It’s been the great debate ever since email marketing first gained traction as a viable marketing tool:
What’s better? Plain text or HTML emails?
The answer – like many things in life – depends on who you ask and what they’re looking for.
But first, a refresher on plain text and HTML emails.
Plain text emails
Just like the title implies, a plain text email is just that: words and links.
No beautiful pictures.
No fancy graphics.
No big, bright buttons.
Plain text emails are about as basic as you can get. In appearance, they are totally no frills.
This means that each written word in a plain text email must be carefully chosen, crafted and used; because there are no images to support them or to entice users to click.
HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) emails is a combination of words, images and buttons.
In most cases, HTML emails have short bursts of text (maybe just a few lines).
This is because the pictures and the buttons do the heavy lifting when it comes to communicating the message and directing the recipient to click and convert.
For pure appearance, HTML emails look great. And, when done properly, they can look absolutely stunning.
Many retailers (think of websites which sell shoes, purses, clothes) which have an eCommerce component to them often use HTML emails to promote special offers or discounts to their subscriber base.
The great debate: Which is better?
Choosing the right email format for your business is one of the most challenging dilemmas email marketers face.
But it’s also crucial to establishing your brand and tone of voice when it comes to communicating with your customers via email and leading them to your website.
Now that we know the difference between plain text and HTML emails, let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
HTML – Pros
- Easier to track performance: HTML gives you more opportunities to measure metrics like open and clickthrough rates
- Branding opportunities: You can include your company’s logo and colours in an HTML email, which creates a professional look that’s easily recognizable and also establishes trust
- Social sharing: Everything has a social media share or like button on it, and HTML emails with share buttons have a clickthrough rate of 6.2% (vs 2.4% for emails without them)*
HTML – Cons
- Tricky to code: All those visual elements of HTML emails need to be coded properly, or else they’ll break and appear broken when users open them up
- Spam: Too many design elements will trigger an email’s spam radar and send it right to the junk folder
- Inconsistent appearance: Your HTML email may look great in Gmail, just okay Outlook and downright awful in Yahoo! – and there’s no real way to control that
Plain text – Pros
- Super-accessible: Any device and any email service provider will display plain text emails properly; plus they’ll reach the inboxes of people who choose to block HTML emails
- Consistency: No matter what device or email platform, a plain text email will always look the same
- Personalization: Taking time to carefully craft and send a plain text email gives the subscriber a sense that someone sat down and took time to write it, thus promoting engagement
Plain text – Cons
- They’re boring: The lack of pictures limits engagement and relies on the customer’s imagination to click; images can help prospects picture themselves with your product
- Tough to track: It’s tough (but not impossible) to track analytics like open rates in a plain text email, and if you can’t track open rates, you can’t track overall engagement
- Long, ugly links: Sometimes, to create a link in a plain text email, you’ll need to write out the URL instead of hyperlinking text – and tracked links can look long, confusing and intimidating
What do the numbers say?
The numbers are interesting, to say the least.
In 2014, Hubspot asked over 1000 people if they preferred HTML or plain text emails.
Almost 66% of respondents say they preferred HTML emails.**
In certain A/B email tests they ran, the plain text email outperformed HTML emails (measuring open rates) by 37%, 25% and 23%.**
So, what gives?
According to the statistics above, although people say they want fancy HTML emails, plain text emails perform better.
Why is that? Again, take a look at the cons of HTML emails:
- Spam filters can send HTML emails directly to the junk box
- Email service providers may not always show HTML images from certain email senders
- Tough to digest a busy email with a mixture of text and pictures
Does that mean I should never use HTML emails?
Of course not. As we’ve said throughout this blog post, email marketing is subjective.
If you have beautiful images you want to share (and encourage users to make a purchase from you via your website), then certainly HTML emails are a viable option.
Or, if you just want to include your logo to establish a brand identity that your email subscribers can trust, then by all means, use HTML.
But just remember the following tips:
- Less is more so don’t go overboard with images, GIFs, buttons and other responsive design elements
- Create a plain text version of the HTML email so that if it’s blocked, the plain text version will get through
- Make sure all elements work which means no missing buttons, broken images or incorrect links
Email marketing is the easiest, most affordable and most efficient way to speak to your customers on a regular basis.
But if that email doesn’t look good, sound good or if isn’t technically sound, it’ll never get read.
At WSI Milton, we’re experts in planning, executing and monitoring successful email marketing campaigns that delivers high open rates, click rates and conversions.