Looking at e-mail in Outlook 2007

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Microsoft's recent launch of Vista and its related update to its popular e-mail program Outlook may be a boon to PC users, but the new version of Outlook (Outlook 2007) could be a bust for e-mail marketers and designers.

Why? The old version of Outlook used Internet Explorer to display HTML messages, and Word for composing them. Users complained that the messages they composed in Outlook, aka Word, didn't display the way they thought they would. Microsoft's solution? Use Word for both creating and displaying e-mail messages in Outlook 2007.

The result? Outlook 2007 no longer supports a variety of things that are commonly used in HTML e-mails. Want to use a background image? Denied - Outlook 2007 won't display it. How 'bout flash or other types of plug-ins? No can do. They're not supported.

Most disappointing is the limited support for Cascading Style Sheets. Word 2007 supports CSS level 1, which was state of the art circa 1999 and does not allow for any positioning of content using style sheets. If your e-mail style sheet conforms to that standard, you may not have any problems. Otherwise, you may find that your e-mail messages look completely different in Outlook 2007 than in Outlook 2003.

All these changes together pose a real challenge to e-mail marketers and graphic designers. What used to work - i.e. render - may not anymore. What's to be done?

One quick solution is to include at the top of your message a link to a Web-based version of your e-mail message. If the message looks like junk, the interested reader can always click on the link. But if the message is too distorted, the viewer may not even know there might be something of interest or even see the link to click.

The better approach is to grit your teeth and redesign your HTML e-mails. Employing basic HTML or inline styles may not be as pretty or as easy to generate, but may ensure your message looks right not only in Outlook 2007 but also in other e-mail readers, especially the Web-based ones such as MSN or Gmail.

The best way to know what works is to test extensively across all the major e-mail clients. Only when you see how your e-mail actually renders in Outlook 2007 can you know for sure if the changes you've made sufficiently address the issues or if you need to go back and do more.

In addition to getting Outlook 2007 on your desktop and sending yourself e-mail, there are several products on the marketplace that can help you monitor how your e-mail will render in different e-mail clients automatically.

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