasonable to expect that it will take longer to challenge the norm and even longer to get real change.

    However, I don’t think this is a reason for you not to try, if HTML email is really here to stay then I welcome your efforts to improve it for all. I just wonder if the general acceptance of email by users will change before improvements are seen and these changes will negate the need for standards anyway.

  3. I’ve sometimes had to write HTML for emails and getting them to display properly across different email clients is really messy. Anything that encourages mail client developers to conform to some kind of standard for rendering HTML has got to be a good thing, I think. Bet it will take many years though.

    Also, I think one of those ‘standards’ should be to always send every message in both plain text and HTML format, that way the end user can always choose which version they would like to see. If that could be done at the level of the email headers, then people who prefer text emails wouldn’t even have to download the HTML code.

  4. Hi Ben

    It’s certainly a difficult balance to strike. I know plenty of people who only accept plain text emails and even more companies that only send HTML emails.

    From a business perspective I’d expect companies to be concerned about appearing to send phishing emails to customers. I still get plenty of false positives from my mail client because HTML email is used to display one URL when the link is to another even in legitimate mail.

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