HTML5 and Email: A long way to go

As email designers, we know the drill. The majority of email readers out there are far behind the times in regards to being able to interpret and display HTML… the code we use to create an email campaign. We have to go simple with our designs, and because of that, we often don’t get to play with the latest and greatest innovations that the industry provides us for other kinds of digital media. But last week, we were fortunate enough to get a two-day intense training on HTML5, a subject that is wrapped up in quite a bit of misinformation.  Here’s what we found:

To back up a bit: HTML is short for hypertext markup language, and it’s essentially the code that is the DNA of a web page or email blast. It determines the layout, colors, fonts and functionality of your digital communication. The latest iteration of this language is version 5, and it promises to be simpler, more powerful, and less prone to break. The simple fact is, the rules and functionality that determine what HTML5 will ultimately be aren’t yet set in stone. Industry leaders are still hammering out the details, with a final “official” list of requirements reported to be delivered sometime in 2014. However, many new features have already been determined and implemented, and support for those has been rolling out steadily over the past few years.

Most of the main benefits of HTML5 happen behind the scenes, only really useful to the designers. Much of it is code simplification… being able to do what you want by writing less markup code, and having it work more consistently, regardless of which internet browser you are using to view the page/email. One of the greatest frustrations for a digital designer is that every browser and email reader interprets code differently, and so your communication could look drastically different, or even break entirely, if you don’t compensate for this. HTML5 attempts to minimize this by creating some fundamental elements that each web browser interprets the same way. Things like embedding video, creating your rows and columns in your layout, drawing shapes, creating movement and animation, all become much more straightforward using HTML5.

Some of the misinformation regarding HTML5 also comes from the fact that other technologies are growing with it… such as CSS, short for Cascading Style Sheets. CSS3 is the counterpart to HTML5, and is what allows designers to add style and substance to an HTML layout. We now have the ability to do surprisingly simple things that we could not do before, like use gradients, have a box with rounded corners, drop-shadows, or use our favorite fonts without worrying if someone else could see them. In short, the combination of HTML5 and CSS3 now allows us to make really slick looking web pages without relying on a program like Photoshop to do the heavy lifting.

What does this mean for us in terms of creating better emails? Unfortunately at this point, not a whole lot. With email design, consistency is key. You want to make sure your email looks the same in every email reader, and so to do that, you need to design for the lowest common denominator. We won’t go into who the worst offenders are, but a quick Google search will reveal which email service providers provide the worst support for modern HTML features.

Without getting technical, email designers still must rely on the way web pages were designed in the early 90’s… the way you would NEVER design them now, because we’ve found better, more productive ways. And so, the benefits of HTML5 largely get lost on email design because, while the technology is now largely adapted to most internet browsers, email readers simply aren’t there yet.

Have questions about HTML5, CSS3, and your email campaigns? Send us your questions!

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