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Jun 19, 2002
How To

Switching Your Newsletter From Text-Only to HTML: Advice and Tactics From a Marketer Who Just Did It

SUMMARY: If you publish an email newsletter (either for marketing purposes or as a business in and of itself) this is an article worth checking out. We interviewed 5-year newsletter publisher Brent Winters (who has 470,000 opt-in readers) to bring you this exclusive story on why he finally went to HTML this month at long last, and what wisdom he has got to share with other newsletter publishers on format and HTML layout issues (plenty). Includes useful hotlinks to samples and more info.
Making the decision to switch from text to HTML is a gut-
wrenching one for many email newsletter publishers.

Marketers publishing newsletters to support sales love HTML
because they can insert images such as their logo and product
snapshots. Publishers in the ezine business who do newsletters
longer than a page or two also like HTML because they can use
bold and font sizes to make their issues easier to read.

However, although the public still tend to click through more on
links in HTML newsletters, many dislike HTML intensely because of
larger file sizes which clog their email box and slow downloads,
and the fact that, more and more, it looks like spam.

In fact just 18 months ago, when then-popular marketing
newsletter ICONOCAST switched from text to HTML, publisher
Michael Tchong admitted to MarketingSherpa, "People are flaming
us." He saw a small-but-painful wave of unsubscribes.

When MarketPosition Monthly, a newsletter published by
FirstPlace Software to support sales of their WebPosition Gold
product, went from text-only to HTML last week, we contacted
President Brent Winters immediately.

Winters has been publishing the newsletter for nearly five years
(see link to our Case Study on it from last October below) and
has about 470,000 opt-in subscribers; so he is a real expert in
this area.

-> Why switch?

One of the reasons MarketPosition has been so popular is that
unlike many newsletters intended to support sales, each issue
contains the full-text of several articles that readers will find
useful (versus a bunch of all-about-us and buy-now content, or
just links to stories on other sites).

This meant the average issue weighed in at 8-10 printed pages.
Winters says, "Many people loved it, but they also found it
overwhelming. Some said it was tedious to read it in a text-
based format."

Still, he held off for almost five years due to concerns that not
every mail client can read HTML (and as you will know if you have
seen past issues of MarketingSherpa, there is no such thing as a
"sniffer" to tell which can). Finally, Winters felt it was time.

-> Keeping the text-only option

One of the reasons ICONOCAST's switch to HTML drew so much reader
rage was that there was no way for people who preferred text-only
to switch back to it.

Winters was careful to avoid that trap by offering readers the
option to switch to text-only. He added a note and hotlink to a
Web page where they could switch at the very start of the first
HTML issue, and plans to continue making it easy to change.

He also recognizes that not all email clients are alike, even
now. The HTML version was designed to work (and carefully
tested on) with Eudora with Microsoft viewer, AOL, Yahoo,
Hotmail, Outlook and Outlook Express.

-> Further design considerations

Because readers were so used to seeing the newsletter in it's
entirety without having to click on each story to read it online,
“we decided to put the whole newsletter into the body of the
message,” Winters says.

“That’s also why there’s no graphics. We just decided to create
an attractive product without using [them]. It also cuts the
download time. Our newsletter already is large, with a lot of
content. The average transmission is 40K, much larger than the
average email.”

Unlike classic Web page layout, Winters' in-house designer
decided to place the newsletter's navigational column at the
right side instead of the left for four reasons:

1. People read English from left to right, and Winters' primary
goal was to get the newsletter read.
2. The newsletter does not have to cater to advertisers, who might
prefer to have their messages on the left where they are read
3. Words are not cut off for people who printed their copy to read
later, or who view the issue through a smaller screen.
4. Right handed readers find right-side hotlinks easier to click
on, because their mouse is on the right side.

The designer also decided against prototypical newsletter layout
which puts the table of contents at the top center of the page
above the articles. Instead this table of contents appears at
the top of the right-hand navigation bar.

Winters says they made this decision because most recipients have
their email set up with previews so they can read the first few
lines before deciding whether to keep or delete something in
their in-box. If they saw the hotlinked table of contents they
might mistakenly think the newsletter is just another aggregator
of links to articles on sites, which is not as useful as a full-
text newsletter.

Also, he says “I thought it would be better to let people see at
least part of the first article as well as the headings of a few
others. The idea is to draw people to read the entire message.”

->Avoiding that “spam” look

According to a recent “Washington Post” article, spam has
increased 600% during the past year. Winters took several
precautions to avoid being caught in a filter or being deleted
immediately by the recipients who assume anything HTML is spam.

1. The newsletter is sent "from" Brent Winters, which is a name
recipients have now seen in their email boxes for years. He
notes that sending from a department such as "sales" or using
an email address in your from line is a big mistake. Most
people will assume it is spam.

2. The subject line is personalized with the subscriber's first

3. The issue itself is also personalized with the subscriber's
name, with a headline at the top reading "This Issue Prepared
For: [name] [email]. (We will bet this makes a very powerful
impression on readers and on pass-alongs.)

4. MarketPosition Monthly’s logo is prominently placed in the
upper left corner, but not so big as to slow the download or
obscure other content.

-> Recipient responses

No flames! Winters asked customer service to send him every
single letter from a reader that came back as a result of the
change, and he was braced to get at least a few complaints.
"When you mail something to 470,000 people, you normally hear
something negative."

Not this time.

In fact, "We got a great deal of feedback that the new format was
better than the old one and it was something we had needed to do
for a while."

However, Winters adds that if MarketPosition Monthly had been a
shorter newsletter, say, one or two pages, he never would have
tackled a HTML reformatting due to spam-appearance
considerations. His advice for others considering such a
move is, "If it's very short, 1-2 pages, you may be able to stay
in text, but if you're any longer then consider HTML."


#1 Sample of how Winter's HTML newsletter appears to recipients:

#2 Our October 2001 Case Study on Winter's marketing:
Powerful Email Marketing to Sell and Retain Small Business Customers

#3 Our "The Myth of the Email Sniffer" article:

#4 Sign-Up Form for MarketPosition newsletter:

See Also:

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