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Zeldman's Rant Against HTML Email

When someone pointed out Jeffrey Zeldman's rant about HTML email to me a couple days ago, I thought, "Great. Another nut-job like this guy over here."

See, when we first started MailChimp back in 2001, anybody who Googled "HTML email" would get a link to our free email design guide for web designers---after the link to that nut job who proclaimed HTML email as the work of the devil. It bothered me back then, because we really saw HTML email as a potentially useful tool for business. The fact that people saw his page before ours pissed me off to no end. I tried everything to get my page ranked higher than that guy. I even tried making a page called, "7 reasons HTML email is a good thing" where I tried using the same META-tag tactics, but sort of in an opposite-dimension kinda way. Didn't work. Thankfully, Google (and Father Time) decided that guy's web page is no longer relevant (kinda like Zeldman's rant) and that content showing people how to actually do it right and get work done should float to the top. Oh yeah, and the invention of Google AdWords helped, too. Anyways.

Some people have pointed out that Zeldman's rant was a bit ironic, considering MailChimp had an ad running right there on his website. I got an email asking me if I was mad about the whole thing. Meh, we enjoyed the traffic. Truth is, we saw an uptick in signups from web designers who wanted to learn how to properly code and then check their HTML emails. I even got a few emails from people who were thankful for the rant, because that's how they discovered MailChimp. So all in all, the post was good (and a big thumbs up to The Deck).

Zeldman has since posted a followup, but it's not really worth reading if you're experienced in any way with email marketing. Basically, "Don't spam." And if you're a good designer, there's nothing new for you, either. Basically, "Don't do useless stuff." If you're a web designer, and you're interested in seeing some common mistakes that web designers make with HTML email, read this instead.

For what it's worth, I've had my own "nut-job" moments. There was a time, long ago, where I called any designer who used Flash in any way whatsoever a "Flashole." To my defense, back then Flash was primarily used for those annoying website intro pages (which I still believe was the single cause of the dot-com fallout). Nowadays, I quite like Flash, because it's being used for all kinds of useful stuff. I hate to admit it, but I'm even reading "Flash for Dummies" in my spare time.

I also called CSS a "pipe dream" back when it was first introduced, because it didn't work in all the browsers, and it was more work coming up w/hacks than just using friggin' tables and font tags. And I don't care what you say, but having a CSS file that's hundreds of lines long is not gonna help you maintain a website any faster, or save you time on redesign. Nowadays, I quite like CSS too (I still suck at it, but I like it). I should probably get myself a copy of Zeldman's book (cough).

If we've learned anything from all this, it's that posting silly rants only results in: 1) web traffic, and 2) showing people what an angry old fart you've become.

But XML---that's just plain stupid. Mark my words. It'll never, ever, ever catch on.

June 13, 2007 in Email Design | Permalink


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it's not really worth reading if you're experienced in any way with email marketing.

You must have missed Point No. 7:

7. E-mail blaster product providers, please offer a streamlined option for those who choose to send their subscribers text-only. Don’t make us design HTML mail templates we have no intention of using, and jump through hoops to make sure our users never see the dummy HTML mail format you asked us to create. (Not directed at any company in particular; suggested as a product differentiator slash best practice.)

MailChimp could do that. Piece of cake. It would be a nice differentiator. It would attract customers who have thousands of subscribers to talk to but choose not to send HTML mail. You have nothing to lose, and customers to gain.

Posted by: zeldman | Jun 14, 2007 11:08:46 AM

Thanks for the input.

Just as background, 99% of our users come looking for easy HTML email design tools. The other 1% who want to do plain-text are typically more "advanced" or "techie" (kinda like you) and they skip our HTML templates altogether.

They click this link: "No thanks, I have my own template."

Then there's just a big, giant textarea for your plain-text email. No need to do anything in the HTML textarea. So it's actually pretty easy if all you want to do is send plain-text.

Granted, it's not blatantly obvious that you can easily send plain-text-only in MailChimp, but that's just because 99% of our audience don't really want to do that. Also, whenever someone sets up a new list (and signup form) in MailChimp, we make it really easy for them to add a "Choose your format" option to their signup forms.

We have nothing against plain-text emails. In fact, they're becoming increasingly important as more and more people are switching to mobile devices.

Confession. Even after starting MailChimp, I was one of those guys who still preferred to receive plain-text emails. I just thought they were always better (not because of design, but because it made senders focus on content more than pretty pictures and fonts). But as more senders gradually switched format to HTML, or even pseudo-plain-text (where line-spacing and fonts were cleaner, but still sans images) I came to the conclusion that HTML email is way, way easier on the eyes (if done correctly).

I actually agree with your rant's title. HTML email is *not* a design platform. It's a tool for getting business done. Right now, the industry is still in the phase where people are starting to experiment, and play around with all the possibilities. Kinda like when the first Mac came out, and suddenly everyone was a "Graphic Designer" who could easily specify Comic Sans, insert some clip art, and center-align everything on the page. I cringe when web designers sign up, and try to do all kinds of experimental stuff (that break) in HTML email. Leave it on your website. We're supposed to be helping clients do business, not make art.

Keep the email simple, whether it's HTML or not. But then that's just good design period.

Posted by: Ben | Jun 14, 2007 11:51:34 AM

Granted, it's not blatantly obvious that you can easily send plain-text-only in MailChimp

Indeed, it's so not obvious that I didn't think it could be done. Which is the only reason Eric and I haven't used MailChimp for An Event Apart's newsletter.

The Deck only accepts ads from products at least two of the founders have used and found to be very good. I wanted to join 37signals and Coudal Partners in using MailChimp. If they loved it and used it, I knew it had to be great.

But because it didn't seem possible to send plain-text mail to my lists, I refrained from making use of my account. Now that I know it's possible, I'll be happy to use the service.

You might consider tweaking your site copy so it's more apparent to the "techie" user :D that MailChimp also handles plain-text mails like a champ.

Keep the email simple, whether it's HTML or not. But then that's just good design period.

Right on. See, we agree with each other.

Posted by: zeldman | Jun 14, 2007 12:39:00 PM

Done. Thanks for the suggestions!


~ Ben

Posted by: Ben | Jun 14, 2007 1:45:34 PM

Just so the record is straight, 37signals uses Campaign Monitor, not Mail Chimp as reported above. Nothing against Mail Chimp, we're just really happy with Campaign Monitor.

Posted by: Jason Fried | Jun 30, 2007 12:41:42 AM

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