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The Insider Guide to Power Ezine Promotion

 Articles: Design
HTML Email Basics
by Brian Alt
[September 27, 2001]
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The debate rages on concerning whether text or HTML email is the "ideal" email publishing medium. Text is the "universal format," ensuring that the greatest amount of your readers will be able to see a properly formatted email message. HTML, on the other hand, offers a number of features such as color, font variations, and embedded graphics at the expense of universal compatibility with all email programs.

For an introduction to ezine format and design, a discussion of the advantages of text versus HTML, and an overview of the basics of text email design, see this article.

This week's article looks at the basics of HTML email formatting, while future articles will cover the more advanced issues of good HTML email design.

To understand how to accomplish the delivery of an HTML email message, it's important to first understand the basics of email "headers." A basic email message consists of two parts. The "headers" contain the information needed for the message to be sent through the various Internet servers on the way to its destination, as well as the "To:" and "From:" fields and the message's subject. The second part of a basic email message is the message body, which contains the actual "content" of the message. The headers and the body of a message are separated by the first blank line that occurs in the message. It's also important to note that most email clients do not display all of the header information; many show no more than the subject and the "From:" field. Depending on what email application you use, there are various methods of viewing the full headers of your incoming email messages. (Eudora Pro, for example, will display the full headers of a message if you toggle the "blah blah blah" button on the individual message.)

Text and HTML email messages have one distinct difference in their headers. The "Content-Type:" header defines how the information in the message body should be interpreted by the receiving email client. A text message usually contains the following "Content-Type:" field in its headers:

Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii

An HTML message, on the other hand, will not contain the above line, but will instead replace it with the following:

MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii

These two lines tell the receiving email client that the body of the message should be interpreted as HTML code rather than plain text. Assuming that the email client is sophisticated enough to display HTML correctly, it will do so. If it is an older email client that can't display HTML, it will probably display the HTML code as text, which results in a garbled mess of code.

That's it in a nutshell. However, most email clients don't make it very easy to replace the "Content-Type:" header or define the content type of outgoing messages. Email publishers are forced to be pretty creative in their methods of actually accomplishing the delivery of HTML email. We'll look at several of these techniques in an upcoming issue.

Many list hosting providers -- notably Lyris and PostMaster General -- make it very easy to send HTML email to your mailing list. The level of control provided by the Web interface of these companies' software applications is far superior to the relatively small amount of control you have when sending email with a basic email client.

If you're currently sending an HTML version of your ezine, I would like to hear about your method of sending HTML email. When sending feedback, be sure to include your website URL so I can give you credit if I use your comments in a future issue. And any questions or suggestions for future articles are always welcome. To send feedback on this week's EPDigest, email [email protected].

Until next time,

Brian Alt, Publisher
Email Publishing Digest

Brian Alt is the founder and CEO of Email Possibilities, a provider of comprehensive email publishing solutions. He also publishes the weekly Email Publishing Digest and is the author of several ebooks on email publishing-related topics.

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