HTML or Plain-text: Which email works better for you?

In the five years of being a marketer, I have witnessed a dramatic change in the marketing world, and it continues to change. One debate that has been constant throughout my years in this industry is – What works better: HTML or Plain-text emails?  

Every single time I have sat down to create an email campaign, I have wondered whether I should add more elements or remove them altogether. Every time I’ve received a crisp plain email or a minimal HTML marketing email, I’ve saved it in an ‘Ideal email’ tab. This persistent question led me to look into this and see if there is a clear winner. After going through hundreds of articles, it turns out marketing won’t be the same without either of them. 

One of my significant learnings in this ever-evolving marketing world is that one size doesn’t fit all, and it never will. Irrespective of how many strategies and best practices you come across, they will never have a 100% success rate. And as a marketer, it all comes down to experimenting and figuring out what works better for you and your brand.

But before we figure out which email works better for you, the first thing that you need to know is the objective behind the emails you are sending.

The objective of your email

As per the Radicati group, we would be sending and receiving an average of 126 emails every day in 2019. You have to agree that that’s a lot of emails exchanged daily. Every marketer is trying to break through the noise and leave a lasting impression on the receiver. While trying to make an impact, we seem to misplace the actual aim of email marketing.

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Emails are like web pages. Every element of an email has a precise aim – a crisp copy to put through your message, an obvious CTA to prompt an action, images/gifs/videos to instill brand tonality, a form to push for conversion, and so on. The outcome of all your email marketing efforts is to build and strengthen relationships via conversation. 

Every email you send can have one objective and one objective only. You cannot try to achieve five things with a single email. It can be either awareness, engagement, or conversion – but not all of them. Once you have your objective in mind, you will know which elements your email requires and what you can do without. This should answer whether you should be sending text emails or HTML emails, but let’s dive deeper to understand both of them.

HTML Emails

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. Web pages and emails are coded in HTML so that text can be formatted, and multiple elements can be added. This language lets HTML readers know how to render information.

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The incredible thing about HTML emails is that they can look like pretty much anything. If you can visualize it and can code in HTML, the sky is the limit. Do you want to add videos or a funny GIF? Do you want to test different shades of blue in CTA buttons, or want to add interactive elements like scratch-off codes and rollover effects – you can do it all. 

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Advantages of HTML email

    • You can design the emails to match your brand by using brand logos, colors, and fonts, and make the emails more recognizable.
    • You can add all kinds of visuals like images, GIFs, videos, etc., to give more context to your readers and create a more visually engaging experience.
    • HTML emails are easier to read since you can stress on what’s essential by changing the font or adding bold/italics.
    • HTML emails have a tracking ability when compared to Plain-text emails. So you can track if the email was opened by embedding an HTML snippet to your emails.
    • Readers nowadays want more personalized and relevant email content, which is only possible in HTML emails. In the case of eCommerce cart abandonment emails, customers seem to enjoy receiving dynamic product recommendations.
    • Apart from using general images and GIFS, you can also add emojis. They are entirely worth experimenting with. The use of emojis has seen a rise of 775% year-on-year in mobile and email marketing messages. 🙂
    • You can add all kinds of links to redirect people to your landing pages, which isn’t a possibility in the completely plain-text emails. All marketing emails must be sent with an opt-out link within each email, and HTML makes it a possibility.
    • With the right copy, flow, and visuals, HTML emails are capable of better storytelling.

I know this makes HTML sounds like a winner, but there are a lot of cons that come with it too.

Disadvantages of HTML email

    • Creating emails coded in HTML is a time-consuming process. The number of tos-and-fros between adding elements and previewing the email can get quite annoying. (To make this less tedious, most email providers now come with drag-and-drop elements. This saves a lot of time and doesn’t require you to have a deep understanding of HTML).
    • Not all email service providers (ESP) render HTML in the same way. For example, Apple mail uses Webkit rendering engine, Outlook uses Word rendering engine, and so on. So, the emails you send would not necessarily look the same for all the receivers.
    • Any email which is full of HTML formatting and images may be considered spam or promotional and don’t land in the primary inbox of the receiver. As a matter of fact, Gmail treats most HTML emails as commercial and send them directly to the ‘Promotions’ tab.
    • HTML emails have a higher chance for viruses or phishing scams and are likely to be caught by spam filters. Some antivirus software might strip all CSS styles from the email automatically.
    • If there are any broken HTML tags in your email, then the ESP or the user might mark that email as spam. This will inevitably hurt the deliverability of all the emails sent from that email ID.
    • As a default for many email programs, the display images in email option is turned off. In that case, all the images are replaced by placeholders, and the email looks much worse.

 

Despite the big cons of sending HTML emails, quite a few marketers prefer sending them. For good reason, I reckon. Since plain text emails will never create that sense of brand recall as HTML emails do. One great example is Apple emails – you look at one from a distance and know which brand it belongs to, instantly.

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Initially, marketers used to go bonkers about creating beautiful HTML emails with every new element possible. But now we know that prospects and customers don’t care much about what the email looks like. They are more concerned about what you are offering and if that is relevant. So focus on the objective of the email and remove all other distractions. 

Now, let’s look at Plain text emails.

Plain-text Emails

I prefer plain-text emails because of how personal they seem. As the name suggests, plain-text emails consist of regular text with no option to format it. Basically, no formatting, no images, no graphics. Conventional plain-text emails don’t even have links embedded in it.

Among all the color-filled visual newsletters that we receive regularly, plain-text emails might seem odd. But before ESPs started supporting HTML, all emails used to be plain-text emails. Plain-text emails used to be displayed in monospaced fonts (a font where the letters and characters take the same horizontal space, like the font for the typewriter).

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Plain-text emails are smaller in size and deliver faster. They usually work better when you are engaging in a one-on-one email conversation. According to many A/B testing results, plain-text emails have a 100% delivery rate

Advantages of Plain-text emails

    • Unlike HTML, all ESPs display plain-text emails the same. So you don’t have to worry about what they look like. ESPs routinely strip out elements from HTML email, which will never be the case with plain-text emails.
    • Since Plain-text emails are much smaller in size, they load very quickly. Even if you have a slow internet connection, opening a plain-text email will never be an issue.
    • Plain-text emails are much easier to read since they are free of distractions.
    • With the upsurge in wearable devices, plain-text emails are more adaptable. They will look alike on your smartwatches, fitness bands, and other devices. So as customer touchpoints evolve, the plain-text email doesn’t need to.
    • Plain-text emails face no technical issues since they won’t have broken images or links.
    • A plain text email feels more personal and intimate since it makes the receiver feel like its an exclusive correspondence.
    • Plain-text email push for better accessibility. Accessible or assistive technology is for differently-abled people. WebAIM surveyed preferences of screen reader users (used by people with low vision or who are blind) and found that 75.6% of the respondents rely exclusively on the screen reader’s audio. A plain-text email can be easily accessed by a blind person using a screen reader.

 

Disadvantages of Plain-text emails

There aren’t a lot of cons of plain-text emails, but:

    • Plain-text emails are untrackable, and you cannot analyze their performance since they aren’t embedded with a tracking code.
    • These emails lack visual appeal since they have no colors, images, or any formatting.
    • Since there is no formatting available, the Call to action does not stand out.
    • The traditional plain-text emails didn’t have any links. So you cannot redirect your readers to a particular landing page, which makes it challenging to push for conversions.

 

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To tackle the issues that come with both HTML and plain-text emails, now most marketers are going ahead with Plain-text stylized HTML emails or what most people call Hybrid emails.

Hybrid Emails

Hybrid emails are HTML emails but are designed to imitate plain-text emails. They have certain elements but minimal formatting. Most email marketing systems now have templates to generate plain-text HTML emails. With hybrid emails, you can ensure the readers resonate with the brand without making it look excessively promotional. 

Hybrid emails help you achieve the best of both. You can keep it simple while tracking your conversions. In fact, as per the CAN-SPAM Act, it is mandatory for you to embed an opt-out link in all your emails, and Hybrid emails make it possible. 

Have a look at this Hybrid email:

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The email is written from the tone of a real person and is very conversational despite being automated. You can create crisp plain-text stylized HTML emails, use a marketing automation software, set up some marketing journeys with when/if conditions, and prompt them based on events and triggers.

But, which email should I send?

Coming back to my learnings as a marketer – One size cannot fit all. There is no one way to go about it. As a general idea, if you are sending an email that is going from your brand (newsletters, product updates, etc.), you can stick to HTML emails. But if an individual is sending an email (sales inquiries, cold outreach, follow-ups) to the recipient, follow the plain-text emails. If you have an eCommerce brand or are selling a tangible product, then you can consider using HTML emails to showcase the products and make it highly aesthetic.

The answer lies within your data. As a marketer, you need to keep testing. Keep sending emails, keep tracking open rates and CTRs, and understand your recipients’ preferences. Irrespective of what you decide, always give your subscribers the option to receive plain-text versions of HTML emails as well.

Go on now. A/B test your emails with both versions and understand your subscribers better. Leave a comment if you think I missed out on something or drop me an email at radhika.chugh@freshworks.com.