Roland Pokornyik
Roland Pokornyik 6 December 2016

Choosing between Plain Text & HTML Email

Deciding between plain text and HTML for email marketing is widely debated, for good reason. Both approaches offer unique advantages and disadvantages to your end users. When deciding on your approach, the important thing to consider as the email marketer is the type of message you are presenting to the audience.

I was born in '85 and I sent my first email around '96. Back then, I had no idea that today I would be neck-deep in email marketing and email design.

I think it was around 2006 when I first struggled with editing an HTML email. As I'm not a developer, I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I got used to it.

I hardly understood the reasons for all those rendering issues. Why did my email look different in Outlook on my computer or in Yahoo Mail? It was a mess, and unfortunately the situation is still a bit similar.

I don't want to tell the story of my life in these blog posts, don't worry. What I do want is to give you a clear understanding of email design from A to Z.

There are tons of articles on the web talking about email marketing and email design, but you can hardly find a collection of articles that will truly help a non-techie email marketer understand the tech part of email design.

This is why I decided to come up with an article series which will help a non-techie email marketer to truly understand how those fancy responsive email templates work.

Before we would dive into responsive emails, let's jump back in time and start with a brief history of email, just to put us on the same page.

The History Behind Plain Text & HTML Email

Deciding between plain text and HTML for email marketing is widely debated, for good reason. Both approaches offer unique advantages and disadvantages to your end users.

Plain text is regarded as an appropriate approach for personal, text heavy messages. In contrast, the HTML approach offers visually appealing emails that are easier for users to scan through and digest.

When deciding on your approach, the important thing to consider as the email marketer is the type of message you are presenting to the audience.

Plain Text Approach vs. HTML Email

The plain text approach involves only text - no formatting, no links, and no images. Unsurprisingly, this approach produces a more personal, 1-on-1 message for your users.

The following image is an example of an almost plain text based email conversation:

Yes it's me talking to myself. Don't worry I don't do it regularly. :) I just wanted to show you the difference between a true plain text email (1st email) and one with basic HTML (2nd email).

What really is HTML? It is a markup language that is used to create web pages, web applications and email templates as well with formatted text, images, and links.

The goal of HTML emails is to add a little spice to your messages - like links, images, text styles, colors, etc.

These days even the simplest messages are HTML based. For example, the link and the italic styling in my email above show that HTML was used to create this message.

There are almost unlimited possibilities when using HTML. The following email was created with Chamaileon builder. The software generates the robust responsive email code (which includes HTML and CSS).

If you want to create similar, visually rich responsive email templates, you will need to use both HTML and CSS.

But maybe you don't have to. Plain text or very basic HTML (like my 2nd email) emails might work better in your industry.

What are the advantages of plain text?

  • Higher chance of delivery to primary inbox in Gmail. As promotional messages were once full of images, emails with plain text or basic HTML are less likely to be recognized as spam.

  • The rise of wearable devices. Smartwatches can only display text, so the future might favor plain text emails or HTML based emails with a plain text option.

  • Personal communication. Email is often perceived as a one-on-one conversation, so plain text gives a personal touch to your message.

What are the disadvantages of plain text?

  • Unable to track open rates. A key component of email marketing is being able to monitor the impact of each campaign. Unfortunately, you cannot track open rates or enable click tracking in plain text emails. This makes it difficult to track the success of a campaign that employs the plain text approach.

  • Minimal designs and customization. As the features of plain text do not include colors, formatting, and graphics, the resulting email will lack visual impact.

  • Unable to display links. Any URLs included in the message must be fully typed out, which can create visual clutter for the end users.

  • Hard to break into sections. An email written in plain text may be difficult to divide into easy to read sections due to the lack of visual organization.

  • Unable to achieve multiple-column formatting. The lack of formatting options in the plain text approach prevent multi-column formatting from being an easy task.

When is HTML preferred?

There's no denying that the plain text approach produces simple, visually unappealing messages. In a world dominated by images, HTML is often necessary to communicate a message to your audience.

There are several advantages to using HTML, including:

  • Higher conversion rates. Typically, HTML based emails have higher rates of conversion when compared to their plain text counterparts in industries such as eCommerce.

  • Visually appealing emails can be easily accomplished by incorporating brand images, logos, links, and colors into HTML based emails.

  • Dynamic and personalized emails. With the information you collect about clients' interests, you have the power to send custom content straight to their inbox. Matched with the variety of formatting options in HTML, the resulting possibilities are endless.

  • Emails are easier to scan, because HTML based emails can be effectively organized into digestible sections.

  • Clickable links and buttons, allowing your audience to easily take action upon receiving your message.

  • The ability to track open rates exists only when HTML is used. When attempting to gauge the success of your campaign, it is necessary to consider open rates. Click tracking can be enabled through HTML to understand what your audience clicks.

Comparing Basic HTML to Complex HTML

What happens when we compare basic HTML to complex HTML emails? Does this difference affect your subscribers?

ProImpact7's Study: In a study done by ProImpact7, two similar emails were tested on 100,000 opt-in users to determine which copy was more effective in engaging customers.

The content of the emails remained the same, while they differed in the way they were presented. The content of Version A was presented using rich HTML - clickable links, buttons, graphics, and multiple-column format. Version B was presented in basic HTML - clickable links, and basic text formatting.

In the following image, which copy do you think was more successful - Version A or Version B?


If you guessed correctly, Version B was more effective in engaging customers. Compared to the HTML rich Version A, the basic HTML utilized in Version B increased visits to the website by 194.51%.

HubSpot's Study: In a similar study done by HubSpot, the authors found that the more HTML-rich an email was, the lower the open rate. The authors compared an email written in basic HTML to emails with varying levels of HTML.

One thing was consistent - messages with simpler HTML had higher open rates than HTML rich emails. Why?

The HTML heavy emails were less likely to arrive in a user's primary inbox due to various filters set up by email providers.

In the following example, a basic HTML template was compared with a heavy HTML template. By increasing the amount of HTML in the email, the open rate decreased by 23%.


Know Your Audience

While both options have specific strengths and weaknesses, how do you know which approach is better for your audience?

Get to know the interests and preferences of your audience in the following ways:

  • Engage your audience by asking for their input about what they would like to see in their inbox

  • Use a form to collect your users' preferences when they initially sign up on your website

  • Create and issue a survey to your email list to gather information

  • Include "Yes" and "No" buttons, or a rating scale to allow users the opportunity to quickly provide feedback on the email

If you are still in doubt about which approach to take - test, test, test.

Super Personalized Responsive HTML Emails = Future Email Marketing

The integration of HTML into email marketing allows for advanced personalization of content. Now, dynamic content that is behavior based for example, can be readily distributed to your subscribers. It's now easier than ever to tailor your messages based on users' preferences - making it clear that HTML is here to stay.

Plain text still has a purpose - but according to Mathew Sweezey, the author of Marketing Automation for Dummies, it is recommended to reserve plain text for 1-on-1 messages with your audience.

With the endless possibilities to produce personalized, dynamic content, the future of email marketing seems to be paved with HTML.

This article is the first piece in our series about email design. Below you can check out others, all dealing with a specific topic.

  1. Choosing between Plain Text and HTML Email
  2. Limitations of HTML Email Design - Width and Size
  3. Limitations of HTML Email Design - Video, Fonts, Javascript, Flash and others
  4. Understanding Email Layout and Structure
  5. 19 Reasons Why Your Emails Should Be Mobile-friendly
  6. What do Scalable, Mobile-aware, Fluid, Responsive and Hybrid Email Design Mean?
  7. 10+ Sites to Check for Email Design Inspirations?
  8. Collection of 1000+ Free Responsive Email Templates to Help you Start with Email Design
  9. Where to Find Free Resources for Your Next Email Template?
  10. Top 10 Responsive Email Builder Tools - In-depth comparison with videos

In the forthcoming 9 articles we'll go through the ins-and-outs of email design to help non-technical email marketers understand HTML email like never before.

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