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

I’ve read a lot recently about a resurgence in plain text email. Some email marketers have even promoted writing exclusively plain text emails instead of using HTML.

I wanted 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 use to make their email as visually attractive as possible. And it is sent as text/plain in the body of the email.

It includes no HTML whatsoever 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 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.

A little technical background on plain text email

An email message can include both HTML and a plain text content in the same email.

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 a plain text (text/plain) version and an HTML (text/html) version of your content.

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

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 edit the plain text version on the Plain Text tab of the email editor.

DailyStory plain text email editor

And while we don’t recommend writing only plain text email, we do recommend including plain text 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.

Some of the reasons why:

  • Accessibility is important – People who have difficulty reading may use accessibility features to read email. Although many readers are capable of reading HTML, it’s a good practice to provide an alternative just in case.
  • Increasing popularity of iOT, mobile devices, and smart watches – 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 your email as spam, the real culprit is link and image to content ratios. And email with lots of images and links, but very little content, is a red flag. But 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 plain text version of an email. And some clients are exclusively built for plain text email like Bat and Mutt. Although 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 reader 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, a best practice is to include only a synopsis and instead redirect them to an HTML version on your website.

The tactic that you should use as part of your email marketing strategy is to write HTML email that appears to be written as plain text.

Write HTML email that looks like Plain Text

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

  • Improved delivery – As an example, Gmail identifies HTML dense email as non-personal and therefore as 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 heavy with HTML 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 your send to your friends or co-workers – are easier to read. This is both because of substance and style. These emails are typically written less-formally and aren’t overloaded with links.
  • Readability on mobile devices – Following on the point earlier about mobility and 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.

Choosing 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 3 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 plain text. It may include basic styling like 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

Here is a simple example of a cold email written to appear as a plain text email. The objective here is for Anna 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
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 Written to the person. Written for the person. Written about the person.
Purpose Solicit a direct reply. Solicit a call-to-action. Solicit a call-to-action or is purely informational.
Reply Desired out come Optional Not expected

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

The key take aways from this article

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 where broad impersonal communication can use heavier HTML.

Share you tips and ideas – we’d love your feedback!