Email campaigns: What is the best way to use them?


Many of our clients would like to reach out to their audience using email because it is fast, targeted and inexpensive. In this article we will look at the different options for sending email communication to a group, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Plain text
Rich text
HTML email

Plain text email

This is the most basic email message: It contains only text. The font and size are decided by the recipient’s email program. Plain text has the highest likelihood of getting through to your recipient because email programs and handheld devices will easily handle it … although, like all email, it can be snagged by spam filters. Plain text is very effective for very short messages but it is limited in that there is very little opportunity to customize the look of the email.

Rich text emails with embedded images

Rich text allows email text to be formatted: font type, size, colour, and style can all be specified. Furthermore, certain kinds of images (JPEG and GIF are the most reliable but more and more formats are now being accepted) can be imbedded in the email message, allowing a graphic element to be added. From a design perspective, it’s clearly a step-up from plain text!

As always, there are pitfalls too: not all mail clients handle embedded images the same way and many of them attach the image (see below) rather than show it in the context of the email. Furthermore, attachments make the size of the email larger and are often difficult to view in email programs if the image is too large or small.

Attachment (as the main content of the email)

Many items come into our email box as ‘attachments’. Common types of attachments are PDF, JPEG, TIFF, PNG and Microsoft Word documents. Using an attachment as the main content of the email generally offers a lot of design flexibility, depending on the tools that were available to produce the attachment. This is not a bad option when you want to craft a message that works with your brand and you are distributing it to a limited audience. PDF and Word documents are great when you have a lot of content to present.

We generally avoid sending images as the main content of an email attachment, but it can be appropriate in certain instances, such as for invitations sent to a small-to-medium sized group. As long as the item can be designed so that it is not bigger than a half-letter and will not need to be enlarged by the viewer, it can work.

We generally design PDF (Portable Document Format) attachments for our clients: they are a great way of sending out custom designed digital promo-sheets or other visual messages. They look fantastic and there are no real design limitations. When made correctly, PDFs are files that anyone can open and they display as intended, typefaces and all. We recommend PDFs when the audience is a small, motivated group of people who are likely to open the attachment.

Probably the biggest disadvantage of using attachments as the main content of your email is that they are not displayed in the email browser. The recipient has to take an extra action of opening the attachment, which means opening another program, which means waiting a little bit. Worse yet, it could get overlooked or receive an “I’ll look at this later”. Furthermore, handheld devices are often configured so that they do not download attachments unless the user specifically requests that action. Basically, the risk is that the added effort to view the attachment could be too much for some of your audience and your message will be missed.

HTML email

HTML email offers the most design flexibility, and more functionality than the other forms of email. An HTML email can be described as a one page website that gets emailed to your recipients. Unlike embedded image emails, the images that go into the HTML email are not actually sent to your recipients; therefore the email does not contain attachments. This helps to keep download times to a minimum and helps to ensure that people viewing the email on handheld devices will see the written content. The images actually reside on a web server and are displayed by the email only at the time of viewing.

HTML emails are usually the best option for organizations that want to maintain brand continuity with their communications and are trying to reach a large audience. The design flexibility allows the look and feel of the email to be in keeping with the brand and the added functionality allows the organization to include graphics, text, links, subscribe/unsubscribe options and the ability to track how well their communication was received by keeping statistics of what links were followed, who opened their email and so forth. Furthermore, HTML email allows senders to send their email from white listed (link to definition) servers, which reduces the chances of the email being marked as spam.

The disadvantages of HTML email are twofold: it is more complex to implement and many email programs do not automatically display the images.

HTML email is actually a small website, therefore it requires programming. This generally means that senders must invest more into designing and implementing the email. This effort can be offset if the email is designed as a template and then is reused for regular send-outs (e.g. newsletters). It is less economical for one-offs.

Unfortunately, many email programs do not automatically display images when HTML email is received and the recipient needs to click on a button in order to view the images. This means that the sender runs the risk that the recipient will not see the email as intended. The impact of the missing images can be reduced through careful design and programming, and by ensuring that the primary message is contained in the text of the email.

What email form should I choose?

As with all things in life, context is everything. With our clients we generally recommend the use of emails with a PDF attachment when they are sending to a small, motivated audience who is likely to open the attachment. When trying to reach a larger audience, or if similar emails will be sent out over time, we recommend HTML email as it offers the most flexibility and functionality.