HTML vs. Plain Text Email: Which Works Best and Why?

Curious to find out the difference between HTML and plain text email and which one is better? Here's a detailed HTML vs. plain text email rundown that will answer all your questions.

Robbie Fitzwater
Updated on

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 the customers receive tons of marketing emails daily/weekly/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 to stay on top of your email game to stand out from the pack? 

The answer lies in choosing the best email format according to your company goals, industry, and target audience.

But should you just pen down the text and click the send button, or include some attractive multimedia also? 

And like the typical marketer’s response, it depends. Really!

However, in this blog, we will put an end to this debate by finally answering all your questions related to plain text email vs. HTML. So buckle up and jump right in. 

Topics Covered in this blog: 

  1. What is Plain Text Email?
  1. Key Components of Plain Text Emails
  1. What is HTML email?
  1. Key Components of HTML Email
  1. HTML vs. Plain Text Email: a Comparative Analysis
  • Deliverability
    • Open and Click Through Rate
    • Which One Works Best for Ecommerce?
    • Which One Works Best for B2B?
  1. Final Verdict

What is Plain Text Email?

As the name suggests, plain text email only contains plain text, and there are no visual, stylized fonts and 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 of a customer 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 seperate plain text emails is the way they feel like a personal communication from one person to another, even if it is automated these still have a higher level of personal touch than most HTML emails. The personalization factor makes it 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

Personalization is essential to achieve 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. 

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 from their name. 

Where brands who really know their customers separate themselves is in the way they connect 1st 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…”

It is short message, you an 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.

I always say “content is king, but context is queen, and let’s be honest she’s the one who wears the pants in the relationship.”

Human Sender Name

Something as simple as “Salley @ Brand” or “Gary from Brand” goes a long way in separating itself in someone’s inbox. This small pattern interrupt gets noticed by subscribers and gets opened, plus 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 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 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, etc. 

Capitalizing the text or making it bold also helps lead a receiver to a particular behavior. 

Also, you need to make sure you have a few different options in your email for customers to click into it. 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 whatnot. 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 email is a type of email typically associated with getting from a brand. These are more designed emails and may have all sorts of multimedia. 

Moreover, the HTML email format offers more ways for the brands or businesses to pull the customers in. However, it may not be as personal, and it may not feel like a human in many cases. 

But it includes 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. 

As we mentioned earlier, it will not come across as human. But it works well, and you can include GIFs, colorful layouts, links to videos, and sites. 

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.

Why?

Because an HTML email on a mobile device may look different. Also, different email service providers may display that email differently. 

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, these help to convey that level of professionalism.

Still, I hate seeing businesses get stuck in the “We need to only use HTML email” trap 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:

Appealing Visuals

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 reads. 

Relevant and rich images do not only enhance your email’s performance. But they also leave a lasting impression of your products or services in the customer’s mind.

Some of the best practices of 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

Compelling CTAs

A CTA or 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 plus point 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 on it. 

Moreover, ensure that your CTA conveys the message clearly. It means that the email receiver should have a clear idea of what to do next. 

Relevant/Personalized Content

The more contextual the content is 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. This drives upsell and cross-sell opportunities which drive up average order value and lifetime value.

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 drive.

Mobile Friendliness

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 smartphones also. 

Your images, text, infographics, nothing should 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.

Plain Text VS. HTML Email: a Comparative Analysis

By now, you must have understood that what is the difference between HTML and plain text email: Visual content. 

So it’s now time to dig a little deeper and find out which email format HTML vs. text email, performs better in deliverability, open and click-through rate, e-commerce, and B2B brands. Read on!

Deliverability

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 differently 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 past the way the same spammy language may get flagged in the body of an email.

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 so the plain text can be a valuable tool in that process.

So if you are trying to get on Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, (insert email client’s) good side make plain text emails your friend.

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.

Open and Click-Through Rate

As an email marketer, you should always think about your audience and on what device they will be accessing your emails. 

Many businesses are moving towards a mobile-first design and layout because most of the audience is 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, on the contrary, the CTR and open rates are much better on the plain text side than HTML emails. 

Plain Text Email vs. HTML: Which One Works Best for Ecommerce?

As an eCommerce business, your ultimate goal of 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 make users irresistible to click on that Buy Now button. 

And guess what? You can easily achieve this by making use of HTML email format. 

So, all in all, 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 little bit 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.

Final Verdict

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 CTA’s 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. 

So next time someone asks you this question, you can show them this blog post. 

Is there anything I missed? Comment below!

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