Plain Text vs HTML Emails: Which Should You Choose?

It’s a debate that’s been going on for more than a decade, with many swearing by either side. But, there is a right answer, and it’s not quite as clear cut as many would hope.

In this blog post, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about plain text and HTML emails, and help you choose the right format for your email.

HTML vs Plain Text: What’s the Difference?

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the differences between plain text emails and HTML emails.The simplest explanation is that an HTML will contain images and colors while a plain text email contains no images, no graphics, and no formatting.

Here is an example plain text email:

And here is an example HTML email:

Now, it’s important to note that many mistakenly call HTML emails with minimal formatting plain text emails. These emails will actually be HTML, but are designed in a way that they appear to be sent as if coming from a colleague or friend. They’ll feature no or very minimal use of graphics and simple text formatting. Here’s an example of that:

We’ll call these hybrid emails because even though they are not exactly a plain text email, they do imitate plain text emails.

Pros and Cons of Each Email Type

Now that we have an understanding of each type of email, let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Plain text email pros

  • All email clients display plain text emails the same, ensuring consistent delivery.
  • The message appears to be more personal, and not automated.
  • Some devices like the apple watch handle plain text better than HTML.

Plain text email cons

  • Significantly decreased ability to track emails sent.
  • No colors, graphics, or formatting. Emails may lack a visual appeal.
  • Harder to make call to actions stand out.

HTML email pros

  • Best tracking ability.
  • Colors, graphics, and formatting can be used, adding visual appeal and highlighting products.
  • Call to actions can be made more prominent with buttons, fancy formatting, and more.

HTML email cons

  • Some email clients and devices don’t handle HTML well (if at all) resulting in a jumble of code.
  • Images and graphics may be blocked by default in some email clients.
  • Too many HTML elements may be linked to placement in spam and promotions folders.

Hybrid email pros

  • Message still appears personal and handwritten.
  • Easier to scan for recipients.
  • Retains HTML’s tracking ability.

Hybrid email cons

  • Still HTML, so some email clients may not handle it well. Luckily it’s easy to send a plain text version alongside the HTML version.

Performance Comparisons

Now we’ll get to the juicy bits, performance comparisons. We’ll look at how the different emails performed in terms of open rates and clicks.

HubSpot did their own A/B testing and came to some interesting conclusions. They’ve compared hybrid emails (referred to as plain-text) and various types of HTML emails. Here are their findings:

This one is the most surprising, as many - myself included, believed that GIFs could be powerful tools for promoting engagement in email. After all, they’ve made their way into everything from social media to text messaging, but when it comes to email they decrease open rates by 37%!

HubSpot reasoned that the decrease in open rates could have to do with email clients failing to load the email. That could be - and if it’s the case, we may see GIFs become more effective in email marketing as email clients adapt to GIFs.

In another test, they compared plain text (again a hybrid email, it’s still HTML, just features minimal formatting) with an HTML template that uses images and call to actions. Again, the email with more visual elements performed worse than the email without any graphics or images. 

In one other test, they compared an email with minimal HTML formatting to a heavily formatted template containing images/call to actions. Again, there was a drop with the more complex email. HubSpot reasoned that the change has to do with deliverability, so they went on to do one more test.

For HubSpot’s last test, they compared the click rate of emails based on the number of images within. While there are a few dips and rises, the trend is clear: more images = less conversions. But why is this? Afterall, images on social media perform much better than just text posts and are generally considered to be “click magnets”.

Explaining the lower performance of HTML emails

According to HubSpot, the trend has to do with email clients ever changing filtering systems. They believe that the number of HTML elements contribute to whether or not the email is considered spam or promotional. An email with heavy HTML formatting and several images may be deemed promotional and thus never seen by the subscriber.

But, I believe the cause to be deeper. Image tags and HTML-rich templates may be flagged more often, but that may only be a small piece of the puzzle. A bigger piece has to do with the behavior of recipients and their expectations of email in general.

Today’s average inbox is flooded with more than 100 emails a day, but it wasn’t always that way. Email, originally, was a platform for 1-to-1 interaction. You’d email your friends, family, and co-workers. Maybe you’d get the occasional forwarded funny email, but most of the time, your email was used to communicate.

Nowadays, email is seen as more of a promotional avenue. Consumers exchange their emails for discounts and notifications of sales. This led to marketers creating more flashy and salesy emails, but the heart of email isn’t flashy or salesy. Instead it’s that aspect of 1-to-1 communication.

This is where HTML emails fall short. They may look nice, and subscribers may say they want those emails, but the truth is that they’re looking for what feels like a 1-to-1 interaction.

So, the answer is to use plain text emails?

Well… Not exactly. This is why I said it’s not a clear cut debate in the opening paragraph. Plain text (or more specifically, hybrid emails) may perform better for HubSpot, but that’s not the case for everyone.

There is the possibility of lower engagement rates when using hybrid emails or plain text emails. Derek Halpern from DIYThemes shares: “In my experience, when you send the full text, you get less comments, less social media shares, and overall, LESS interaction with your subscribers.”

While his experiences don’t necessarily line up with other’s results it’s an important reminder: every business, and every audience is different. Because of this, there is no clear cut winner in this debate. 

For a B2B company, a plain text may make more sense. It’s being sent to an inbox in which the recipient expects 1-to-1 communication. However, in the case of an eCommerce company, an HTML email may make more sense. Subscribers are expected images in that case and sending an email without them could be jarring and result in less clicks.

Conclusion

So, with all that said, here’s the answer to the 10+ year old debate: In email, less is more. This doesn’t mean that you should always send hybrid/plain text emails. However, there does need to be a change in the way you write/design your emails. For each element, ask yourself if it’s actually crucial.

Additionally, to get the answer of whether HTML emails are better or worse than plain text emails, you need to A/B test. There’s no other substitute. As we pointed out earlier, what works for HubSpot may not work for other companies with different audiences. So start testing. Take a similar approach to HubSpot and test the following situations:

  • Plain text vs GIFs
  • Plain text vs Images/Graphics (light HTML)
  • Light HTML vs Heavy HTML
  • And Low Image Count vs High Image Count

Following this testing framework, you’ll get a pretty good idea of how your audience responds to different email types. It may also be a good idea to follow up with a brief survey asking what they liked and disliked about the more popular email. This can help you combine both data with how the recipients feel. An important factor for establishing a good relationship between subscribers and your brand!

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