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HTML Emails for fun and profit

Someone asked this question on StackOverflow the other day:

A designer coded an html template using CSS best practices. I want to use this template as an email newsletter template, but I've heard people say hotmail, yahoo and gmail offer limited support for CSS.

Am I supposed to re-code these templates using table layouts and font tags?

It just so happens that I've been getting to do some HTML emails at work and, unfortunately, the short answer to his question is Yes. You pretty much have to forget anything about CSS and go back to early-90's HTML layouts.

You're going to get the best compatibility across webmail accounts & email clients by using the most basic and dumbed down HTML possible.

  • Don't use any CSS files or

  • Handle positioning with nested tables that have explicit widths

    • I make heavy use of HTML comments in these situations to make sure I don't get confused about where I am in the layout.
  • All text should be surrounded by tags with the font style information.

  • Images should have explicit widths & heights.

    • This helps the email retain its proper layout when images are blocked.

I try to test on a minimum of the following:

  • Outlook 2003
  • Outlook 2007 (Most of your headaches will come from here)
  • Thunderbird
  • Entourage (OSX version of Outlook)
  • Gmail
  • Hotmail
  • Yahoo Mail

You're usually in pretty good shape if you get something that shows up properly on all of those.

We use Exact Target and they have an HTML preview feature but it's not perfect. I've run into a lot of situations where an email looked good in the preview but still came through broken in Outlook 2007.