One of our web officers has been asking about whether there’s any good, reasonably priced training in creating HTML mails. If anyone has any experience with this, would you let me know?

That message, sent recently to the web-support JISCMail list seemed a reasonable request for information. So I was surprised to see responses saying “I can give you a complete course right now. Don’t do it“, “If people learn to write they don’t need HTML to spice their text” and “the people that want it are the very last people that should be allowed to have it. To me, the reception of HTML email from an organisation is a great big hint that I never ever want to deal with that organisation.

Well, there are some unequivocal positions! And look at that last comments: “the people that want it are the very last people that should be allowed to have it.” What happened to having a user-focussed approach to Web development?

Fortunately there were other responses to the debate which took a more holistic view: “Don’t just say ‘No’, say ‘Let US do it’, or at least ‘Let us get involved’. Take control if possible. Otherwise they’ll just do it anyway, and quite possibly do it (very) badly.

The debate seemed to polarise the “grizzled techies” and the “evil marketing managers”. One of the latter gave his reasons for making use of HTML in email:

As the resident evil marketing manager on the list I’ve tried to restrain myself but can’t hold back any longer…

We always use HTML based e-mail for our marketing (we send multipart e-mails with a text version so that most users should see something on their screen). All our e-mail marketing is opt-in and we give an unsubscribe link on every message sent, partly because that’s the law, but mainly because it’s polite – we’re happy that our unsubscribe rate is reasonably low. We developed a set of corporate templates which were thoroughly tested with Outlook, Outlook express, Hotmail, Gmail, Mac mail, et al (if you think getting HTML to render in a variety of browsers is fun wait until you start developing HTML e-mail!). Every message we send is sent to test accounts using a variety of e-mail services before we send in bulk.

It does strike me that there are two polarised communities. Coincidentally around the time this discussion was taking place I attended the Aoc Nilta conference [note Web site no longer available – 12 Jan 2009], at which, as described in a posting by Scott Wilson, personalisation was one of the key themes of the conference (and, as described recently by the BBC, is also on the Government’s agenda).

My view? I’m on the side of providing flexibility for the user community – and if the marketing community are the ones who try to respond to the users’ needs, then we should be working more closely with that group, rather than the dated technical views of the grizzled techies!