Uncle Sam wants you to write emails his employees can read
By Diane Owens
Did you know that the Department of Defense automatically converts employees’ emails to plain text? Disables hyperlinks? Blocks images?
That’s right. The government is serious about tightening computer security to fight cyber threats, and protect against phishing, viruses and malicious scripts in HTML code.
As a result, your carefully-designed HTML email or newsletter can become extremely hard to read for recipients who work for Uncle Sam, as well as for those who view messages on Apple watches and some other mobile devices.
All formatting is stripped — so there’s no bold, no italics, no headers, no colors, no columns, no font styles and only a few special characters. Just plain black and white text appears.
If readers can manage to find links in the sea of words, they’re forced to copy and paste each one into a browser to follow it — and URLs can sometimes be 10 lines long, like this:
To retain control of the look of the emails you send to Uncle Sam’s employees, you can:
- Generate emails and newsletters in both HTML and plain text versions. Mailchimp, AWeber and other email service providers can use Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (known as MIME) format to automatically create an HTML version and a plain-text version of the email. The message converts to plain text for readers who specify it or are unable to view HTML emails.
- Select a default setting that creates an archive link and causes a “Email not displaying correctly? View it in a browser” line to appear at the top of the page in the unformatted text. That allows readers to copy and paste a single URL in a browser to read the whole message online in all its HTML splendor. Formatting returns, images appear and hyperlinks work like a charm.
- Create emails in plain text only, forgoing HTML, so all recipients will be able to read it. Most readers prefer plain text to HTML, according to a Hubspot survey.
To make plain-text emails easier to read:
- Compress links with a URL shortener like Bitly and insert the short links in the message, making it easier for the recipient to copy and paste in a browser.
- Break up large blocks of text by adding extra spacing between paragraphs and subjects throughout the document.
- Use keyboard characters that render in plain text, such as lines of asterisks or dashes, as section dividers. (Characters that don’t translate correctly in plain text include trademark, copyright and smart quotes.) Bullets won’t work either, but you can use dashes or asterisks to delineate lists of items.
Take a few minutes to view each message in plain-text format before sending it to be sure it’s as easy to read as possible. Your subscribers will thank you.
Sources: “Plain Text vs. HTML Emails: Which Is Better? [New Data],” Hubspot, July 27, 2015
“DoD Cybersecurity Discipline Implementation Plan” (PDF), Department of Defense, October 2015, amended February 2016
“Pentagon purges HTML from .mil emails,” FCW, Nov. 12, 2015
DIANE OWENS is a public affairs writer/editor for the U.S. Navy and a lifestyle blogger at Thoughts, Tips and Tales.