Unlocking E-Mail’s Potential
Adding design to corporate communications is no longer hit-and-miss. Plus, it adds elegance and interest for recipients

Jazzing up your company’s corporate communication could be as easy as adding HTML e-mail to your technological mix. Color, graphics, movement and other special effects of a webpage can bring new life to company newsletters, e-mail, and other types of correspondence.

Not long ago, though, sending out HTML e-mail was a gamble. People would either open your rich media e-mail and go ga-ga over all your gorgeous imagery and design work, or they’d be confronted with a PC screen filled with gobbledy-gook symbols.

No more. Thanks to some recent advances in software programming, there are dozens of e-mail packages and services now available that will automatically sense whether or not your recipient’s e-mail reader can handle a rich media e-mail, and then render your message accordingly.

“It’s fairly simple,” says Karen Fegarty, founder of MailWorkz, a software maker that specializes in HTML e-mail delivery software. “If their software can read HTML, it will show them the HTML message. Otherwise, it will default to a text message, and they’ll never know the difference.”

In addition to HTML, distributors can now also send a rich media e-mail as an attachment in Adobe Acrobat, or PDF format. While the format has been in common use on the Web for years, recent advances in the software have enabled users to move beyond a simple black-and-white rendering and into the realm of sophisticated, full-color, interactive documents.

Indeed, PDF seems to be the preferred medium of choice for a number of sanitary supply distributors. A number of industry businesses circulate their company newsletters in the Adobe Acrobat format, including Wes Clean Equipment and Cleaning Supplies, headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta.

Neil McLennan, Wes Clean’s CEO, says the widespread popularity of Adobe Acrobat on the Web was one of the major reasons Wes Clean selected it as its rich media format of choice. “The cost was also reasonable, and the format is also compatible with Microsoft applications as well as Microsoft Windows and Macintosh.”

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) also fit the PDF format perfectly. Instructions for using products, warnings and application information can all be created in PDF format.

While many Adobe Acrobat users stick to the basics when using the program, its most advanced new features enable users to transform a webpage, or an entire website, into the Adobe format for easy e-mailing. Plus, the program also has the capability to retain all the hotlinks on a webpage during the transformation, as well as the interactivity of any forms on the site. A distributor, for example, could use the program to transform an interactive order form from the company website into an Adobe PDF document, and send it to one, 100 or 100,000 customers as an e-mail attachment.

Wes Clean, for example, says it plans to explore some of Adobe Acrobat’s more sophisticated applications. “We’re currently looking at utilizing the interactive forms application on our corporate intranet,” McLennan says.

Given that 66 percent of nearly 700 companies using e-mail marketing in 2001 reported an overall increase in sales as a result of e-mail marketing promotions, according to the Direct Marketing Association, New York, the recent advances in rich media e-mail could not have come at a better time. “E-mail marketing, facilitated by new technologies and driven by the challenging economy, is now reaching a stage of maturation,” says H. Robert Wientzen, DMA’s president and CEO. Nearly two-thirds of companies reporting success in e-mail marketing used HTML e-mail in at least some campaigns, he adds.

Finding the Right Tools
If you’re a little skittish about committing to an HTML e-mail investment, consider trying it out for free at MailChimp.com. In just a few minutes, MailChimp.com enables distributors to upload a test HTML message, and then send the test message to up to 100 e-mail addresses from your own database. The site also has a helpful “do’s and don’ts” online guide, which was written by seasoned HTML-e-mail veterans. Afterward, if you decide to continue using the service, MailChimp.com will charge as little as a penny an e-mail to send HTML messages from its site.

Of course, even sending messages at penny-a-pop can get a little pricey if you’re putting together a high-volume campaign. Should you decide to bring your campaign in-house, you may want to check out Broadcast HTML by MailWorkz. With this program, distributors can successfully design and send an HTML e-mail in under an hour. Besides being easy to use, Broadcast HTML also offers some advanced features, including the ability to personalize each e-mail sent with a person’s name, company name, address and similar details.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of packages and online services chomping at the bit for your HTML e-mail business. For a look at additional online services, check out: Cooler E-mail; EarthOnline; MessageReach; Mindshare Design and @Once.

For in-house software packages, you can test-drive Campaign, by Arial Software; WorldMerge, by Colorado Software ; Mailloop by Mailloop; and PostCast by Gate Comm.

Though there has been much advancement in the capabilities of these programs, there are still snafus. Despite the fact that top-shelf HTML e-mail programs now automatically default to sending a text e-mail message to recipients when necessary, the programs still cannot guarantee perfect results. The reason: most HTML e-mail programs are written to work with the last version or two of popular e-mail readers like Outlook Express and Netscape. So you may run into a situation where an older version of Outlook Express will accept your HTML e-mail, but it will not render exactly as you would like it to appear.

Of course, as the general population continues to upgrade to the most recent (and free) versions of popular e-mail readers, this minor snafu is destined to become less significant. In the meantime, in situations where every person on your e-mail list absolutely, positively, must be able to read the message —no matter what — you may want to rely on Adobe Acrobat. Indeed, one major factor Adobe has in its favor over HTML is that a PDF document will appear exactly as you want it to appear, with no exceptions.

Looks Are Everything
If you’re able to design a simple webpage in authoring programs like MS Frontpage and Dreamweaver by Macromedia, you already know how to design HTML e-mail. Even if you don’t, you’ll find tools and instructions by using any online service or in-house package.

Either way, you’ll want to check out the been-there-done-that guide, “HTML E-mail Design Tips” on the MailChimp.com website before you launch a major campaign. Specifically, the guide authors, Ben Chestnut and Mark Armstrong, serve up some recommended design formats they believe will work best, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

As you might suspect, the two insist simplicity is king since pages won’t take forever to download. “Don’t design HTML e-mails more than 500 pixels wide,” says Chestnut, who is also a partner at MailChimp. “You might be used to designing webpages for 800 by 600 screens, but keep in mind that the preview pane in most e-mail applications, such as Outlook, is much smaller.

“Also, keep it less than 100K,” he adds, referring to the overall size of the e-mail file you plan to send. “Respect the fact that the majority of the population is still accessing the Internet via modem, so keep your e-mails nice and light. HTML e-mail is great for including useful graphics and pictures of your products. But don’t go crazy with animation, sounds, Flash movies and heavy downloads.”

It’s also a good idea to avoid MS Outlook when designing an HTML e-mail, since not all Outlook HTML features will work in other e-mail readers, Chestnut says. Generally, e-mail readers that tend to be most temperamental when it comes to HTML e-mail are Eudora, Lotus Notes and AOL 5.0, Chestnut says.

Indeed, given that approximately 30 million people now use AOL, you may want to create a specially designed HTML e-mail you know performs well in most versions of the service’s browser, he says.

The Moving Parts
While Chestnut’s caution against loading up your e-mail with unnecessary, bandwidth-hogging graphics is sound, there’s still nothing wrong with posting such supporting effects on your website, and providing a simple link that readers can click to experience the sizzle. Also, if you know that all the recipients of your HTML e-mail have high bandwidth connections, you won’t need to be quite as concerned about file size.

Fortunately, there are a number of places on the Web where you sample these special effects for yourself&Mac226; and often sample some of the goods for your own use for free. For JAVA-script animations, for example, you’ll want to stop by Freecode.com; Java Script Kit and Dynamic Drive.

Other animations can be sampled at Free Animations; 2coolanimations and Animation Factory. And for simple pictures and graphics, click to Clipartconnection; ClipArt.com and Search Art Today.

For streaming audio and video, you’ll have to part with some green. The most popular formats in this area include Real Networks; MS Windows Media and Apple QuickTime.

Joe Dysart is a technology-focused speaker and business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He can be reached through his website.

Carpet-Care Conundrum?

You’ll never hear distributors complain about an overabundance of carpet care related information on the Web, so another source is always good news.

The International Society of Cleaning Technicians (ISCT) has developed a website full of helpful information for carpet-cleaning professionals and salespeople.

A resource listing directs visitors anywhere carpet-related, and there’s a comprehensive spot-removal section for those who have a particular customer need.

There’s also insight into cleaning methods, problems and solutions, and don’t miss the users’ forum for the exchange of ideas and advice.

All Talk? Good. If It Works For You

Are your ears ringing? Hopefully, it’s with all the good things your customers are saying about you. Michael Brizz, CMC, believes that customer referrals are the No. 1 way to net new business. Find out more at his new website, where Brizz shares articles and tips for sales producers and managers, helping to put your customer’s gift of gab to good use by transforming it into a glowing recommendation.