HTML vs. Plain Text Email: Which Works Best and Why?
Eager to start email marketing but still debating over HTML vs. plain text emails? Here's a detailed HTML vs. plain text email rundown that will answer all your questions.
The HTML vs. plain text email debate in the marketing world is far from settled. As email marketing professionals, we get these questions all the time: What’s the difference between plain text and HTML (or a designed) email? Which one is better? Which one works best in what situation?
While the answer to these questions may seem straightforward, the reality is different.
Let’s accept that customers receive tons of marketing emails daily, weekly, and monthly from people (both personally and for work), media entities, and brands.
Some of those emails might be from your competitors.
So how can you ensure you stay on top of your email game and stand out from the pack?
The answer lies in choosing the best email format according to your company goals, industry, and target audience. Marketing teams are typically faced with the HTML vs. plain text email debate and find strong opinions on both sides.
In this blog, we will answer all your questions regarding the HTML vs. plain text email debate so you can settle on the right one for your business. Let’s jump right in.
Topics covered in this blog:
- What is Plain Text Email?
- Key Components of a Good Plain Text Email
- What is an HTML email?
- Key Components of a Good HTML Email
- HTML vs. Plain Text Email: a Comparative Analysis
- HTML vs. Plain Text Email: Which One Works Best for Ecommerce?
- HTML Vs. Plain Text Email: Which One Works Best for B2B brands?
- Final Verdict on the HTML vs. Plain Text Email Debate
What is a Plain Text Email?
As the name suggests, plain text email only contains plain text without any formatting, and there are no images, stylized fonts, or embedded links. The plain text email is an email you typically send as an individual.
For example, sending an email to your boss will simply be a plain text email. Another example of a plain text email could be a customer rep having a one-to-one conversation to resolve an issue through email.
Plain text emails have a high level of deliverability because they are accessible to any email service provider. Moreover, these emails naturally look good in dark mode also.
What really separates plain text emails is the way they feel like personal communication from one person to another. Even if it is, automated plain text emails still have a higher level of personal touch than most HTML emails. The personalization factor makes them impactful, especially when people get so many emails every single day.
Key Components of a Good Plain Text Email
Here are the main components you should look for in a good plain text email:
Personalization is essential to achieving your desired goal from a plain text email. In fact, more than 70% of consumers say that they engage with personalized messages better.
And since we have no multimedia in plain text emails, personalization becomes more imperative since you can’t rely on flashy graphics.
Adding a personal touch to the email makes the email much more exciting and interesting for the receiver.
One way to add a personal touch to your plain text email is to greet the receiver with their name.
Brands who really know their customers separate themselves from their competitors in the way they connect first-party data and weave it into these communications.
“Hi Salley, Alex from (brand) here, I noticed you just made your (#purchases) purchase from us and I wanted to start off by saying thank you! We know as a (customer segment (ex: parent, grandparent, gift giver)) you have a lot of choices in (category) and we are so honored you would trust us again. I also wanted to make sure you knew that you have (#points) in your rewards account, that means you will have (#dollars) available so save off your next purchase…”
Even if it is a short email, you can still weave a lot of personalization into the message. This makes the email more relevant and contextual to the receiver. The more contextual the better the content will perform.
“Content is king, but context is queen, and let’s be honest she’s the one who wears the pants in the relationship.”Robbie Fitzwater
Human Sender Name
Something as simple as “Salley @ Brand” or “Gary from Brand” can help your email stand out in a customer’s inbox. This small interruption from the norm gets noticed by subscribers and gets opened, and over time your audience develops a unique relationship with the people behind the brand. Your brand may not be able to out-scale Amazon, but this is one way you can work to out-human them.
We’ve seen clients’ opens and clicks increase by 30-40% in some tests with this small change alone.
Clear and Concise CTA (Call to Action)
The next component that you should look for is a clear call to action, preferably with a link. In a plain text email, we want the receiver to take our desired action. The action may include visiting our website, checking out the podcast, registering for a demo, and more.
Capitalizing the text or making it bold also helps lead a receiver to a particular behavior.
You need to make sure you have a few different options in your email for customers to click into. That’s important because you can’t do a lot in terms of formatting or images in plain text emails.
Therefore, having a few of those components helps ensure that your plain text emails will be actionable and valuable.
What is an HTML email?
Unlike plain text emails, HTML emails contain graphical elements like compelling buttons, attractive images, videos, text formatting, and more. In other words, we can say that HTML emails are anything but plain. They can be created using custom coding or, in most cases, will be created using an email editor provided by your email service provider.
HTML emails are typically sent by brands to promote sales and other services. The HTML email format offers more ways for brands or businesses to pull customers in. However, they may not be as personal, and they may not feel like they’re coming from a human in many cases.
HTML emails include a lot more user-friendly, engaging components that people enjoy. That is the reason you see many businesses using this as a means to reach people, get them to convert, and give them multiple options in terms of how they’re going to engage with that email.
Most businesses use HTML emails to get people to click on the email and take their desired action. This offers many more options like buttons and colorful layouts, but again, it has a few drawbacks.
For instance, you will have to design an HTML for both dark and light modes.
Because an HTML email on a mobile device may look different. Also, different email service providers may display that email differently than you designed it.
Nevertheless, people usually think of HTML emails as business-specific emails (people typically don’t design emails to send to their friends). So, if your business wants to feel a little bit more buttoned up or established, HTML emails help to convey that level of professionalism.
Still, I hate seeing businesses get stuck in the trap of solely using HTML emails because it doesn’t leave as much room for the humanity of the business to come through. That human connection will drive customer lifetime value up way better than perfectly designed emails.
Key Components of a Good HTML Email
Here are some of the essential components that make a good HTML email:
When it comes to conversion and branding, graphical content plays an important role. You should always create attractive images and infographics to capture the attention of your readers.
Relevant and rich images not only enhance your email’s performance but also leave a lasting impression of your products or services in the customer’s mind.
Some of the best practices for including an email in your HTML emails:
- Your images should complement the text included in your email
- Do not forget to add alt text, title text, and links to your images
- Compress your images and do not make them too large
A CTA or multiple CTAs will be the most important part of your HTML email. Through a CTA, you will be inviting your prospect to take a certain action.
The benefit of using an HTML email format is that you can add CTA buttons with appealing designs and fancy fonts. This can be a crucial factor in making the user click.
Moreover, ensure that your CTA conveys the message clearly. The email receiver should have a clear idea of what to do next.
The more contextual the content is to the recipient, the more valuable that email is going to be and the better it will perform. So, recommending products that your customers may also like based on previous orders is an easy way to add some unique customization. These upsell and cross-sell opportunities which drive up average order value and lifetime value over time.
Similarly, if you are sending a blog post as a piece of content, you can embed a link to a similar post in that email.
The more customized the email is perceived to be for the recipient, the more value and engagement your HTML emails will have.
According to statistics, 1.7 billion users open emails on mobile devices, and 0.9B open them on desktops. So while designing HTML emails, make sure to optimize your emails for mobile devices also.
Your images, text, and infographics should not look bloated to mobile users as it can be a deal-breaker. Therefore, before sending these emails, make sure to test them first. And even prioritize a mobile-first design before your desktop design.
For many B2B audiences, desktop may be more common but mobile is becoming more and more common across the board.
HTML vs. Plain Text Email: a Comparative Analysis
Now that we’ve identified the main difference between HTML and plain text emails, it’s time to dig a little deeper and find out which email format performs better for deliverability, open and click-through rate, e-commerce, and B2B brands.
HTML vs. Plain Text Email: Which Stacks up Better In Terms of Deliverability?
Since HTML emails contain graphical content, they require more bandwidth than plain text emails to load. However, emails may be picked up or may display differently on different service providers.
It can trigger a spam filter if you only add images and links to an email because spammers have found that this is an easy way to hide content they want to get past the inbox crawlers. If Gmail can’t read it, it may get flagged as spam and your audience will never see it.
Moreover, other essential factors in email deliverability are the sender’s reputation and email engagement rates. If you are a trusted sender with a high level of engagement, your emails are more likely to avoid the spam folder.
Plain text emails really show you have nothing to hide, and in most cases, we’ve seen plain text emails hitting Gmail inboxes sooner in the warming process than HTML emails. Moving from the promotions/newsletter tab to the inbox tab should be a goal of any email marketer, and plain text can be a valuable tool in that process.
So if you are trying to get on Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, and any other email client’s good side, add plain text emails to your arsenal.
One hack we’ve had success with for our clients is using a little bit of both email formats to create what we call a “hybrid” template email.
Having only HTML components or images isn’t always the best strategy because it’s not as transparent as certain email providers like Gmail or Yahoo want it to be. Alternatively, you can use a blend of both formats too.
So, in the case of HTML vs. plain text email, plain text emails win out over HTML in terms of deliverability.
Open and Click-Through Rate (CTR)
As an email marketer, you should always think about your audience and how they’ll be accessing your emails.
Many businesses are moving towards a mobile-first design and layout because most of their audience is primarily opening emails on mobile.
If you’re a B2B business, you may have more desktop openers, but typically, most businesses have a higher open rate on mobile. Optimizing for the mobile user generally is the default because if it’s going to work on mobile, it will also work on the desktop.
This is where HTML emails can fall flat and may not be as readable. Why? Because they can have that text overlaid on an image block that may be slightly smaller when it’s compressed in the mobile or on a different device.
It may not necessarily be as easily readable on mobile all the time. So if you’re going with HTML format, make sure to adjust the size and contrast of the images and test it a few times before putting it into action.
However, the CTR and open rates are much better on the plain text side than HTML emails. So again, we see plain text emails take the lead in the HTML vs. plain text email debate.
Plain Text Email vs. HTML: Which One Works Best for Ecommerce?
As an e-commerce business, your ultimate goal in sending an email is to direct users to your products.
While your intent will be to drive a transaction through email, you must provide the receiver with multiple options. As an e-commerce store, your goal would be to make the user click on your products or get them intrigued in general.
For this transactional purpose, you must include images of products you want customers to purchase. Moreover, you would also want compelling fonts and well-designed CTA buttons to compel users to click on that Buy Now button.
And guess what? You can easily achieve this by making use of HTML email format.
So, in the HTML vs. plain text email debate, the HTML email format takes the lead when it comes to the e-commerce industry.
HTML Vs. Plain Text Email: Which One Works Best for B2B brands?
Typically when you’re thinking about a B2C business, you’re assuming that’s going to be an HTML email, which is a little more designed than a plain text email.
But when you think about the B2B side, you expect a more straightforward email. Although such emails may appear less exciting and designed, B2B businesses still prefer plain text emails.
Because in B2B, one business communicates with another, and consumers are not directly involved. Hence, such communications do not require any bells and whistles to be included in the email.
So, in the HTML vs. plain text email debate, we find that plain text emails are better for B2B situations.
Final Verdict on the HTML vs. Plain Text Email Debate
Whether it’s a plain text email or an HTML email, both have their pros and cons.
HTML emails may work better for some marketing purposes as they can bring images, concepts, and CTAs to life.
On the other hand, plain text emails create a uniquely human experience for brands and that personal touch goes a long way in both a B2B and B2C context.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the outcome you want to create, the industry you are in, and the audience you are targeting.
I think some of the best work comes from a blend of both, but it will take testing and experimenting to find out what balance works best for your business/brand.
I hope that this rundown of HTML vs. plain text email has equipped you with enough knowledge to understand which one is better for you.