Demystifying Marketing and Design in Outlook 2007

Unless you’ve had your head stuck in the sand this past month, you’re probably already well aware of the hoopla surrounding Microsoft’s latest release of Outlook 2007. Does the recent upgrade from our friends in Redmond represent the end of e-mail marketing civilization as we know it? Is it much ado about nothing? Or is it yet another ploy in Microsoft’s ongoing quest for world domination? Read on for the real story.

What’s happened? Previous versions of Outlook used the Internet Explorer engine to render HTML e-mails. In other words, opening an HTML message in Outlook is like opening the message in Internet Explorer. This allows designers and e-mail marketers to employ sophisticated, CSS-based (cascading style sheet) designs and templates with predictable results.

Instead of using the IE-based HTML rendering engine, Outlook 2007 will use the MS Word HTML rendering engine. That means that — you guessed it — opening an HTML message in Outlook 2007 will be like opening the message in MS Word.

Considering the inherent HTML rendering limitations of MS Word, this more or less signals the end to many of the tricks that e-mail designers rely on to create professional, appealing e-mail designs. In other words, if you (or your designer) do not refactor your e-mail designs, it is very likely that your recipients using Outlook 2007 to read their mail will receive a garbled version of your message.

Firsthand Knowledge

Trek Bicycle, the largest U.S. manufacturer of bicycles and related products, knows firsthand the effects of this change. With over 200,000 customer and prospect e-mail addresses in its database, Trek relies on e-mail marketing campaigns to communicate with its customers and to drive contacts to the Trek online store.

Considering the importance of its e-mail marketing programs, the company could not afford to risk making a bad impression with potential buyers because of inconsistencies in their e-mail design. “We’re very vigilant with regards to our brand and how it appears to our customers,” says Web Art Director Ken Soliva. “We realized the issues with our messages and have begun to address them proactively.”

For a not-so-subtle example, take a look at this typical Trek e-mail as displayed in Outlook 2003. Now, check out how the same message renders in Outlook 2007.

The good news is that these issues are solvable. For Trek, they’ve already begun revisiting their approach to e-mail design. “Quite simply, if we don’t make any changes, our customers that migrate to Outlook 2007 will receive garbled Trek messages, and thus begin to build a negative association with our brand,” said Soliva. “After reading several blog posts about the topic, including Bronto’s, we were happy to find that the necessary changes were pretty simple.”

What Will Be Different?

Many common content elements will not render consistently in Outlook 2007, including background images, embedded surveys, animated GIFs and rich media content such as Flash and video. Moreover, the new version will not support many advanced CSS features (such as position and float) that allow designers to tweak messages to perfection.

It is also worth noting that Outlook 2007 will not support tags. (These tags allow you to provide brief text describing an image. Think about the text that displays when you hover over an image in your Web browser.) In instances when an e-mail client blocks the images in your mailing, the text displays in place of your images, thus affording you the ability to frame the context of the disabled message. This failover won’t exist in Outlook 2007 environments and thus limits your ability to effectively communicate to recipients viewing disabled messages.

If you are a Web designer, I suggest you read Microsoft’s overview of the design conventions that will not be supported in Outlook 2007 and also make use of the downloadable validator Microsoft has provided to help test HTML for the Outlook 2007 engine.

What It Means for Marketers

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  1. Don’t panic. The whole world isn’t going to switch to Outlook 2007 overnight; thus, you have plenty of time to rethink and re-work your e-mail design(s).

    Still, considering Outlook’s ubiquity in the workplace, I suggest that B2B (business-to-business) marketers take action sooner rather than later. Given that many of your recipients will migrate to Outlook 2007 over time, you and/or your designer should obviously take these restrictions into consideration going forward.

  2. E-mail design isn’t dead. Outlook 2007 will not bring back the days of ASCII text in a telnet terminal. You will still be able to convey your brand and “design” in your e-mail marketing communications, you just might have to simplify your design approach to get there.
  3. Content is king. If anything, these changes should tighten your focus on the actual content of your e-mail marketing messages. Compelling messaging is compelling messaging, whether wrapped in a whiz-bang CSS or flash-based design or communicated simply, with a tasteful header graphic and top-down text.
  4. Test. Test. Test. If you’re a designer or manage your company’s e-mail marketing activities, then I suggest you download a free trial of Outlook 2007 and add it to your testing routine, if only to familiarize yourself with the changes. There is no substitute for learning by doing.

Do a Web Search

Unfortunately for e-mail designers and marketers, Outlook 2007 is going to cause a few unavoidable headaches. Luckily, they’re of the low-grade, “I-ate-my-ice-cream-too-fast” variety and easy to address with a little awareness and a few design adjustments.

For more perspectives on the issue, I suggest a quick Web search on the topic. The e-mail marketing blogosphere has been aflame of the issue of late.

Eric Boggs is product manager for Bronto Software, an e-mail marketing software provider.

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