The newly released version of popular email client Microsoft Outlook 2007 has caused somewhat of an uproar in the tightly knit email marketing world. As if the email marketing industry needs another dark cloud hovering about its fragile climate, it appears many industry veterans, bloggers and prognosticators have added this new version of the popular email client as the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, joining spam, phishing and deliverability as the email woes du jour.
Given that much has already been written and said about this key topic, I will aim to provide the last and definitive word on the matter by letting some experienced and savvy experts share their insight and predictions on how this will affect email marketers.
We will also hear from Microsoft on what this means and why they made sweeping changes to the ubiquitous business email client, Outlook.
Let's introduce our distinguished and diverse group of email marketing pros.
- Mark Brownlow, Publisher, Email Marketing Reports
- Stephanie Miller, VP, Strategic Services, Return Path, Inc.
- Craig Spiezle, Director of Online Safety Technologies for Microsoft Corp. and Chair and President of Authentication and Online Trust Alliance (AOTA)
- Luc Vezina, Director of Strategy & Product Management, GOT Corporation
- Chad White, Director of Retail Insights and Editor-at-Large, Email Experience Council
We'll be covering:
How does Microsoft Outlook 2007 affect email marketing programs?
Outlook 2007 predictions
Tactical tips, suggestions and best practices to consider
Next: How does Microsoft Outlook 2007 affect email marketing programs?
The big change in Microsoft Outlook is that the rendering engine for HTML emails moves from Microsoft Internet Explorer to Microsoft Word. As a result, it will also not support the following design elements that have been regularly utilized in email marketing designs in the past:
- Flash and animated GIFs
- Background images
- Various CSS (cascading style sheets) properties
(A full list of what is supported is located here.)
Craig Spiezle, Microsoft's point man for coordinating the company's internet safety efforts including anti-spam and anti-phishing technologies, says Outlook 2007 improves formatting issues that occurred due to the previous use of two separate rendering engines: Internet Explorer for reading content and Microsoft Word for editing. The newest version eliminates that by using Word's new HTML rendering engine for both reading and editing. He also says the new Outlook "responds to the desires of consumers and provides them with added safety in the inbox."
While Microsoft's positioning of this as a major improvement for consumers and email marketers alike should surprise no one, some email marketing practitioners have very different views from Spiezle on what this does to the email marketing industry.
Stephanie Miller of email deliverability services company Return Path says, "Whatever the benefits offered by the Microsoft product team to subscribers, the changes to Outlook 2007 are not good news for email marketers. The decreased functionality for HTML due to the use of the crippled Microsoft Word rendering engine will cause messages that rendered just fine before to de-format or not display at all in Outlook 2007."
Chad White, who runs RetailEmail.Blogspot, a comprehensive blog that tracks email campaigns in the retail industry, and the retail advisor to the Email Experience Council, is bearish on the new Outlook changes as well, but reminds us that it is the B2C community that can collectively hold their breath... for now.
He says, "Outlook 2007 is certainly bad news for email marketing, particularly B2B marketers, since Outlook has a much higher penetration among businesses. B2C email marketers can bide their time because of the low usage of Outlook among consumers and the time it will take for adoption to ramp up."
Mark Brownlow, who publishes the authoritative and independent website EmailMarketingReports.com (and companion blog, an industry must read), sees the problems presented more as irritating issues than as full-blown disaster. He points out that many of the design elements affected were never being used consistently or supported by other email clients (think Flash).
Luc Vezina of email service provider GOT Corporation takes the glass-half-full approach as well and hopes that these Outlook changes may encourage designers to stick to simple HTML and, as a result, increase compatibility with a greater number of mail clients including those on handheld devices and cell phones. Either way, he says, email designers will have time to adapt as mass adoption of Outlook 2007 will not happen overnight.
Next: Outlook 2007 predictions
Our group of email all stars had some interesting viewpoints when asked for predictions on how Microsoft Outlook 2007 would affect the email universe.
Miller of Return Path predicted that the overall impact may be small but you run the risk of presenting some key customers with a bad user experience. Her comments:
"Microsoft Outlook enjoys about 75 percent to 80 percent share of the corporate email market, and a significant number of consumers use Outlook to view their Hotmail or other personal accounts as well. If the adoption rate mimics past behavior of about 5 percent to 10 percent over the first year, then the immediate impact in 2007 may be minimal in terms of numbers."
She continued: "However, depending on your business, these early adopters may be some of your most important subscribers. If that is the case, then ignoring the new Outlook 2007 rules and continuing to design with CSS and other advanced HTML may be risky. Even though your messages will render just fine in the majority of subscribe inboxes, you may leave your best customers with a terrible experience or unable to see your emails at all."
Brownlow of Email Marketing Reports argues that in a sense, the debate about Outlook 2007 will benefit the industry by forcing marketers to confront rendering issues. His take on the debate:
"The whole issue of how emails display in different end-user environments was bubbling beneath the surface in recent months. But it has taken the Outlook debate to bring it right out in the open. Because it's Microsoft, because it's Outlook, people are talking about it."
Brownlow adds: "So it's a wake-up call that has gotten marketers to focus more on rendering issues and related problems, particularly image blocking, which is far more important an issue than Outlook 2007. So it may sound a little contradictory, but I think the rendering problems with Outlook 2007 will actually lead to better results for email marketers because it will trigger more thought on how to ensure you get your message across despite any anomalies in the display environment at the recipient's end of things."
Vezina of GOT predicts that this change should not be as drastic as others that have affected deliverability. He states: "This is a relatively small change compared with things we've seen in the past years, for example image blocking."
Our experts provided these tips and suggestions, lumped into three categories: education and understanding; testing; and adjustments or new best practices:
Education & Understanding
- Read the MS documentation on Outlook 2007 so you and your designers understand the limitations and can account for these if you want to design Outlook 2007-friendly emails (Email Marketing Report's Brownlow)
- Outlook 2007 has been available as a no-charge beta for months, enabling many marketers to test and optimize their email in advance of the recent launch. (Microsoft's Spiezle)
Test, test and re-test
- Test, test and re-test campaigns to optimize deliverability. Tools and deliverability resources are available for mailers at www.microsoft.com/postmaster as well as from http://postmaster.live.com/ (Spiezle)
- Review your subscriber list to get a feel for the webmail services and likely clients being used by them. Test these services and clients against your design and adjust accordingly. (Brownlow)
- Ensure your email service provider has tested any plug-n-play templates that the company offers (GOT's Vezina)
- Test the rendering of your campaigns in all email clients PRIOR to mailing. Use a tool provided by your email service provider, agency or deliverability partner, or just set up test accounts and check manually. (Return Path's Miller)
Adjustments & New Best Practices
- If you're a beginner or intermediate at web design, simply avoid: CSS (cascading style sheets), background images, animated GIFs and tags. (Vezina)
- Add a link to the web version of your email, so if things look grim there's an alternative for your recipients to view. (Brownlow)
- Realize that Outlook 2007 is one of many display environments that can wreak havoc with inappropriately designed email. Designing email just for Outlook 2007 is like designing a road for bicycles only. (Brownlow)
- In Q2, start to roll back to simple HTML and try to inform your design as much as possible with real subscriber input. (Miller)
- Offer a quick poll asking when your subscribers intend to upgrade (if at all). Talk to your subscribers through online surveys and/or focus groups. Are some of the advanced features you feel you can't live without really that important to them? Will simple links do just as well as interactive elements or search fields? (Miller)
- Sadly, there is no "sniffer" that will tell your MIME formatted messages that the client is Outlook 2007. However, you can add mouse type to your header instructions to easily view the message as a web page or to change preferences to text only. This will at least address any rendering difficulties until Outlook 2007 has a broader share of market. (Miller)
- Track subscriber behavior, particularly for B2B subscribers. Are formerly active subscribers suddenly going non-responsive? Maybe they can't see your email! Are there certain receivers/ISPs where you see a drop off in open and click rates? Perhaps the Outlook 2007 adoption is higher to this segment. This data may give you a clue as to adoption of your own file. Invite those subscribers to re-subscribe to the text version. (Miller)
- Give more attention to the words you use. The tougher the limitations on design, the bigger the role your text plays in driving action. A picture is worth approximately zero words if it isn't displayed properly. Don't let clever design get in the way of the message. (Brownlow)
- Hope for the best: Using Word as Outlook's rendering engine appears to be some sort of horrible mistake. We can only hope that Microsoft, which is already reportedly at work on Service Pack 1, puts Internet Explorer back in charge of rendering soon so email marketers can avoid some HTML overhauls down the line. (EEC's White)
This will continue to be a hot topic among the online marketing and design community. Considering many email marketers struggle to implement any changes to their campaigns due to intense production schedules and lack of resources, it will be interesting to see if Outlook 2007 receives the sense of urgency that it deserves given the impact it can have on a customer relationship, especially in the B2B world.
We will revisit this topic later this year to see how these predictions fared, what changed and if Outlook 2007 really was a boon to consumers and headache to email marketers. Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts.