Normally, when you upgrade software, you expect it to be, well, better. It should have more features, work better, be prettier.
Microsoft Outlook 2007 has a lot of what you'd expect from an upgrade. It's got RSS, better security from phishing and viruses, easier navigation and it certainly looks prettier... except when it comes to viewing HTML email, especially HTML developed by sophisticated designers who want to use the latest, greatest tricks in their email messages, or were hoping to. Although Outlook 2007 still supports basic HTML messages, many elements that used to look just fine now won't.
Why the change? With Outlook 2007, Microsoft fundamentally changed how it renders HTML in email. Outlook 2003 used Word to compose HTML messages and Internet Explorer to display them.
According to Microsoft, users complained that the HTML messages they composed in Outlook didn't look the same when recipients read them. So, to make the Outlook experience more consistent for users, Microsoft uses Word 2007 for both composing and displaying messages. And never mind what the messages look like for recipients who aren't using Outlook 2007.
These changes in Outlook mean that an email marketing message that looked great in Outlook 2003 may look terrible in Outlook 2007.
But the biggest problem for most email marketing messages is Outlook's limited support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), especially for positioning content.
CSS is the way most designers prefer to create web content of any kind, because it's easier to code and gives more control of what the page looks like. Microsoft reports that Word supports a subset of CSS Level 1, which is state of the art, circa 1999. The lack of full CSS support by Outlook means email design will be limited for quite some time to come.
The results? Ugly. Reviewing some messages in Outlook 2007, I'd have no idea this was a professionally designed email message, as the columns are broken, banner ads don't display and background colors are missing.
How big an effect these changes will have on your email will depend in great part on the rendering tests you've done in the past. These Outlook limitations have limited support in other email clients as well, especially the web-based ones such as Gmail or Hotmail. If you designed your content for these email clients, chances are good your content will be acceptable in Outlook 2007, too.
The best way to make sure your content looks good in Outlook 2007, of course, is to send a test to someone using it and view it there. You don't need to do an entire Vista upgrade, or even upgrade to Office 2007 to be able to upgrade to Outlook 2007.
But what if there aren't any early adopters in your office, or corporate policy prevents you from getting Outlook 2007? Here are five tips to help you review your message and ensure it renders correctly in Outlook.
- Review what Microsoft says it supports and check your content. To its credit, Microsoft has published a comprehensive FAQ of what Outlook 2007 will and won't support. You or your email designer can use it to vet your current messages.
- Try using Microsoft's Outlook HTML and CSS Validator to check your newsletter. This validator will help your developer identify potential problems while coding, so you can identify problems before even sending a test. This tool plugs into common HTML editors such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007, Microsoft Expression Web Designer 2007, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 and Dreamweaver 8.
- Test your message through an email testing tool. The days of needing personal test email addresses at all the ISPs are gone. Use one of the tools on the market designed to help you monitor how your email will appear in different email clients automatically, such as Lyris Technologies' Email Advisor, Return Path, Pivotal Veracity and SiteVista.
- Remind recipients they should add you to their Safe Senders list. It does no good to optimize your message for Outlook if all recipients see are boxes with Outlook warning messages. Safe Senders don't get spam filtered by Outlook, and the images will display by default.
- Add a link to a web version of your message. If all else fails, the recipient can click on the link to check out the "correct" version of your message. You probably have one already, but check that it is legible in less-than-optimal circumstances. For instance, I saw one where the text was white against a background image. When the background image was suppressed, the link was invisible.
Once you've implemented an email HTML template, it's easy to get complacent about it. These changes in Outlook present an excellent opportunity to take a fresh look at yours.