— June 13, 2018
If your job security hinges on your ability to disseminate marketing messages via email, then there’s nothing academic about the debate between plain-text and HTML email. And despite what many might think, and despite the fact that it’s been ongoing for almost 20 years, the debate is far from settled. Even small differences in performance between the two can still loom large when they’re magnified across thousands of emails.
While there is no smoking gun proving inarguable superiority of one over the other, the research still tips slightly in the direction of plain text. Even though HTML and plain text share virtually the same open rates, plain text has been shown to produce better click-through rates. As recently as 2017, Marketo’s research showed plain text emails had 17 percent higher CTRs than HTML emails.
While plain text emails appear to have a statistical edge, they are far from an ideal branding vehicle. HTML emails provide a more expansive canvas for marketers aiming for eye-catching emails that maintain brand consistency. And when it comes to brand loyalty, that consistency is the top priority for as many as 41 percent of consumers.
Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of each format:
Plain-text email — 100 percent deliverability?
A/B testing results indicate that plain-text emails offer 100 percent deliverability. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Yet most marketing teams send primarily HTML.
The thing is, that impressive number doesn’t reflect the fact that many of those delivered emails end up in spam folders. True, HTML can trigger filters, too, but that high deliverability rate for plain text represents only a small part of the picture. Open rates, for instance, are more difficult to track with plain text.
Deliverability aside, marketers sometimes also use plain-text emails strategically, to create a more personal and intimate vibe. The average person receives 121 emails a day and they may be more apt to dismiss messages that appear too overtly commercial. But when a customer contacts support, the response email tends to be plain-text, leading them to pay closer attention because the message is specific, personal, and expected. Customers might also perceive other plain-text emails, marketing or transactional, in the same way, making them more likely to open, read, and click.
Plain text also has fewer technical issues. There’s very little code to worry about, zero chance of broken images, and little else that can go wrong to reflect poorly on a brand. There’s also no risk that an email client won’t support your message, as can happen with HTML.
And with the rise of wearables and IoT devices, plain text is more adaptable to new formats, smaller screens, and evolving customer touch points.
HTML email — a better branding vehicle
If you stopped reading now, you might be tempted to start converting your entire email program to plain text. But don’t be too hasty. There’s more to a successful email than deliverability.
One criticism of plain-text emails — heard from both businesses and customers — is that the absence of anything to visually differentiate one brand from another makes the messages virtually anonymous. An email from a startup and one from a blue-chip stalwart can look much the same. An HTML email, on the other hand, allows for the use of logos, images, and fonts to match the company website, making the communication, and the brand that sent it, instantly recognizable.
The use of images in email can also increase CTRs, if the image is particularly compelling. At the very least, images tend to make an email more eye-catching and a good image-to-text ratio makes the email easier to scan quickly. HTML emails can also better highlight calls to action, leading the customer to click through visual cues rather than through text alone.
Another advantage HTML has over plain text is in the richness it can bring to personalization. Customers want personalized, relevant email content and such content — dynamic product recommendations in an order confirmation, for example — is only possible in HTML.
And let’s face facts: plain-text emails are just plain ugly. They can also be perceived as unpolished and unprofessional.
Why not both?
The good news is that it’s not an either/or proposition. Most template managers allow you to generate a plain-text version of an HTML email, leaving the choice in the recipient’s hands upon delivery.
But that is, to be honest, a lazy approach. While you may end up with a text version of your email, it will be far from optimized. Unless you put some effort into the text versions, your links will be horrific to look at, formatting will be awful, images will be lost, and all your dynamic elements will be rendered useless.
One alternative that is growing in popularity is to use HTML templates that act as a kind of wrapper for emails that otherwise look like plain text. These templates ensure an email is on-brand and has the clean, polished look that customers expect, without looking excessively promotional.
The answer, as always, lies within your data. Smart marketers know to test, test, and test again to determine which your customers prefer. And keep testing so you’re not caught unaware if those preferences change. That’s the best — and arguably the only — way to settle the HTML versus plain text debate once and for all.