Basic Bulk Email

People seemed interested in my recent post about basic password handling so I thought I’d write another similar post. This time we’ll look at another example of basic customer interaction that so many people get wrong – sending bulk email.

Note that I’m not a lawyer, so this doesn’t cover any of the legal stuff about getting people’s permission to contact them or registering with the Data Protection Register because you’re storing people’s personal details. This is about purely technical issues that should be simple to get right.

As always, I’m interested in any comments you might have.

Rule 1: Send text versions

I’m going to get drummed out of the geek club for saying this, but I’m not going to tell you not to send HTML email. I don’t like HTML email. I don’t read HTML email that doesn’t have a plain text version attached. But I know a lost cause when I see one. Companies are never going to stop sending HTML email and I’m not going to waste my breath explaining why they should.

I am, however, going to recommend that you don’t send pure HTML email. You should always send a plain text version of the email alongside the HTML version. A very small percentage of the people you are emailing deliberately won’t read HTML email. But a larger proportion will occasionally want to read your message using a device (maybe a mobile phone) that doesn’t support HTML email. You’ll be making their life easier by sending both versions.

And notice that you need to send both versions every time. Asking customers whether they want to recieve messages in HTML or plain text is just stupid. It makes your life harder and it doesn’t help your customer who has asked for HTML email but needs to access your mail on a device that doesn’t support it.

Obviously, the best approach would be for the text version to contain the same content as the HTML version. But perhaps you have good reasons why you only want people to see your message in the full colour HTML version. In that case you should still attach a text version. It should contain information on who you are, how the customer can unsubscribe from your mailing list and, if at all possible, a link to a copy of the email on your web site. It certainly shouldn’t contain a rude order to “upgrade your email program” or the pointless information that “you can’t read the content of this message”. Just last week I got an email from a large online shop where the text attachment consisted of the words “text content”. Content like this just makes you look unprofessional.

Rule 2: Say who you are sending it to

I have a number of email addresses that I use for different purposes. I’m sure I’m not unique in that respect. So when I get bulk email it’s very helpful if the message tells me which email address it was sent to. This is particularly useful if I want to unsubscribe from your mailing list and your unsubscribe page prompts me for the address that I want to unsubscribe.

Also, by including the email and real name (if you have it) of the person you are contacting, your email is less likely to look like a phishing attack. This is the approach taken by companies like Ebay.

Rule 3: Send it from a real address

It’s incredibly rude to send an email from an email address that won’t accept replies. Sure, I know that you don’t want to expose email addresses to potential spammers. But these are your (potential) customers. You need to trust them. And anyway you should have good spam protection installed.

There are two good ideas for addresses to send bulk email from. The first is to have it come from an unsubscribe address. That way, someone can unsubscribe from your mailing list simply by replying to the email. The second is to have it come from a customer service address where replies will be read by a real person who can deal with any queries that the recipients of the mail might have. It’s probably not a good idea to have it coming from a real person’s address as that can make it look a bit like spam.

Either of these are a good idea, but it’s important to make it clear which one you are using. You don’t want customers’ queries going to an unsubscribe address!

Rule 4: Make it easy to unsubscribe

Much as you might hate it, occasionally people will want to unsubscribe from your mailing list. And you should make that as easy as possible. You should always either send the email from an unsubscribe address (see above) or put clear unsubscribe instructions in the email (and in the text version).

And you should respect unsubscribe requests immediately. I still get email which confirms I’ve been unsubscribed from a mailing list but adds that it might still be mail for the next few days. That is unacceptable. If your software doesn’t honour unsubscription requests immediately, then you need to upgrade your software.

Four simple rules that should be well within the technical capabilities of any bulk email application. If yours doesn’t follow all of these rules then you should consider changing to one that does. If you don’t then you run the risk of needlessly annoying your customers and potential customers.

(Thanks to Chris Heathcote for some suggestions)

Update: Here’s a good example of how not to do it. I recently ordered something from HMV’s web site. The products went missing in the post and I’ve been in touch with them to get either a replacement or a refund. Every single email I’ve got from them – the order confirmation, the shipping confirmation and the messages from their customer support department – had a text portion that consisted of the text “textContent”. None of the messages needed to be in HTML. Having them in HTML added nothing to the content. They all just contained text. Not even a logo. I can only assume that whoever set up HMV’s customer support email system was a complete idiot.

I’m going back to shopping at Amazon.


  1. Hear hear. Although in my new guise as a marketer I wouldn’t advise people to send emails from an unsubscribe account, since the most likely thing a customer will do to contact you is to hit “reply”. You don’t want to then chop them off the mailing list for showing interest in you!Another topic here worthy of mention is RSS. I think that these days the following setup works well:1. Emails are sent2. The same content is published to an RSS web feed3. There is a link in both these messages to the same content on a web page.This linking to the content on a web page is important. It lets customers go back through the archives if there’s something they’re looking for, you can add search capability, and it gives more flexibility in how customers access the site.For a good introduction to mass emailing from a marketing perspective, I recommend a book called Permission Marketing by Seth Godin.

  2. Another thing: if you provide people with a link to unsubscribe, please personalise the link for that user so that clicking it just does the job and unsubscribes. It is very irritating to have to try and find a username and password (especially for a site which you obviously don’t use) just to stop receiving messages.

  3. Having an option for customers to pick plain or HTML format can still be worth it: there are people who will complain at getting multipart alternative instead of plain text (even when one of the parts is plain text).I think this is because there are some mail clients which if given the choice will pick an HTML alternative over a plain text one. Mutt certainly lets users configure which alternative they prefer; perhaps other clients don’t, or perhaps they do but users don’t know how to configure this. Either way, there are definitely people who prefer plain text only, no alternatives.So it’s arguably better to offer the choice of either plain text (which is just that) or HTML (which is actually multipart alternative, and still contains a plain text part).

  4. I can think of a couple more rules:5 One way of ensuring that the plain text part has equivalent content to the HTML part is to use something like lynx -dump to produce the text from the HTML. That’s a good idea, but make sure that any hyperlinks are still sensible in the text version: there’s no point in simply having the words “Click here!” in a plain text document with no URL given!6 Ensure that any <img> tags in the HTML part have good alt attributes — that is, content which is actually an alternative to what the image says, so that whichever a reader sees they get the same information. Many mail clients don’t by default display images in e-mails, so it’s no good having messages which only make sense with the images visable.

  5. Smyler’s point 6 is vital: Apple (and a lot of other companies) often sends me emails that are mostly images, and I can’t make head nor tale of them without bothering to accept the images. At least have the headline in normal text so that it will display properly!

  6. Given your password handling and email articles, I wonder if there might be a short book to come here that could be useful, of a similar size to an O’Reilly pocket guide, that collates all this knowledge and reader comments. I think it would be very handy, especially in a good format such as the numbered lists that you’re using. I reckon you should try and persuade O’Reilly about it. And if you’re looking for a co-author… ;-)

  7. Smylers,”Basic HTML Email Creation” is a completely different article – and one that I’m not the right person to write.There were three main reasons that I didn’t put details like that in this article.

    1. I don’t want to encourage people to use HTML email
    2. Having never (knowingly) created an HTML email I have no idea of the best practices to follow
    3. I actuallly quite enjoy seeing the errors people make when they assume that everyone will read their message in Outlook and therefore don’t test it in other email programs
  8. I agree with you on the html email issue, I really do. But there is a certain amount of King Canuteness about trying to fight it.There are a lot of things like this, now that normal people have discovered the interweb and email and stuff.I have a constant battle trying to persuade a friend that he needs to have Flash installed in order to browse the web. I quite like looking at movie websites (eg and I am just cutting off my nose to spite my face if I stick to purist attitudes.I really have trouble reading the MSN messages that come from teenagers – there are so many smiley emoticons that the screen is a complete mess. But that’s how they talk to each other, so I’m learning to embrace it or be left behind.HTML mail is a fact of life, it’s never going away, we have to learn to deal with it appropriately. I have images turned off in Thunderbird, and only click the “Show Images” button if I am sufficiently interested and I know it’s not spam. I find this works very well.Is it worth fighting a battle you will never win :-)

  9. se71,That’s exactly why I said “Companies are never going to stop sending HTML email and I’m not going to waste my breath explaining why they should.”My point is not that people should stop sending HTML email (they should, as we both agree, but they won’t). My point is that they should send a meaningful plain text version alongside it. Particularly in the case (like my HMV example) where the message is nothing but plain text just converted to simple HTML.I use Thunderbird set to show me the plain text version of messages. If there isn’t a plain text version then it seems to do a pretty good job of synthesising one out of the HTML version. It only has a problem when there’s a pointless plain text version attached – like the HMV example which just said “textContent”.If people take one thing away from this article, then I hope it’s the idea that they should think about what goes in the plain text version of their email messages.

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