If there’s one question I dread hearing, it’s “can you design me a template for my Outlook e-mailer?” This sounds innocuous enough, but there are many good reasons why these words strike fear into the heart of many a Web designer.

To cut to the chase, Outlook (and, in fact, pretty much every e-mail client) is just not fit to be used as an e-mail campaign tool.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Outlook’s list management tools are very limited – all you’ve got is an address book, really.
  • You don’t get any statistics or reporting after an e-mailer is sent.
  • There’s no automatic way to handle unsubscriptions.
  • Trying to lay out a nice-looking e-mail in Outlook (and most other e-mail clients) is like wrestling a walrus in jelly. You’d only do it if you really, really had to.
  • The HTML generated by Outlook does not display at all well in other e-mail clients – the design often falls apart.
  • Even if you create half-decent HTML templates, they don’t work well in Outlook – and Outlook 2007 can’t even handle them at all.

Just because Outlook is the world’s most-used mail client doesn’t make it suitable for use as a marketing tool. It’s tempting to use Outlook because you own it, and your address book is a ready-made mailing list. But quite honestly, it’s just not up to the job.

(It’s interesting that when clients show me well-designed e-mailers they’ve received, they are surprised to learn that Outlook and other mail clients aren’t remotely capable of sending anything similar.)

On many levels, sending an e-mailer is actually quite a complex process.

E-mailer design

First, we need a nicely designed e-mailer. This needs to be in HTML – but not ‘real’ HTML. The support for HTML in e-mail clients may seem universal, but most don’t support HTML properly at all. So, HTML written for an e-mail is ‘dumbed down’ – actually coded in a very out-of-date way, compared to how a Web page is coded. If HTML e-mails aren’t properly coded, the resulting e-mail may well look terrible in some e-mail clients.

A plain text alternative

We also need to provide for those who have their e-mail clients set to reject HTML, and display only plain text – so the same e-mail file also needs to contain an embedded plain text alternative.

Mailing list management

We need a mailing list, clearly. Preferably, this should be managed using a tool that allows people receiving e-mails to automatically unsubscribe from the list. It should also be able to detect ‘bounce’ e-mails (to addresses which are no longer valid) and should be able to provide statistics on our mailing campaign. We should be able to send e-mailers to just parts of our mailing list, if we want to.

Legal compliance

We also need to comply with the law – and with best practice. E-mailers should be sent only to those who have provided their permission to do so. E-mailers should always carry your postal address and a telephone number and have clear instructions on how to unsubscribe from your list – or, better still, provide an easy means for it to be done by simply clicking on a link.

Measurement

Like all marketing, there should be some form of measurement in place. This is ideally placed within the list management software and should provide reports on your campaigns – information such as the number of e-mails that have been opened, bounced – and the click rate from the e-mail to your website.

That’s a whole bunch of stuff that Outlook can’t do. So what’s the answer?

Dedicated e-mail marketing tools

There are lots of great e-mail campaign management tools. Many of these are available as on-line services, so there’s no software to install. You pay for them based on usage and they contain all of the tools you need. These include:

Our current favourite is MailChimp, which is powerful and actually lives up to its claim to be fun to use. However, other systems offer similar services.

  • It has a list manager, to which you can upload your current mailing list.
  • You can easily integrate a sign-up form into your website (or, if you want to be really slick, use its APIto integrate it seamlessly into your site).
  • It has a WYSIWYG e-mailer editor, which can create good-looking results really easily. It has lots of templates on which to base your design, including punchy images – so you don’t need to be a designer to create a great-looking e-mail.
  • It sends combined HTML and plain text e-mailers, so your message is more likely to get through.
  • It adheres strictly to best practice – and prompts you to adhere to the law, helping to make your e-mailers compliant with legislation like the US’s CanSpam Act. (In fact, all accounts are manually vetted and approved, based on your mailing list and the type of e-mailers you are going to send, to make sure you’re not a spammer.)
  • It has extensive help, making it easy for beginners to get to grips with the whole process of managing an e-mail campaign.
  • It provides really good reporting, so you can follow the progress of a campaign.

Yes, it’s quick and convenient to send e-mails from Outlook, but there’s no comparison against using a dedicated tool. Outlook campaigns are like dropping leaflets from an aeroplane, flying a mile up: you’ve no idea who’s got your e-mailer – if anyone. You don’t even know if it’s going to look half decent when it arrives.

If you want to keep in touch with customers via e-mail, then it should be properly planned and implemented – like any other form of marketing.


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