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    Allowing for Personal Choice -- HTML or Text E-Mail

    Keeping track of your readers' preferences for HTML or text-only e-mail newsletters can be daunting. But deciding to honor those preferences may be an even bigger challenge.

    When someone shares his or her preference on how he or she wants Web or e-mail content displayed, it's a good idea to respect that person's wishes and provide content the way it was requested. I know it sounds like common sense, but in this sometimes wacky world, Web site managers don't always do what makes sense.

    If a Web site asks a user if he or she prefers story links sorted alphabetically or by date and then doesn't honor that preference, would you expect that user to continue to visit the site? Probably not.

    But site managers are tempted to change newsletter subscribers' preferences from text to HTML format because studies show that click rates are higher for HTML-formatted newsletters. It's only natural to believe that converting subscribers' preferences will increase response.

    However, there are many people who prefer a text-only format for their e-mails -- even if their software is capable of handling HTML mail. These people express their preference for text-only in two ways: One is by making this choice on the subscription form, selecting text over HTML, and the other is when they sign up for a newsletter that is offered only in text mode and continue their subscription after receiving a few issues.

    While it seems like common sense to honor the preferences of people who visit the Web site or subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, we're seeing a number of Web sites that want to disregard the preferences of their audience.

    This can occur when a Web site adds an HTML-formatted newsletter and wants to automatically change the preference of previous newsletter subscribers from text to HTML format. Technically, it's easy to determine if someone's computer can read HTML e-mail. When that person opens his or her e-mail and a graphic is served by the Web server, it's clear that that person's computer can display HTML e-mails.

    In addition to "sniffing" whether someone's computer can read HTML e-mail, it's also possible to identify people by the domain name of Web-based e-mail services.

    However, just because someone uses an HTML-capable e-mail program doesn't mean he or she wants to receive a particular newsletter in HTML format.

    It's easy to assume that the folks who work in Internet marketing would like to see e-mail newsletters in highly graphical format, and newsletter publishers have generally been successful in automatically changing subscriber preferences for this group. However, when it comes to sending newsletters to people outside the Internet industry, it's a different story. Those subscribers send screaming e-mails complaining to the publisher when their newsletter preferences are converted without permission.

    There are several ways to make it easy for subscribers to change from text to HTML format, so it's not necessary to take the chance of offending them by automatically changing their preferences.

    One way is to provide a "one click" link in each issue that takes the reader to a Web page that contains a database updating code to change the reader's preference. By including each reader's unique ID in the link, the server knows exactly who is clicking on the link.

    Another approach is to provide a unique link to the subscription profile form on the Web site. In addition to changing their format preferences, readers can also subscribe to additional newsletters and update any demographic information.

    Here are a few tips to keep in mind when offering readers a new HTML version of your e-mail newsletter:

    • Explain how the additional navigation and formatting helps them more than the text format.
    • Invite them to try the new format.
    • Make it easy to switch back to text format.
    • Encourage them to provide feedback about the new format.

    Keep in mind that the partnership between publisher and reader is fragile -- especially when it's so easy to switch to a competitive site. One key to successfully migrating subscribers' preferences from text to HTML is to involve them in the process as much as possible.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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