Email is broken: Part 1

Leif Nordberg's picture

Marketing Strategist


Email is broken: Part 1

Note: This is part of a series. Don't forget to read Email is broken, Part Two: Images.

Save for teens with generous texting plans, email is the modern communication necessity. And bulk email is still the most lucrative and direct method for most organizations to communicate with their audiences; sorry social media gurus #notreally #seo. I think a lot of folks could work and live without a telephone (I do as much I can), but if their email goes down then Mr. IT Guy better keep his head on a swivel. But, there’s a problem (spoiler!): email is already broken.

Modern web browsers, your Safaris and Firefoxes and Google Chromes, use different rendering engines to display a web page on a computer. A lot of folks already know this, or at least they’re aware that a website may look odd or broken in one web browser, but fine in another. We do a lot of testing across browsers and it’s a problem that can pretty much always be solved or mitigated with proper planning and coding.1 But most people are unaware that email clients (GMail, Outlook, Apple Mail, Hotmail, etc.—whatever you read your email in), like web browsers, also use different rendering engines.

With email clients you have the same inconsistency problem as web browsers, but then things get a hell of a lot worse because:

  1. There are only a few web browsers that dominate the market while email clients are more diverse.
  2. Pretty much everyone will test a web page for browser compatibility, but few know how or even that they should test an email.
  3. Images particularly are very difficult to deal with since a lot of email clients hide them from recipients by default.

This all means things like: embedded fonts are supported some places, but not other places; padding and margin support is unreliable; CSS has to be done inline because some clients strip out blocks; and inline images are difficult to work with. There’s no magic bullet here and you really can only be sure about how your email will look by testing it.

I have a lot more to say about that last item on images in email, so check back here for part two, but I can offer up a few general tips when composing your next bulk email:

  1. Write a good subject line and opening line. This is what will show in an inbox, and if no one opens your email, then nothing else I said above matters.
  2. Use a trusted bulk email provider for HTML emails (don’t send it from your personal account). This helps with spam and these providers often have templates that can cope with email client inconsistencies.
  3. Test. Send it to yourself at different addresses and preview your email with a service designed for this very purpose.2
  4. Write good copy around a specific need with a clear call to action.
  5. Respect your email list. Don’t send too often and don’t try to trick them into opening an email or clicking a link.
  6. Learn from analytics. Rinse. Repeat.

There’s no magic bullet. And #4 up there is a doozy. Just: keep it consistent, keep testing, and keep trying.


1. Except for Internet Explorer 6 which is everything that is horrible and awful and wrong.

2. Some popular tools include Email on Acid, Litmus, and Campaign Monitor.

I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: