In a strange way, however, email is the most cumbersome of the three. Out-of-the-box, the medium can be plain and un-compelling. Most standard email programs lack anything but basic print formatting and almost nothing in the way of graphic control or enhanced technologies. And without that, you’re sending your recipients the equivalent of a very forgettable piece of junk mail.
The solution is HTML email, a hybrid of web-based technologies and standard email services that allows you to format print and graphics to make compelling emails that encourage (and enable) people to act.
The kind of basic HTML you need to make a robust, attractive email is elementary: a table, an image of your cover, maybe a colored background, and a few links to point people to your blog or book. This is the kind of stuff that was common in 1997.
But you can code to your heart’s content and still not get an HTML email to show up to your users if you simply cut and paste into the body of your email. Because it’s not the HTML that’s the hard part, it’s the delivery of the email that matters. And that part is not normally under your control.
Enter email service providers, third party companies that will host, send, and track your emails in full HTML glory. There are many email service providers, many of them free, that can help you create gorgeous HTML email that also have handy metrics built into them (bounce and open rates, click-throughs, and so on).
Mailchimp (www.mailchimp.com) and Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com) are sophisticated, easy-to-use services that offer both free start-up options for beginners and paid services for premium users. Tinyletter (www.tinyletter.com) is a less-sophisticated, free option that fits the bill for people unconcerned with metrics or tracking email “campaigns.”
If you’re planning on the “long view” for your promotions, these services are where you want to go. They’re easy to use, intelligently designed, and handle a lot of the stickier issues like filtering out things that might accidentally flag you as a spammer.
But if you’re interested in sending one-off HTML emails, I recently discovered a great way to put one together on Amrit Agarwal’s tech site Digital Inspiration (www.labnol.org). There’re no metrics or anti-spam help, but for a quick, eye-catching email to your largest circle of friends, it seems to work well.* You need a Google Account (along with Gmail). A basic knowledge of HTML will help.
In essence, Agarwal has written a script that you copy from his site and load into Google Docs. Once authorized, it uses Gmail to correctly deliver fully functioning HTML email. He’s posted an easy to follow guide (http://www.labnol.org/internet/send-html-email/19672/) on his site. Using his technique, I had an HTML email created and sent to myself in under 10 minutes. You can watch the very simple process in a video tutorial he has on the guide page.
(He also offers a free WYSIWYG editor version (http://ctrlq.org/html-mail/) that will create the HTML for you and claims to send it, although I never received any of the three test emails. It is, however, a good way to create and edit the initial email for use in the Google Docs method.)
So, the process is:
- Create a Google account with Gmail address if you don’t have one.
- Copy Agarwal’s script document to your Google Docs and authorize it.** Watch his video for directions.
- Compose your email and either format it yourself (using HTML) or in Agarwal’s WYSIWYG editor.
- When it looks the way you want it to, copy the HTML and paste it into the email you create via Google Docs (again, follow his video tips, but it’s as simple as going to Gmail > HTML Mail in the doc.).
- Send the email to yourself to test.
- Forward that email to your recipients or send an original via Google Docs.
* Users of Microsoft Outlook will also know the trick of composing your email in Word, then copying and pasting into Outlook, where it will convert your document into HTML and send it (mostly) intact. This works because the Outlook mail server understands how to convert and deliver the email correctly. If you don’t have access to a commercial Outlook server, however, and use Yahoo! or Gmail, this method doesn’t help you.
**As with any script, be careful what you do and don’t authorize. After some poking around on the web, I decided that Agarwal’s site was legitimate and made a personal decision to use the script. You’ll have to make your own decision here.
The image to the right is the email as it would look sent from my Yahoo! account with some very basic formatting. My cover as image would be an attachment, rather than inline and it certainly wouldn’t be linked to my Amazon page.
The second is the same email with some HTML formatting, inline graphics, and a fancy-schmancy blockquote for the Synopsis. Links, including the one attached to my cover image, are live and obvious. Some of the nicer elements (since they are achieved using CSS) will fall apart in older email programs, but the vast majority of users should see the email just as intended.
This is probably too much for non-technical users, but for some of us, it’s the solution we’ve been looking for and quite simple once you get through the hurdle of copying the Google Doc. If you have the know-how, give this method a shot and let me know if it’s everything I think it is.
Please do read up on email services and the dangers of spamming your recipients. Mailchimp has a nice little writeup on the difficulties and hurdles of connecting with people via HTML email you should read before going crazy with the Send button.