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10 Reasons your Agency Should Not Program Your HTML Email Templates

by Lesley Cortright, Account Executive, Premiere Marketing Automation

Unless your three-year old nephew is Picasso, you would probably leave the creation of marketing collateral to a design expert. If that is your line of thinking, then you'd probably also agree that it doesn't make sense to have your marketing, branding or interactive agency program your HTML email templates if they're not experts in the field of email marketing.

In today's world of email, leaving template programming to the email marketing experts is the best way to ensure delivery and action on the part of the recipient. Here is why:

1. Keep cascading style sheets (CSS) out of the header
CSS programming is not recommended for email communications, unless it is done correctly. Agencies are generally trained to program Web sites, not HTML email. Therefore, they tend to follow the same rules for creating HTML email templates as they would a Web site - using header CSS. While using header CSS works fine for Web sites, using the wrong context of CSS in email can be very damaging; when an email message is displayed within a Web-based email client, the header information is typically stripped out, rendering the CSS tags within the message body useless.

Email marketing experts know you should use inline CSS, which allows for the definition of the style sheet within the body of the message. If the header information is stripped out, the definitions remain and your creative renders properly.

2. XHTML is not W3C compliant
XHTML incorporates other markup languages into the code. According to W3C.org, many browsers don't render XHTML as proper HTML because it is not as exact, thus creating conflict in code. In email, XHTML can cause problems with un-closed tags and non-standard tag types and formatting, which will also cause rendering problems across many ISPs. Email marketers understand these challenges and can program around and correct XHTML problems, ensuring the message renders and delivers with accuracy.

3. Email is more science than art
Email is an ever evolving marketing channel with constantly changing best practices, and agencies don't always understand the customer experience as it applies to the business rules for email. While agencies know traditional creative, email creative is a different animal and customers don't interact with email like they do with any other platform. Designing and implementing strong email creative is a delicate matter. Email marketers are charged with ensuring things like message rendering, layout, image use, properly coded and tested HTML, filtering for Spam rules, and deliverability being the metrics email marketers know matter most in the making sure the recipient has a positive experience with the email campaign.

4. Make effective use of campaign technology
Many agencies bill email template creation on a per template basis just like they would for traditional marketing collateral, not by understanding the newest technologies available to help clients streamline efforts. Email marketers create reusable templates with the concept of making the template as flexible as possible to keep version control and message programming time in check. By using conditional content for images, text or links, clients are able to decrease the amount of versions in a given campaign. The bottom line is many times agencies are more concerned with their bottom line than they are making the content the most relevant and efficient to the end user and client, respectively.

5. Constantly changing ISP rules
Email delivery rules change constantly, and if you're not in the space, there's no way to know what is happening with various ISPs (such as Goodmail, feedback loops, whitelisting, blocking, etc.) that need to be addressed to ensure message delivery. Email marketers are continuously monitoring ISP rule changes, client blocking issues and proactive deliverability measures, ensuring the client has the highest likelihood of inbox delivery. While agencies may try to convince you they can meet your deliverability needs, the fact is that they're not in the loop like email marketers are - not being in the loop puts your campaign at risk.

6. Be W3C compliant
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international consortium where member organizations work together to develop standards for the World Wide Web and HTML specifications. These standards should be used as a basis for all HTML creative to determine the correctness and delivery potential of the HTML code for a given message. This tool is a huge asset to those in our field to catch error-filled code before it goes live.

7. Be mindful of Spam filters
Email marketing experts understand the best practices surrounding Spam filters and recognize the importance of creating message content with Spam filtering rules in mind. These best practices extend from creative concepts to final production. Products, such as Filter Advisor or Analysis Pro, are available to our email marketing experts to check all content, including subject lines, for Spam filter triggers to ensure the likelihood of message delivery.

8. Understand creative motivation
There is nothing wrong with a little creativity, however, agencies typically think about the look and feel of the campaign, versus the functionality and adaptability to email. This becomes problematic with version control as agencies lean towards using rights protected images and new content with each campaign, versus repurposing copy and creating their own images, or purchasing royalty-free images that can be used over and over. It's about being strategic in thought, not dollars.

9. Mixing Flash and email
Agencies are notorious for wanting and trying to use Flash in an email. Flash is generally seen as a major taboo in email for a couple of reasons: 1) it's impossible to know if recipients have Flash settings installed and accessible on their computers - if Flash is not installed, this diminishes the appeal and relevancy of the message 2) many computers are automatically setup to block Flash, again diminishing the likelihood of the Flash movie rendering and posing the potential for your entire message to be blocked, therefore useless. Email experts understand that creating animated gifs is a better avenue to follow.

10. Test content for readability and ISP rendering
One of the major steps of showcasing new creative is to test new templates through content testers prior to the first launch to ensure the message will render properly in the major email clients. Agencies tend to create email messages to have a similar look and feel as other traditional marketing communication pieces (such as direct mail) - this doesn't always work in email and it's important to design email for readability, not just crafty looks. Testing is the #1 way to ensure the message is readable and renders properly for your recipients.

While agencies are certainly a key partner for many marketing needs, keep in mind email marketing is an evolving channel that should be left to the experts.

Source: Subject Lines, Premiere Marketing Solutions' educational newsletter

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