Group cries foul over Outlook

The co-founder of an Australian software company is fronting a worldwide campaign to “fix” e-mail standards compliance problems with Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook client, but one Canadian e-mail marketer is wondering what the fuss is all about.

David Greiner, co-founder of e-mail marketing software company Freshview Pty Ltd. in Sydney, said the fact that Outlook 2007 – and the soon-to-launch Outlook 2010 – uses Word’s engine for rendering HTML content forces marketers to use “lowest common denominator” design techniques or risk their messages displaying incorrectly.

Among the problems are lack of full support for cascading style sheets and background images, and the necessity to use tables for layout.

“Up until the release of Microsoft Outlook 2007, Outlook was one of the best performing e-mail clients when it came to standards compliance,” Greiner said in an e-mail interview. “Microsoft’s decision to use Word to render HTML e-mail instead of a Web browser took the entire industry back 10 years and effectively killed any progress that had been made since.”

Freshview started the E-mail Standards Project to help e-mail client developers and e-mail users take advantage of increasingly standards-compliant browsers, Greiner said.

“Within weeks of launching we were actively working with Yahoo Mail, Apple and IBM to look at ways of improving their standards support,” Greiner said. “This resulted in a number of key improvements across these applications.” But Microsoft’s Outlook and Google Inc.’s Gmail client are roadblocks, he said. Between them, they hold 12.5 per cent of the client market, based on Freshview’s study of 300 million opened messages over a six-month period.

The E-mail Standards Project launched Fix Outlook, a campaign to pressure Microsoft to make the client more standards-compliant. So far, the campaign has gathered more than 24,000 Twitter posts on the subject.

“It doesn’t matter how standards-compliant e-mail clients from Apple, Mozilla, IBM and Yahoo are,” Greiner said. “If Microsoft and Google continue to ignore standards then all e-mail users are impacted.”

But Wayne Carrigan, executive vice-president of Toronto-based e-mail marketing firm ThinData Inc., says working around those issues is the job of an e-mail marketing service.

“That’s what our clients pay us for,” he said.

“At the end of the day, to me, this isn’t a major concern.”

He pointed out that that there are good reasons for using the Word engine for handling e-mail, although “on the technical side, it’s not as robust a rendering platform.” More people use Outlook for business communication than marketing, so to have tools from its Office Suite-mate Word for authoring makes sense, he said.

And other e-mail clients are guilty of the same standards-compliance sins, but “you don’t have a ‘Fix Lotus’ campaign. You don’t have a ‘Fix BlackBerry’ campaign,” he said.

The issue detracts from the focus on the benefits of e-mail marketing, Carrigan said. If you are giving your opted-in readers information that’s relevant and targeted to them, “it doesn’t have to be pretty.”

Adapting to changes in delivery and rendering is part of the business, he said. By sticking with a few best practices, marketers can ensure they get their message across. Among those recommended by ThinData:

* Avoid DIV tags. They are newer HTML syntax and rely on upgraded HTML standards compliance that are generally not adhered to in Web-mail clients. Always use tables instead to get the best cross-client results. You do not have to use antiquated hacks such as transparent image spacers. The best thing to do is blend old practices with newer ones, such as using tables to lay out your content and then using inline CSS styles to control things like font, colour and padding.

* Avoid using special characters, such as copyright and registered trademark symbols. They can become unreadable in clients like Hotmail and they can impact deliverability and can be used by ISPs to determine if your e-mail should be directed to the Junk Mail folder. When you need to use these symbols, it is best to use the ASCII equivalent.

* It’s good practice to set the background colour attribute on cells that have an image inhabiting them. It will ensure that even if a recipient has images turned off, they can still see brand colours and get a general idea of the sender. This works best in scenarios where there is a full masthead image along the top of the email.

Microsoft Canada Co. could not provide a spokesperson for a telephone interview before our publishing deadline.

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