Plain text vs html email: which is best?

Aug 23, 2023 | Best practice, Email marketing

It’s an ongoing debate whether to use text-based format or more designed emails for marketing emails.

Melaina Gross

Founder

Which is best? They each come with their own set of pros and cons. Let’s start by quickly highlighting the differences between the two.

What is the difference?

A text email is an email format consisting only of simple text and doesn’t include formatting options, such as font size adjustments and italics and bold. There are no images, embedded links (hyperlinked text), and other dynamic elements commonly found in HTML emails.

An HTML email includes elements such as visual content, catchy Call-to-Action (CTA) buttons, and text formatting (among others). 

Introducing a third category – the hybrid email. Not to get too technical but this option includes the simplicity of text along with the design benefits offered by HTML and CSS code. An email that is HTML but with less formatting than a traditional HTML email, making it appear more like a plain text email.

Plain text email

Can’t do linked text – have to use the actual url that you are linking to.

Can’t style my text either.
Can’t insert images or use CTA buttons.

Can’t do linked text – have to use the actual url that you are linking to.

Can’t style my text either.
Can’t insert images or use CTA buttons.

HTML email

Logo and banner embedded in the email

Font is styled

CTA button

Visually attractive and branded layout

Logo and banner embedded in the email
Font is styled
CTA button

Visually attractive and branded layout

Hybrid email (HTML email with pared down design)

Logo embedded in the email

Font is styled and text is hyperlinked

Logo embedded in the email
Font is styled and text is hyperlinked

 

Why it matters?

This comes down to the pros and cons of each and what you are trying to achieve with your email campaign.

Plain text HTML
Analytics No Yes
Accessibility Yes Yes (by following best practice)
Design No Yes
Styling No Yes
Rendering Yes Yes (if properly coded)

 

In a nutshell if coded correctly (and following best practice), the pros of HTML emails are that they:

  • Give more sophisticated and better design control. Important for brand recognition!
  • Allows you to embed images, links, tables, and other multimedia.
  • More dynamic messaging.
  • Allows tracking and analytics to determine engagement, clicks opens, conversions, etc.

A con is that you need HTML email coding skills and knowledge to push the limits in your HTML email. Break something in your code and your email may not render properly for your subscribers (and risk going into Spam). Remember to render test! If you don’t have mad coding skills, then the built-in email creators in ESPs do help a lot to create HTML emails provided you keep your email layouts simple and don’t fiddle too much (as this is when HTML code starts to break!)

Plain text emails allow for conversation-like messages between you and your recipients, a more personalised experience. No nice design, and attention-grabbing CTAs though! Then again, they are easy to create, and you can’t break the code (because there isn’t any).

 

Which is best?

The answer is that it depends. I bet you knew the answer (because you are all smart marketers!

 

Determine which makes sense for your brand.

HTML email is better to reflect your brand identity strongly. It also helps with brand consistency across your other campaigns.

For instance, a plain text email newsletter with latest news from my investment institution might not have enough brand elements to look “official”. So, I might be a little suspicious receiving a newsletter in this format from my bank. So, it would need the logo and some branding elements.

See some examples https://reallygoodemails.com/categories/financial

A hybrid email allows for the personal and conversation-like experience of text email but with the styling benefits of html.

 

Campaign / email objectives.

If your brand is known for physical products, you’ll want to show pictures of these in HTML emails. After all, if your main message is that your sleek new sunglasses look great, you’d need to prove it through images in your marketing emails.

However, if your brand is focused more on delivering direct which is common in Business-to-Business (B2B) companies, then a plain text email would be a better option.

Having said that there are compelling reasons to pare down design and go with a hybrid email.

Read this case study from Parcel. They did split testing and observed their hybrid mail (more text-based but still with styling) performed better than the more designed counterpart depending on the objectives (and vice versa).

 

What does your audience prefer (and what are they anticipating).

Alongside the consideration of what makes sense for your brand is thinking about what your audience is expecting and the norms.

Transactional emails (confirmation of order, invoices, delivery tracking) and interpersonal emails tend to be more text-based and this is a norm for these types of emails. A good campaign can leverage these norms and come up with a dynamic and memorable experience (not to mention high performing!).

Would you expect an email from a clothing brand that wasn’t full of graphics showing the latest trends. Take a look at this hybrid example from Feat clothing which raised a few eyebrows. It was clever, unexpected (albeit a little creepy for some)

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got this far it means this topic has been helpful – which makes me glad. Now for some shameless self-promotion: if you need help with HTML templates, please hit us up on hello@cantaloupedigital.com ????

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