October 31, 2002, 12:00 AM

HTML vs. Text

Sometimes functionality trumps beauty when it comes to e-mail marketing. Herschell Gordon Lewis tells how to know when.

A question: Are you paying technicians for marketing expertise? Sorry, even though technology and marketing appear to be converging in this day of e-mail marketing, the two areas aren’t parallel. Technicians don’t share marketers’ bottom-line goals. Technicians’ interest is in how it looks; marketers’ interest is in how much response it pulls.

Case in point: I have a client whose aggressive marketing tactics often provide me with useful ammunition. This company operates a retail vitamin/supplement business, augmented by proprietary labels sold to other retailers. Over the past two years, expansion into online marketing has added a substantial chunk to the bottom line.

Retail ads and direct mail feature the company CEO’s photograph. E-mail, until a recent test, was simple text. The natural What if... was: What if we switched e-mail format to HTML, making it possible to include that photograph as well as pictures of our products?

The AOL effect

The concept seemed logical enough. The decision was based on the superior appearance of HTML over text, so, by creating the picture in HTML rather than inserting it into a text message or attaching it to the e-mail, the message deliberately bypassed a situation of which just about every e-mailer is aware, the “AOL Effect.”

America Online dominates consumer e-mails, with more than 34 million subscribers having the @aol.com suffix. When any of these subscribers gets a message with a picture, this message comes onto the screen: “You are about to open an e-mail containing a picture. If you don’t know who sent you this e-mail, be cautious in opening it. There is a small chance that it could contain a picture objectionable to you.”

The warning goes on, ending with “Do you want to open this e-mail?” and “Yes” and “No” options.

Okay, what does every salesperson know, from Day One? It’s that we never project a Yes/No option. Rather, it’s a Which one? option.

A second problem, one we had anticipated as minor, is that Macintosh users have trouble decoding HTML as created on PCs. But that percentage is tiny, and most Mac users are adroit enough to have pre-solved the problem.

Another AOL consideration: America Online isn’t particularly HTML friendly. Many marketers have experienced garbled HTML messages.

So we tested, splitting the list between HTML and text. Results weren’t what we expected.

Most unexpected was the jump in opt-outs from the HTML recipients. Something in either the AOL warning or the slowness of download (many consumers don’t have high-speed access and still use 56k modems) or perhaps the inability to present HTML cleanly was a turnoff.

How many of your customers have an @aol.com suffix? If the number is substantial, consider either segmenting your list so AOL subscribers get a text version, or simply send text to all recipients.

A caution

In actual orders received, the two versions pulled about the same. But because generating an HTML message is neither as casual nor as easy as text, this company decided to stay with text and leave graphics to the web pages. The saving wasn’t just in time; the saving also was in another crucial area-money. By sticking with text, the marketer avoided the cost of an HTML-adept technician and an art director. (If you think you can create a professional HTML message just because your word processing program lists HTML, try it.)

This is not an anti-HTML conclusion. Rather, it’s a caution. Prettiness works when prettiness is relevant to attracting a buyer. So unquestionably, although converting to HTML will provide a more handsome message, one that’s easier on the eye, within that “Unquestionably” lies a question: Does switching to HTML increase response? Does the AOL warning plus extra work for Mac users convert to abandonment?

An absolute rule for retail e-marketing: The more work you require, the lower will be the value of response.

Note, please: I didn’t say, “The lower the response will be.” If you have an online sweepstakes, augmented by HTML or not and requiring a batch of personal information or not, response should be fairly strong. But the quality of response will be lower, and the what-we-spend-versus-what-we-got ratio may not be as happy as you’d find from a simpler approach such as a printable discount within your immediate market area, or free shipping or delivery to those outside your immediate market area.

Following the trend

Retailers seldom are e-mail innovators. They can’t afford to be, because they don’t have the resources to withstand marketing disasters. So retailers usually follow the trend. And the trend these days is toward HTML.

Implicit in that trend is a huge “BUT....” But you don’t want to blindly follow all trends. Football players braid their hair and let it billow out of their helmets, like Medusas. Is that a trend you want to follow? The trends worth following are those that demonstrably increase response. Everything else is cosmetic.

Even in its infancy, e-mail is attracting too many practitioners who try to cover their imaginative sterility with a batch of mechanical tricks. They promote the medium instead of the message. So, to the consternation of those who want to win art directors’ awards instead of having the cash register ring, here is a tip that can save the marketer a substantial amount of money and grief: In a number of actual tests, HTML outpulled straight text when the message was artistry ... but text outpulled HTML when the message was urgency.

Here’s an example: a major vendor of high-end comestibles found that HTML far more than justified its cost for e-mail offers that had no apparent tie to timeliness. Glorious, glamorous photographs of fruit, gift baskets and high-end candies pushed response up to a very gratifying level. HTML didn’t pull as well as text, however, in offers demanding quick action-for example, a last-minute pitch for Mother’s Day, in which text outpulled HTML by more than 8%-145 orders per thousand e-mails versus 134 orders per thousand for HTML. The company plans to use these results for its holiday e-mails, with HTML as the approach of choice and text as the quick-action impeller behind “You’d better hurry” and “Last chance” e-mails.

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