Plain text or HTML email – which to use in your next campaign

plain-text-email

Plain text emails focus on content versus design.

We’ve read a lot recently about a resurgence of plain text email. And, some email marketers even promote writing exclusively plain text emails instead of using HTML.

We at DailyStory want to share some of the research we’ve done and the recommendations we give our customers.

What is a plain text email?

A plain text email is devoid of images, colors, styles, tables and everything else marketers typically use to make emails as visually attractive as possible. It then sends as text/plain in the body of the email.

It includes no HTML, and any HTML that was included is stripped out.

Below is an example when viewing the raw email content:

An example of a plain text email

Should you send plain text-only emails?

No, you shouldn’t. And writing plain text-only emails is terrible advice.

With today’s modern email clients, there is no reason to send a plain text-only email.

Why?

Because writing an email that isn’t overloaded with images, colors, and styles can be a solid strategy for connecting with your intended audience.

Confused? Let’s dig in a little deeper.

Technical background on text/plain email

An email message can include both HTML and plain text content in the same email. And, some email clients now support a third option, AMP content.

This is called Multi-part MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions).

Don’t let the technical jargon scare you. All it means is your email may contain two versions: a plain text (text/plain) version and/or an HTML (text/html) version of your content.

Note that we said “versions” and not “copies.” This is because the text/plain and the text/html content can be different.

Mail clients can be (but usually are not) configured to only display plain text. In fact, configuring an email client to only display plain text is a lot of work.

And most email marketing platforms, including DailyStory, enable you to set both the HTML and plain text versions of your content.

For example, in DailyStory, you can switch between tabs to edit your HTML or text content (or use the drag-and-drop HTML designer).

DailyStory plain text email editor

While we don’t recommend sending plain-text emails, we do still recommend including the content in your email.

Always include plain-text content with your HTML content

You should always include an edited plain-text version of your content in your email in addition to your HTML content. The following are some of the reasons why.

Accessibility is important

People who have difficulty reading for any reason can use accessibility features to read email. Although many readers are capable of reading HTML, make sure to provide an alternative just in case.

Increasing popularity of Internet of Things (IOT), mobile devices, and smartwatches

Including plain text versions of your email content is important to ensure these devices properly display your content in alerts and notifications. Some devices may not have a browser built in to parse HTML content.

Decreased spam score

While some older anti-spam platforms have the ability to flag HTML-only versions of emails as spam, the real culprit is link and image to content ratios. Email with lots of images and links (but very little content) is a red flag. But your sender score and properly configured SPF and DMARC are much more important as it relates to spam scoring.

Some people do choose plain text

Some email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, provide an option for users to only display the text-only version of an email. And some clients are exclusively built for plain text emails, such as Bat and Mutt. But keep in mind that users of these clients are not the target audience for most marketers.

As an example, SPAM Assassin, a popular Open Source anti-spam platform includes a rule MIME_HTML_ONLY. This rules triggers when an email message “only has text/html MIME parts” and is missing a text/plain alternative.

It should be noted that while the points about people choosing plain-text email readers are a real possibility, they are remote and the exception. The majority of modern email clients only display HTML.

While we recommend including content in the plain-text section of your email body, this content doesn’t need to be an exact copy of your HTML version. In fact, you should include only a summary and instead redirect them to an HTML version on your website.

The tactic that you should use as part of your email marketing strategy involves writing HTML emails that appear to be written as plain text.

Write HTML email that looks like Plain Text

So, what is the reason for writing an email that looks like a plain-text email?

  • Improved delivery: As an example, Gmail identifies HTML-dense emails as non-personal and thus less important. Because of this, it filters those emails to the “Everything else” category or worse, as “Spam.” This makes these messages more difficult to find.
  • It looks more personal: Email that isn’t HTML-heavy is perceived to be more personal. Because of this, it has a higher open rate than HTML-heavy emails.
  • It is easier to read: Simple emails – such as the ones you send to your friends or co-workers – are easier to read. This is both because of substance and style. Expect these emails as less formally written and not overloaded with links.
  • Readability on mobile devices: Related to mobility and the Internet of Things (IOT), more and more people read emails on mobile devices. And reading complex HTML emails on mobile devices can be frustrating.
  • Support for linked text: HTML email can use anchors to hide complex links. And the links can be as long and complex as required to capture click tracking data. A plain text-only email can’t use links and must include the full URL.
  • Track when the email is opened: Embedded tracking tags enable your email marketing platform to detect when an email is opened or viewed. This is only possible with HTML email.
  • Brand affirmation and identity: Logos and brand colors ensure that the recipient quickly identifies with the brand. This can create a level of trust beyond what can be accomplished with plain-text email.

Hopefully, by now, you realize that the best strategy is to use varying levels of HTML in your email marketing.

How much HTML to use in your email

We’ve laid out the case for HTML email and to avoid plain text-only email. Next, let’s talk briefly about how much HTML you should use.

For the sake of simplicity, we’ve identified three categories.

In reality, there is a continuum of very light HTML to very heavy HTML. The guidance below should give you a general idea of where you need to be based on your objectives.

  • Plain HTML email: HTML formatting used to look like it is text only. It may include basic stylings, such as bold text and links. An image may be included as part of the signature.
  • Light HTML email: Light HTML formatting. Typically a logo or other image, and some light formatting beyond a plain HTML email.
  • Heavy HTML email: HTML formatting that makes no attempt to appear as plain text. Typically with lots of images, colors, and laid out with tables.

Let’s look at some examples.

Plain HTML email

Check out this simple example of a cold email below that’s written to appear as a simple email. The objective here is for Anna, your recipient, to click the link or reply to the email.

Light HTML email

Here is a simple example of an email with light HTML markup. We’ve included images and some light styling.

Heavy HTML email

Here is an example of an HTML email that makes heavy use of HTML.

Choosing when to write a plain HTML email, light HTML email, or heavy HTML email depends on several factors:

  • Sender: Is this email sent from an individual or an alias?
  • Audience: Is the email meant to appear personal or impersonal?
  • Personalization: Is the email personalized to the recipient?
  • Purpose: Is the email communicating status or requiring an action?
  • Reply: Is a response required from the email?

Deeper dive into factors for the amount of HTML used

Plain HTML Email Light HTML Email Heavy HTML Email
Sender Appears to come from a person, e.g. anna@example.com Appears to come from a person, but on behalf of an application, e.g. anna@example.com Clearly comes from an application, e.g. orders@example.com
Audience Personal, one-to-one communication. One-to-one communication, but more formal. One-to-many communication. Formal.
Personalization Speaking to the person. Written for the person. Written about the person.
Purpose Solicit a direct reply. Generate a call-to-action. Solicit a call-to-action or is purely informational.
Reply Desired outcome Optional Not expected

Recommendation: For HTML-heavy emails where you don’t expect a reply, don’t use a no-reply email address.

Key points

Instead of writing plain text-only email, write HTML-light email. The majority of modern email clients all support HTML, and there are many benefits from even light use of HTML.

Always include a plain-text version of your email content along with your HTML version. The plain-text version should be a synopsis and ideally references a URL.

Choose the right amount of HTML to use depending on factors, such as the audience and the purpose of the message.

Personal communication should be light on HTML whereas broad impersonal communication can use heavier HTML.

Share your tips and ideas. We’d love your feedback!

DailyStory can help you optimize your email marketing. Our platform features dynamic audience segmentation, automation features, and more. Schedule your free demo with us today.

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