I must admit I was surprised when the Email Standards Project (http://www.email-standards.org/) 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?

Accessibility

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 (http://www.webstandards.org) 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.