iContact's Big Blunder

   I've used iContact as my mailing list manager for about 2-1/2 years. They've recently made a huge strategic error: it's their new MessageBuilder. By being better than the old layout tool in some things and worse in others, it cripples the perception of both tools, and has me looking for alternatives to iContact.

   At first glance, MessageBuilder seems like a huge step forward because whereas the only real layout tool you had in their previous (2009 version) WYSIWYG editor was Tables, which are like spreadsheets. The weakness of Tables is that they can't be used to create a main content area and a sidebar, because everything on Row 2, for example, is forever tied to everything else on Row 2. If they'd let you put two tables side-by-side, that would solve the sidebar problem... but they don't.

   Enter MessageBuilder, where they've added Sections (headers, columns, footers, etc.) into which you can put Blocks into which you can put text and images. It's got a really nifty interface with a look and feel much nimbler than the 2009 WYSIWYG editor. It has only two problems, but they are glaring. What's the first thing you do when laying out a document that will be seen on the web? Often, you decide how wide it will be. What next?

   You decide how to subdivide that width. In other words, how wide will the columns be?

MessageBuilder inexplicably doesn't let you make either of those choices. The overall message width is fixed at 600 pixels in the template I'm using. Today, that's pretty narrow on most modern displays. And the only choice you have on sidebar width is "normal," which appears to be about 1/3 of the page, and "thin," which is maybe half that wide. In short, they're jamming you into their preset designs, and you have no choice.

   Tech support confirms that there's no way to change these widths. I don't know much HTML, but I know enough to change something simple like page width, so I opened the HTML edit window and changed it. But now, I can't reopen it in MessageBuilder because once you leave MessageBuilder, it "slams the door behind you." Tech support confirmed this inability as well.

   So now I've wasted a day trying to create the Original Green Curator. iContact, you've shown me all the nifty new stuff in MessageBuilder that the 2009 WYSIWYG editor can't do, so you've made the 2009 editor look bad. But because MessageBuilder can't do even this basic thing that you can do in about 10 seconds with the 2009 editor, I can't use MessageBuilder. So you've soiled both of your tools, and now I'm taking a serious look at your competitors like ConstantContact to see what they can do.

   What to do? Without doubt, fix MessageBuilder so it has these basic capabilities... and do it tomorrow, if not sooner! Until then, you're bleeding from the wound where you shot yourselves in the foot. The moral of this story is: don't make a new tool that's better in some things and worse in other things than the previous tool. Either make it superior on all counts, or make it the "quick & dirty" tool that can't do anything better than the full-feature version. But don't get it mixed up, like iContact has done.

Note: Since this was first posted, iContact has developed MessageCoder, which is an improved version of the old WYSIWYG editor. I also figured out a clever way to do headers, sidebars, and footers: Use tables only for body and sidebar, and use only one row in the table. So as you add content to the body and to the sidebar, each keeps getting longer just as it would do in MessageBuilder. Do headers and footers in regular text areas above and below the body/sidebar table.

© 2012 The Guild Foundation Press