Jason Rodriguez This week on the WP-Tonic Podcast Episode 271, Jason Rodriguez (https://rodriguezcommaj.com) from Litmus joined host Jonathan Denwood to talk about HTML email design.

Jason wrote a post (https://www.rodriguezcommaj.com/blog/on-amp-for-email) about AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) concerning HTML email that the WP-Tonic Round-table discussed the week before. AMP is an initiative by Google to help provide improved speed for web pages. It is now also being used with HTML email.

AMP for email is about adding interactive elements inside of email.

They discussed the controversy within the Internet development world about the fact that Google is pushing a proprietary format and that this is already covered with CSS and other standards currently available.

More About Jason Rodriguez

Jason RodriguezMost of Jason time is spent educating others about email design with a group like-minded people at Litmus. He and the Litmus team are hard at work building a community and the best damn tools around for email designers.

Jason has self-published three books on the subject email design. The first, Modern HTML Email, has sold over 2,000 copies.

The second, Professional Email Design, is on its way to selling even more. I just released The Better Email on Design, my third book and first video course. I’ve also written for A List Apart (twice), CSS-Tricks, and occasionally speak at industry events, a list of which can be found on my speaking page.

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Here’s a Full Transcription of Our Interview With Jason 

Jonathan: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic Wednesday show. It’s episode 271. We’ve got a great guest. Unfortunately, my co-host Kim couldn’t make it. But she’ll be hosting the show next week. So you’ll have her company next week folks. But we’ve got a great guest. We’ve got Jason Rodriguez. I’ve just butchered his name. I apologize. Jason, would you like to introduce yourself quickly to the audience?


Jason: Sure, yeah. Thanks, Jonathan. So, I’m Jason Rodriguez. I am a Community Evangelist for Litmus. Litmus is a software company. We work on building software tools for email marketers, email designers so that they create and send better emails for everybody. Outside of that, I think about email pretty much all day every day, which sounds a little bit weird. A lot of people don’t do that but that’s definitely me. I’ve written a couple books on email design and coding, speak at different conferences across the industry around the world and just kind of generally try to educate people more about the Web and email.

Jonathan: You do a great job of that Jason.

Jason: Thanks.

Jonathan: Before we go into the interview, I just want to mention our major sponsor, which is Kinsta Hosting and WP-Tonic’s own website is hosted on Kinsta. They’re a great WordPress only focused hosting company. We’ve been with them, for now, a couple of months. Been totally happy with their service and the support has just been fantastic and they’re just great people in general. Know a couple of them personally, really like them and I would highly suggest that you should use them as well. You’ll find links on the WP-Tonic website. They are affiliate links so you’ll be helping the show if you book your hosting through Kinsta or your clients. And like I say, we’ve been totally happy with them. On to the show, on to the show. So, you wrote a little post which we actually discussed on our Round Table show last week.

Jason: Oh, nice.

Jonathan: We had a bit of discussion about it and the title’s on AMP for Email. Would you like to give a quick synopsis of the posts and maybe we dive into it a bit?

Jason: Sure. Yeah, definitely. So for anybody that’s not familiar with AMP or AMP, that’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, which is an initiative that Google launched a little while back with the intention of improving the mobile Web for everybody. So the idea is that using AMP, which is kind of a more restricted version of HTML and Javascript that you could serve faster pages for mobile browsers, which is good because everybody knows the mobile Web is a little bit tricky. It has data constraints, has slower loading times, all that stuff. So AMP was kind of created to address that issue. But one of the problems with AMP is that it’s almost entirely controlled by Google and they use it to do some interesting things. It definitely works well for that goal of speeding up pages for the most part. But they also use it to kind of promote pages using AMP higher in their search results, in that search carousel on the Google search page. So it’s kind of this like carrot and stick for Developers to get people sucked into using AMP which is controlled by Google, is very tightly coupled with Google’s search engine. So, there’s been kind of a mixed bag of reactions across the Web world, the Development world, the Publishing world on AMP.

And one of the biggest things recently is they announced that they’re using AMP for Email now. So they open up Developer preview inside of Gmail where Developers can take advantage of some of these AMP features inside of emails inside of the inbox to provide things like interactivity inside of email. So they had a couple of examples that they published on their blog post. I think there was Pinterest that was showing a Pinterest board where you could save different pins to your actual board. You could categorize them directly inside of Gmail which was pretty cool. The one I really liked was, I think it was booking.com that had a list of hotels that you could refresh inside of Gmail. So if you were looking for hotels or flights or something like that then you could get these dynamic results right inside of the inbox.

So the AMP for Email project is all about adding these interactive elements inside of email. So that was announced, I want to say a week or 2 ago and so there’s been a lot of reaction from the email world, from the web development world about this AMP for Email project. So my post is kind of going over my personal reaction of that. And my personal reaction is really I like that Gmail and Google, the team is working on adding interactivity to email but I’m not a fan of the way that they’re doing it with AMP because it kind of goes against the grain of the Web. It’s taking HTML and stripping and using this very proprietary version of it which is something that the email world and the Web world I think doesn’t really need because we have HTML, we have CSS. So adding a third language on top of that that people have to learn and then maintain and support going forward causes a lot of issues, a lot of maintenance issues, a lot of work that people need to start doing. But in the email world specifically, there’s definitely some hurdles for this AMP for Email project getting off the ground and that’s the fact that this requires a third MIME type for Developers to start supporting. So if you’re sending an email marketing campaign, there’s two versions that you’re typically sending. You’re sending the HTML version and then you’re sending the plain text version. So your email program will take that and display whenever you’ve requested it to those emails. But for this AMP for Email project adds a third version which is that AMP specific version. So it uses its proprietary code. You’re creating this third version that you then have to figure out how to send. So right now, no email service providers for those companies that you use to send these email marketing campaigns support that third version. So that’s a huge hurdle to actually getting those emails out the door. So that’s one big thing I really think is going kind of stop this from taking off.

The other thing is it just kind of goes against the kind of ethos of the Web and this open source community. People using HTML and CSS, these well-supported Web standards to create these things. And while the project is open source and people can contribute to it, it’s very much controlled by Google and is kind of built to serve their interest, which I think is definitely a dangerous game to play as well. So there’s definitely a lot that goes into it. There’s arguments for and against it. But I’m definitely, right now as it stands, kind of in the camp of being against this AMP project, especially in relation to the email world.

Jonathan: That was a great synopsis. Thank you so much, Jason. I can tell you’re a true expert on this. That was fantastic. Like yourself, I’m so kind of torn between the two. I was quite vigorous in my criticism of Google on the Friday show where we discussed your post. But on reflection, you’re a bit torn because the actual functionality is cool in some ways.

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: But it comes with such a high price, doesn’t it?

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: That’s the problem. And you just can’t deal with it really because the price is too high they’re asking.

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: Have you got any thoughts of why Google, is it just a commercial play or is there other reasons why they’ve invested and seem to be really, was going to use the word dedicated or driven to keep this going and expand it really?

Jason: Yeah. I definitely think, especially in the case my email, it’s very much a commercial play because in the email world, people have been building interactive emails similar to the ones that they showcased in the Gmail blog post for years at this point using things like HTML and CSS, nothing special. It’s definitely like a hacky thing and technique to implement. But we’ve done a lot of interactive emails over the years. In the case of Litmus, who I work for, we do a yearly conference and we do announcement emails for that. So we always do an interactive email for that announcement. So we’ve had things like a live dynamic Twitter feed in email. We’ve always had this fun kind of Willy Wonka golden ticket hunt inside of the email itself. People like, there’s a company called The Rebel that does a full checkout experience inside of email. So you can view products, you can select the different specifications for your product and you can start that check out process right in your inbox. So we’ve had interactive features just using plain HTML and CSS for years at this point. But Google, instead of supporting and investing in those techniques and doing better support for HTML and CSS, they’re opting to use their own proprietary version of HTML which is AMP.

So I definitely think it’s cool that they’re going to add that interactivity to Gmail but I wish they would have done it with these Web standards that we’ve all been using which we use for every other email client out there. It definitely seems very commercial because they’re kind of tying you into that AMP language and I think some of thinking around it too is the people that are building these emails are the ones building websites as well. So if you get them familiar and hooked on AMP, then they’re going to start using it on the Web as well. So it just kind of feeds into itself and I feel like if there’s one thing that this project has shown is that it’s almost solely for Google benefits because those AMP pages are hosted through their servers, on their cache. It feeds into the SEO and the search results on Google’s pages and they have a lot of publishers getting really invested and using the AMP project but they don’t do anything for people just using plain HTML and CSS and Javascript.

So one of the stated goals is that they want the Web to be faster, the mobile Web especially to be faster but they don’t do anything special for pages that don’t use AMP but still perform better than those AMP pages themselves. So it seems very much that it’s tied to their commercial interests and their goals of kind of owning as much of the Web as they possibly can which they own a hell of a lot of it. So it’s a little bit scary that they’re pushing something like this and not really supporting people using Web standards and still performing up to their threshold of whatever it might be for those fast load times for pages.

Jonathan: Yes. You put it so well. Well, it’s also our podcast. We get people from various, it has an emphasis on Learning Management Systems and Membership but also an emphasis on WordPress. But we get various people, experts like yourself. And what also has been disturbing is that WordPress has also kind of linked themselves to this system as well which, to me, seems totally against the stated public principles of WordPress.

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: A lot of eyes widened when that news was distributed around the WordPress community and we’re waiting to see where.

Jason: Yeah. It’s definitely weird because, yeah, WordPress has always been about the open source world and Automattic’s done so much to invest in that open source world and sharing of information and stuff. I get why they’re doing it because there’s other CMSs that have supported AMP and its publishers want to use AMP because they do get thrown up into the top of search results and in that stories carousel on the Google page. So I understand why they’re doing it but it does feel at odds with the WordPress kind of ethos of being open and sharing code and using Web standards and I think thing’s applicable to email too.

So it’s definitely a weird spot and I know there’s been a lot of reactions both in the WordPress community and just the Web community overall about how people don’t like this AMP project even though it seems to be kind of slowly eating the world at this point. So it’s definitely weird. There was actually a, I think it’s ampletter.org might be the URL but this AMP letter which is kind of an open letter to Google for changing how they think about AMP. So it’s been signed by hundreds if not thousands of people of individual Developers as well as some pretty large companies as well. Essentially saying they don’t support this vision for AMP. That Google should essentially change two things. One, it should look at HTML and CSS and those page load times and it should recognize when people are doing good work without using AMP and it should celebrate those in the search results so that they get better placement as well. And then the other thing is stop supporting or promoting those AMP pages in that stories carousel so that it’s more even weighting. So there’s been a huge backlash against AMP throughout the world and I’m curious to see if that changes anything in Google’s or if they keep pursuing this the way they are. And, yeah, it’s a weird weird place.
Jonathan: Because you would think Google would to in the end. It’s not necessary because obviously, their delve in social media didn’t really pan out the way they thought it was going to pan out. So it does and there’s been other projects which they have pursued and they’ve just given up on it, haven’t they?

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: So I hope that they’re being truthful about it.

Jason: Yeah. I feel like that’s going to be the case for AMP for Email specifically because of those reasons we talked about earlier. That third MIME type, that third version you have to build, nobody supports sending that right now. So that’s like a huge knock against it. It’s only specific to Gmail. So other email clients like Yahoo Mail or Outlook or anything like that, they’re not going to see any benefits from this so they’re not going to support those features. So it feels very much like if you remember, Gmail had, it was grid view for a long time that was in this like Developer preview that made this kind of Pinterest view of your inbox. That was a similar project that never really got off the ground. People had access to it but then they just killed it, you know, what, a year or 2 later. So I feel like that’s what this is going to be. But that being said, the AMP, as much as we kind of rail against AMP on the Web and Developers talk about how bad it is for the Web, Publishers absolutely love it because they do get those SEO benefits. So maybe this is all just we’re complaining but nothing’s going to happen and it will stick around and we’re all just going to have to bite the bullet and start supporting it regardless of our ethical feelings about it. So we’ll definitely see.

Jonathan: I think we’re going to go for our break folks.

Jason: Sure.

Jonathan: We’re going to get onto some really more, I was going to say more interesting but that’s not the right way to put it, but more happiness. More happy kind of things we’re going to discuss when we come back folks. We’ll see you in a few moments.

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Jonathan: We’ve had a great discussion with Jason discussing Google, the star as I call it.

Jason: Good description.

Jonathan: Let’s go on to something more and your involvement with them. Can you just explain what the company does and your role with it?
Jason: Sure, yeah. So Litmus is all about, you know we build software platform for email marketers and designers. So most companies are using email to drive engagement, to drive sales, to really just keep in touch with their customers, with their subscribers. But a lot of companies aren’t necessarily doing that well because there’s lots of weird things that go wrong in the world of email. There’s dozens and hundreds of different email clients like Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, all these mobile apps and stuff that all display these emails differently. So a large part of our tools is allowing email marketers to see how their emails are going to be displayed in those different email clients. So they can make sure that they’re email isn’t broken, things don’t look weird, subscribers get that full good experience that they want. But on top of that, we have a lot of tools for kind of tracking your emails, getting those more advanced analytics than your email service provider who you use to send your email campaigns typically provides. So we have ways to look at how long people have your emails open, where in the world they’re opening them, if they’re printing those emails, how many times they open, what email clients are using to view your emails in, all that kind of stuff that you can use that data to improve your email campaigns over time. And then, we also have a bunch of tools to help people actually design and code their emails a lot better too. So we have a tool called Litmus Builder that is an online code editor that’s specific for email design. So it’s integrated with our instant previews that allows you to make a change in your code, in your design and then instantly see how that renders across all these different email clients and make sure nothing’s broken, all your features work, all that good stuff. So it’s very much this platform for, you know, we kind of talk about it internally as this email created platform. So it gives people the tools they need to just design code, test and track better email campaigns than they typically have outside of that system. So I’ve been involved with Litmus for almost at 5 years now.

So I came in to help build a product we have called Litmus Community. That’s this free online, essentially a forum and set of resources for people in the email world. So the main bulk of it, these discussions, so there’s thousands of different discussions about all kinds of different email topics so you can go on there and look for. If you’re facing a problem, you can search pretty easily and find somebody else that’s run into that problem, the solutions for those problems.

On top of that, it has a bunch of code snippets you can use in your own email campaigns. We have free HTML email templates that you can download and use for your own company or your personal projects. There’s a job board as well. So if you’re in the email industry looking for a new gig, then it’s all inside the Litmus Community. So it’s grown to this huge, we have thousands and thousands of Marketers and Developers in there every day that are talking about email, talking about how to improve their campaigns, all that good stuff.

So I was brought on to help launch that. So that’s been my baby with them with this and I’ve been very much focused on growing that community, improving those tools for the community, getting better resources to them. So for me, very much my role is about kind of shepherding that community and growing that community. But then, really about just educating people about email, email marketing and email design development. So there’s a lot of bad practices out there. People sending really bad email campaigns. So my job is essentially to talk to those people, build resources for them and educate them about improving their own email campaigns both from like a strategy perspective as well as the design and development perspective so that they’re really creating much better experiences for their subscribers. So there’s a lot that goes into to. It’s a lot of kind of half product management with the community stuff of the product side. But then, also very much kind of a marketing type of role, doing a lot of writing for the Litmus, talking at our conferences, talking at different events within the industry and running workshops, stuff like that. So it’s really all about just educating people about email and using our tools and other tools to send better ones.

Jonathan: That’s fascinating. As you were saying this, what you’re doing with your company is what a lot of companies should be doing is that and it’s linked to Learning Management System is you’re providing extra value not only in the quality of your products but also in a way education, aren’t you, in a way, aren’t you?

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: You are becoming an educational resource, aren’t you?

Jason: Absolutely, yeah. And we’ve done that for years. Before I even joined the company, Litmus was one of those early companies in the email world that was very much about sharing as much as we possibly cold typically through blog posts. But then, once the community came around, through the community itself, through all the resources that we provide. But that’s always been one of our goals is to share as much information, educate people as much as possible about email because we found that it benefits everybody. It benefits the subscribers most importantly because they get better emails. It benefits us a company because the more we educate people about emails, the more likely they are to want to send better emails so they’ll start using our tools. And it benefits the people building emails because it makes their jobs a lot easier. So I really like that. I love when companies do things like that. They use their knowledge and share it with the world to improve everybody’s lives and it’s good when they do it for free and release a lot of those resources as openly as possible, which kind of like the WordPress thing. It’s a huge community. A lot of people sharing their knowledge with everybody else and it benefits the entire industry which is awesome.

Jonathan: Am I correct, you know, by looking over the company’s website, you are aimed at the kind of higher marketeer professional level. Would that be correct wording?

Jason: I don’t think so. I mean, I definitely think we speak to a lot of higher end marketers, larger teams, enterprise level customers. But a lot of our customer base is actually either freelance or like smaller teams and people that are developer focused. They’re the ones that typically use our core product which is that email previews. So we do have a ton of people that are either working on their own or working in very small teams that rely on our tools to test their email campaigns, track those email campaigns and improve them going forward. So it’s definitely a mix. We have kind of a basic plan that’s geared towards those people that are more about checking their emails using builder or using previews. And then, we go up from there into our plus and pro plans that are aimed at larger teams. And then, all the way up to enterprise level accounts as well. So it kind of hits on everybody. But our kind of core audience has always been those kind of individual Developers that are in the weeds and working on emails day in and day out as opposed to higher level, like VP of Marketing or something like that that are running those teams themselves.

Jonathan: Right. There seems to be a lot going on in, how to word this, in email but it’s more about dividing your lists and having systems that can automatically respond to different pathways.

Jason: Sure.

Jonathan: Example, Drip, ActiveCampaign. There’s a number of new breed kind of email delivery, the kind of companies.

Jason: Yeah.

Jonathan: Do you see that road that they’re going down increasing and what’s your overall, did you expect this to happen, that these new type of email providers would come on the scene?

Jason: Yeah. I definitely think it’s going to be that kind of mentality of doing more dynamic emails and more personalized emails and emails that are sent at specific kind of points in that customer journey is going to be increasing. We’re coming from a world of email where, for a long time and still for a lot of companies, people kind of take that batch and blast mentality where they just have a list and they send one email out to everybody and hope that it resonates with that entire list. While that kind of technique has worked in the past, our tools are getting a lot more advanced. We have a lot more data. We have better ways to hook into that customer journey and its different points and use email in those different contexts. So I love when companies are creating tools to do that to make it easier for everybody to do that because it typically works a lot better for the company and the customer. So the company is providing value at very specific points for the customer and they can tailor that content. They can feed dynamic copy based on different actions. They can even, in more advanced cases, send completely different designed emails that are kind of dynamically generated using those systems. So anytime you can do that, then you’re far more likely to really be able to talk to the customer when they need to be talked to and provide the content that they need at that specific time. So I definitely think that trend’s going to be increasing and I think it’s better for everybody in the long run. It typically requires like a little bit different skill set than a lot of email marketers have because you do need to understand data better. You need to understand those customer life cycles. You need to understand the business. A lot of times you need to understand more of the development process, how those systems work, how they tie into your own applications, how APIs work, stuff like that. But once you gain those skills and understand them a lot better, then you can create these really interesting email programs that are hugely influential and can really drive your business and create a lot of value for subscribers which is awesome.

Jonathan: Oh, that’s great Jason. I think we’re going to wrap up the podcast part of the show folks. I stumbled there. But we’re going to be continuing the interview with Jason, which you can view on the WP-Tonic website with a full set of show notes actually folks with the links we’ve discussed. Jason, it’s been a pleasure so far. I think we’ve covered and hopefully, in the bonus content, we’ll cover some other topics.

Jason: Sure.
Jonathan: I feel we’ve only scratched things. It’s amazing how time goes. How can people find out more about you, your services and basically what you’re up to?

Jason: Sure. So the best for me personally is probably my website, which is rodriguezcommaj.com, comma is spelled out. I always thought was funny URL and it’s kind of become my online handle since then. I have my own newsletter. So if you want to subscribe and kind of keep up with me there, that’s awesome. I’m @rodriguezcommaj on Twitter. And for Litmus, definitely check out litmus.com, litmus.com/community is the community that we were talking about. It’s free to join. You can learn all kinds of stuff about email design, marketing, coding, all that stuff. And then, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention I realized my most recent book about email design and marketing back in November. So you can check that out. It’s thebetter.email/design. So it’s a full 225-page book. There’s over 6 hours of video lessons if you want to learn more about marketing and specifically design and development for email. Definitely check that out. But, yeah. Just hit me up on Twitter, website or litmus.com and I would love to chat.

Jonathan: And Jason’s very approachable, aren’t you?

Jason: Yeah. I hope so. Yeah.

Jonathan: Yeah, you are. It’s much appreciated, Jason.

Jason: Yeah. Thank you.

Jonathan: So before we wrap it up, if you want to get a hold of us at WP-Tonic, it’s really easy. Go to the WP-Tonic website. Go to our Facebook page as well. All the videos are on there and I’ll be adding some more content. If you really want to support the show, Twitter to Kinsta or buy one of their packages. Like I say, a great hosting company. And if you’re very generous, give us a review on iTunes, good, bad or indifferent. I always check them and I periodically read out our latest reviews and it really does help the show folks. Thank you for listening. We’ll be back next week with somebody doing something online that’s interesting. We’ll see you next week folks. Bye.

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