The Big Debate of Plain Text vs. HTML Email Templates

Plain Text vs. HTML Email Templates

Every email marketer’s dream: you send out an email to your target audience, and a high number of recipients open the email, click and act on it to benefit your business. Open and click-through rates (CTRs) are everything in the email marketing universe.

As a hotshot email marketer, how do you stay ahead of the game in a constantly evolving landscape? One of the most hotly debated topics in the email marketing universe continues to be plain text emails versus HTML email templates.

A quick recap of the debate:

Plain text emails are the kind of emails you send to your colleagues, family or friends. It’s a simple, personalized email, comprising mostly of text without any enhancements - no images or media, call-to-action-buttons, or links and tracking, completely basic.

From a marketer’s perspective, plain text emails are easy to design with minimum chances of error, and therefore can be created as frequently as required.

Plain text email template

HTML or HyperText Markup Language uses code to indicate to an HTML Reader (e.g. web browsers) what font style or colour will be displayed to the recipient. They have significant advantages from a brand and design perspective. They offer far more detailed strategic and design capabilities than a plain text email.

HTML email templates are a marketer’s real playground; beautiful visual elements like images, GIFs, scope to play with design; it can be highly interactive and include attractive call-to-action buttons.

When it comes to the question of which one is better and has higher click-through rates, it should be a pretty straightforward intuitive answer, right? HTML, the one with colour, images and attractive visuals, would be the most likely answer.

HTML email template - GoPro

Data reveals that plain text emails are clicked on more than their attractive HTML counterparts. They have higher open and click-through rates.

There could be several reasons for this. Let’s get into the details for a better understanding of why this could be happening:

The Pros of Plain Text Emails

  • Deliverability: Plain text emails reach their intended recipients more easily. They are smaller in size and less likely to be automatically marked as spam. They will almost always end up in the inbox. Some email clients may not recognize HTML; a plain old-fashioned text email is the best way to ensure your email is delivered as per plan.
  • Personalized feel: Since we write plain text emails to one another, we are more used to interpreting plain text emails as personalized. Emails with design elements, visuals and graphics, although visually appealing, maybe subconsciously be seen as an attempt to sell to us. As humans, we prefer a one-on-one conversation that makes us feel like the email was written for us, even though we know it’s not really a personalized email. Most of us receive over a hundred emails a day; anything that the brain tags as commercial are instantly skipped over. Many viruses and phishing scams, for example, come neatly hidden in beautiful HTML emails. For sales enquiries, networking follow-ups and the like, plain text emails are the preferred medium.
  • Faster loading: Plain text emails load much quicker and therefore are more likely to be seen and read. If a bulky email filled with high-resolution images or graphics takes too long to load, chances are the reader’s attention span is lost.
  • Less technical error: Plain text emails won’t have broken images or broken tags, which are completely undesirable, register against the brand image in consumer minds and could also result in blocking future emails from the same address if marked as spam.
  • Adaptable to other formats: Plain text format is adaptable to increasingly versatile formats. This includes smartwatches, IoT, customer touchpoints and future tech. Smartwatches, for example, currently only support plain text.

HTML emails, on the other hand, have a whole other set of advantages.

The Pros of HTML Emails

  • Attractive call-to-action (CTA) buttons: Clickable buttons can be part of HTML emails. Entice users to directly perform the desired action (such as buy, subscribe, sign up for the trial etc.)
  • Tracking code inclusion: HTML emails can include tracking codes, which make it possible to track, analyze and improve campaigns - an essential component of any marketing strategy and campaign. You can segregate and target your audience according to behaviour and preferences, carry out A/B testing to identify what content performs better, among other functionalities.
  • Formatting content: HTML emails are visually better organized into easy-to-scan sections for a more reader-friendly approach. If a user can spot the information they need in a quick glance, they are more likely to engage with your brand.
  • Instant recognizability: At a glance, every plain text email looks the same until it is read. It’s hard for a brand to be instantly recognizable. HTML emails, on the other hand, can include visual elements that lead to immediate brand recognition and future brand recall through the same visual elements.
  • More personalization and customization options: HTML emails are more fun to design and offer a higher scope for a company to display creativity. They are more conducive to the creation of consistent brand personalities, imagery and messaging. Consistency is everything to a brand that sends out regular messages and stays in touch with its audience. Personalization can also improve open rates for your email outreach processFor example, features like dynamic product recommendations automatically sent out with an order confirmation are some examples of customization that one would otherwise have to input in a plain text email manually. Great for brands that trigger an emotional response in consumers through the use of visuals.
  • Trendy and modern: HTML emails look cool, modern and professional. It's more likely to be perceived as attractive by a younger audience. Plain text emails look like they’re stepping straight out of the distant past onto your computer screen.
  • Ready templates: HTML emails come with ready templates which make the task easier for a non-tech savvy sender, and help you make your email look professionally designed and engaging.
  • Unsubscribe button and legal information: HTML emails offer an easy one-click unsubscribe link. Well-respected by users and is also a legal requirement in most cases. Mandatory legal information can be easily added to these emails. (Although plain text emails can include legal information in the signature.)

Wrapping Up

When deciding if plain text or HTML emails is the best option, consider it on a case-to-case suitability basis. This is because it all depends on your goals as a marketer and your target audience. Many template managers offer options to generate a plain-text version of an HTML email; a best practice you should always follow.

The recipient may decide when the email hits their inbox and the format he would like to view. This gives the recipient the power of choice, deciding which format he would like to see. Ensure sufficient optimization on your plain-text version so that links and formatting are visually manageable. This helps to ensure that your plain-text email is delivered in a readable format.

Plain text emails are best used for sales purposes, follow-ups and networking. And especially in a B2B context, as they may hold a slight edge. For marketing purposes, brand recall and imagery HTML email templates may be more conducive particularly in a B2C setup.

Eventually, data must be the deciding factor in whether plain text or HTML emails are more suitable for your goals. We recommend frequently performing tests to check which type your audience prefers, and modify your format accordingly as needed.

It's a competitive market. Contact us to learn how you can stand out from the crowd.

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