Speaker Spotlight: Emails with Mark Robbins


A lot of people hate having to work with email code. What on earth possessed you to base your career on it?
When I started building my first few emails I saw a huge opportunity for experimentation much more so than on the web.

At the time there were a lot of articles about the restrictions of email and not many about the possibilities. So I started exploring, and found a lot more was possible than most people thought, and very few people were talking about it. If you’re looking to code something on the web, you can do a quick search and find hundreds of articles and discussions, for email you have to get your hands dirty and find out for yourself.  

It’s the wild west of coding, with very few rules. Those that are around can change at the drop of a hat with no notice, documentation or release notes. I find that exciting.

What does your typical day look like?
I build interactive email templates for Rebelmail. We use a modular approach so we can break it down and work on a small piece at a time. I’ll write some code and preview it in the browser. Once I’m happy, I’ll start testing using Litmus which will return about 70 screen shots from different email clients, so I can check the rendering there, then I’ll start sending out tests to live accounts. 

I have loads of desktop and webmail accounts set up, and I normally have about eight phones on my desk (plus more in our NYC office) for testing native email clients and various apps.

Marks Desktop

What email marketing trends are you most excited about?
Interactive email has been on most of the lists I’ve seen predicting trends for 2017. That’s my area so I’m very excited about that.

Other things like payment in email (again something I’m working on), artificial intelligence and live content are all really interesting too, but what’s really exciting me is combining all of that to create amazing targeted, real-time, interactive customer experiences.

What are the biggest challenges of designing email newsletters in 2017 and how can we overcome them?
The hardest part is working with each email client rendering your code differently. The trick is learning how each client renders the code, and building those fallbacks in as you go.

For example, I know Gmail won’t allow negative numbers in margins, I know AOL breaks if you use the > CSS selector, I know Yahoo will remove display:none; from an inline style, and I know Outlook uses the Word rendering engine to render HTML so will break loads of things.

What’s your favourite new email hack?
I really like finding ways to target each individual email client. My favourite one is probably this one used to target AOL:

<div class=”★” id=”★”></div>

AOL mail allows unicode characters as class names but removes them form ID names. It’s the only email client to do that, so we can target an element that has a class of ★ but not and ID of ★.

There are loads of weird and wonderful ways for targeting email clients but this one stands out in the code every time. It's a thing of beauty.

What tools can’t you live without?
At Rebelmail we have some incredible custom built tools to compile, process and test email code, I’m privileged to work with an amazing team of engineers who understand the day to day complexities we face on the coalface of email dev and we’ve worked together to build some amazing tools. 

But these are very specific to our needs. Something more general that is absolutely essential to anyone building email is testing software. We use Litmus but others like Email on Acid are also very good. With Litmus I can test the layout rendering of multiple email clients in one go. You simply put your code in, and Litmus will open it in different email clients and return you screen shots of each, so you can quickly test the rendering on multiple clients in one go.


What are you working on at the moment?
We’re just finishing up an overhaul of our template code to make our emails more lightweight weight, more accessible and faster loading. We’re also adding in more customisable options, so the emails people build via our dashboard or API can look even better.

And as always, I also have a couple of other exciting projects that I can’t talk about just yet. But who knows, I might have something new to show in time for the conference.

What are your three favourite newsletters and why?
I subscribe to loads of newsletters for research and inspiration and some just for personal interest, but I don’t often have time to look at every one. The three I always try and read are...

Email Weekly by Action Rocket
It’s a great design and some solid code under the hood — these guys know email. But it makes the list for the content. They pull content from all around the web, not just their own blog, so the focus is on quality not self-promotion. They also have a lot of fun with different themes like this retro edition.

CSS Weekly
Again, this is pulling content from around the web rather than self promoting. The content is very up-to-date and aimed at a relatively high skill level so there’s a lot to learn. I also love the simple but stylish design of it all. This recent issue has some great content, including a couple of email articles.

Resident Records
My local record shop! It’s not that great from a code point of view but I like the design, and the content is brilliant (latests releases, local gig tickets, staff picks, etc). Where the code works, the design is pretty cool, too. It’s well targeted to a relatively geeky audience without being too snobby, it’s local but not too local and has an overall fun and friendly tone. Here’s a recent edition. I didn’t know there was a reissue of Fun House coming out, but now I do, and I want it!

What can people expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers?
I think people should gain a good understanding of the key differences between web and email coding, what the constraints are and why they are there. Also I want people to see what is possible if you really push the constraints to the limit and understand email doesn’t have to be stuck in the past.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
First learn the rules, then learn to break them.

I’ve been told a lot of things aren’t possible or should be done in a certain way, but if you can understand why, you can often find a way to do what you want. That goes for life as well as code.

Any parting advice for anyone working on email newsletters out there?
Don’t get hung up on making the email look exactly the same everywhere. Make it look as good as possible in the modern email clients, and let it fallback to an acceptable standard for the old school email clients.  

Use email analytics, understand where people are opening your emails and prioritise testing in those clients but also try not to completely ignore the two per cent still using Yahoo mail.

Mark will give a talk about email code at the inaugural Pixel Pioneers conference in Bristol on 22 June. Get your early bird ticket for just £99 including VAT now!

Oliver Lindberg

Oliver L

Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant and founder of Pixel Pioneers. Formerly the editor of net magazine, he has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is passionate about content, user experience, accessibility and designing for social good.

Oliver grew up in the northwest of Germany and moved to the UK in 2001. He now lives in Bath with his wife, daughter and three chickens.