Google may be making serious inroads into SMB, but Microsoft Outlook remains the dominant email client for mid to large-sized businesses. And since those larger organizations are the sweet spot for most IT solution providers and VARs, understanding how your marketing email actually appears in all instances of Outlook is critical.
I recently talked to our Miriam Blais and Mike Lockhart—Lauchlan designer and web developer, respectively—to find out the latest best practices for B2B email design for Outlook. Here’s the highlights of our chat.
PF: What are the most important best practices for designing emails for Outlook right now?
ML: Keep it simple. Outlook uses a very outdated version of HTML (basically stripped down HTML 4) and is not up to current standards (HTML 5). Because of this, things that might look good in a browser email service could look awful in Outlook. Basically, designing an email for Outlook is a lot like designing one in Microsoft Word—one small shift of a line might throw the whole document off.
MB: I would also say avoid using fancy fonts. Stick to your basic web-safe ones—Arial, Tahoma, Georgia, Times. Also, don’t get too creative with multi-column layouts and in-text images. They’ll cause nothing but trouble across multiple Outlook platforms.
PF: I would say multi-column email layouts are a bad idea for a lot of reasons.
PF: What are some of the most common email design mistakes you see from B2B marketers?
MB: And, sort of to my point earlier, trying to do too much with an email. The functionality should be simple—it’s either giving you a means to share information within the email (newsletter-style) or it’s linking to an external site, landing page, video, etc. where more functionality can be added in-browser. An email should never aim to be the all-encompassing component that many wish it to be. The technology just isn’t there.
PF: I think that’s a great point, Miriam. In most cases an email should make a quick case for consuming a larger piece of content elsewhere, especially in a lead-nurture scenario.
PF: Let’s talk spam filters. Are there things you can do in your design to avoid triggering them?
ML: Use a 1:2 ratio of images to paragraphs of text. An image-heavy email will trigger spam filters. And you should keep images under 200 KB in size.
PF: And what about cloud versus non-cloud Outlook? Any differences there?
ML: Every version of Outlook acts a bit different from the others. Desktop versions that come bundled with Microsoft Office on Windows use an outdated version of Internet Explorer that is built into Office. It’s the most problematic of all the versions, especially because Microsoft itself has stated they no longer support any IE browser older than IE 11. Outlook on Mac is the easiest to work with because IE doesn’t exist on Mac. That means Outlook can take advantage of a modern browser with up-to-date code.
Outlook in browsers is kind of a middle ground. If it’s running in a modern browser, it can utilize modern code. But some issues do still pop up because Microsoft has programed it to strip out certain code that it views as potentially dangerous from a security standpoint.
PF: So with all of this in mind, what are the steps one should take to ensure an email renders correctly in Outlook across all OSs and formats?
MB: The process can be time-consuming, but our answer is simple: Litmus is your best friend. It lets you see how your email will render across every relevant platform. We do lots and lots of testing across every platform we have access to before deploying our clients’ emails.
PF: Great. Thanks for sharing, guys!
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Pete Fuduric is Content Director at Lauchlan. You can email Pete at email@example.com.