Outlook 2007, 2010 and 2013 present unique design challenges to email marketers. Microsoft chose severe limitation of web rendering in these versions, for reasons known only to Microsoft.
Wanting to help my customers to get the most out of the content they invest in, and knowing newsletters are an important aspect of marketing for many businesses, I’ve recommended using WordPress’ RSS capability to distribute content to newsletter subscribers. Newsletters not cheap to produce, can enhance their website’s authority and discoverability in search – if the content originates on the company website.
Publishing on the website, then republishing automatically to an email list through a provider such as MailChimp or Campaign Monitor using an RSS-based email campaign, is one way to achieve this, as part of a write-once, publish-everywhere content distribution strategy.
Limitations in Outlook
Some businesses, particularly industrial and B-to-B companies, have an email list populated with many Outlook desktop users, which in 2015 (still) means Outlook versions 2007, 2010, and 2013. (These companies became ensnared by Microsoft’s monopolistic business practices and are still imprisoned in Microsoft’s insidious grip. 🙂
There are a lot of things these versions of Outlook just can’t do.
Microsoft chose to use the partial html rendering engine from Microsoft Word in Outlook 07-10-13. (Why they would chose a word processor to offer a crippled web reader in their flagship communications product is beyond the scope of this article!) The bottom line is, we’re left with a product that renders only a simple subset of style language controlling design to reach these email subscribers.
The Infamous ‘Word Rendering Engine’
The Word rendering engine in Outlook uses tables (Web 1.0) to control layout. Although tables still work in modern browsers, the Web in general has moved on, controlling position of elements with the style language known as CSS.
An RSS feed comes in one big block; the block cannot be broken into the fragments needed to put into table cells that Outlook can read. For example, you can’t pull an image caption out of an RSS feed and put it in a table cell under a picture sitting in the table cell above it. The whole feed goes into one big cell. The RSS feel contains selectors for the elements within it, so, in theory, it should be able to be styled by a template and display properly in any email client that reads web language.
Not so with Outlook 7-10-13.
Those Outlook versions cannot understand the CSS that puts captions under pictures, for example, nor will it align images from an RSS feed, or wrap text around them using CSS. These versions just can’t do it. Properties like “align” and “float” are not in Outlook 7-10-13’s vocabulary – neither are most of the other useful layout properties in CSS.
Outlook 2000-02 and 2014 don’t have this problem. They work. The older versions used the Explorer rendering engine. As yet unable to find out which rendering engine 2014 uses, we have observed that it appears to have full support for CSS.
Online Services use Table Structure in Campaign Design
MailChimp, Constant Contact, Campaign Monitor and others use html table builders in their online design environment to simulate layout effects for Outlook 7-10-13. When you add a picture in these online email builders, it creates a table cell containing the picture that goes into the email’s tabular layout.
In order to get aligned images with captions underneath in Outlook 2007-10-13, the email has to be built in the online editor on these services, which are designed to accommodate these quirks of Outlook.
Don’t expect text wrap or captions under images from an RSS email, from any provider. Can’t be done for Outlook 7-10-13. And these are just a few of the email design problems created by these versions.
Forget Captions and Wrap, among other things, if you’re using RSS
If you want to pursue “write-once-publish-many,” and have a lot of Outlook users opening your email, constrain the design of the newsletter so that it doesn’t depend on captions or image alignment. That would mean – don’t use captions for your images. You’ll get good SEO from the alt text in images. You can include images, and include descriptive text, but don’t expect them to lay out in Outlook as they do everywhere else.
Another option would be to post your newsletter twice, once on the site, and once in the email service of your choosing, in order to get aligned images and captions in Outlook 7-10-13. Most existing email list providers are capable of creating tabular layouts with the images behaving as expected in Outlook – although, images aren’t shown in these Outlook versions, by default. – they have to be turned on by the user, or you have to be in their address book as a “trusted source.” If your return email address domain is spam-flagged anywhere, even those who’ve turned on your images will get grey boxes instead of your images.