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HTML versus Text-Only Emails

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When it comes to email marketing the debate still rages over what’s best – HTML or plain text email formats.

HTML is email with colour, graphics and different layouts, much like a web page. Text-only emails on the other hand look exactly how they are named, emails that contain only text – no colours, graphics or formatting.


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There are advantages and disadvantages of both types of email formats:

Advantages of using plain text emails:

  • All email clients will display the plain text emails correctly so you know that the recipients will see what you see.
  • Looks more like a personal message.

Disadvantages of using plain text emails:

  • Colours and graphics can’t be used, which means that the email will lack visual impact.
  • People scan emails, which is harder to do with text-only emails.
  • It’s harder to generate click-throughs because links must be typed out in full

Advantages of using HTML emails:

  • Colours and graphics can be used and are important for creating a visual impact and especially important when you’re attempting to portray a brand image.
  • It’s easier for the recipient to scan HTML emails
  • Text links can be made clickable
  • One of the golden rules of marketing is tracking the results – click-throughs can only be tracked with HTML email.

Disadvantages of using HTML emails:

  • Some email clients are text-only, meaning that your HTML email will be displayed as code, making it illegible for the recipient.
  • Images are often blocked, thereby removing most of the visual advantage of HTML emails.

So which type should you use? There’s no simple answer. Plain text emails get the job done, if in a slightly mundane way. HTML emails have a much higher visual impact but aren’t displayed correctly on some peoples’ email clients, making the email illegible.

Looking at the general trend over the last few years the HTML format appears to be the favoured format amongst marketing professionals. In 2003 81% of all emails sent out by companies were HTML emails, compared to only 17% in 1999.

Research has been conducted to see what people prefer and going purely by numbers HTML emails come out on top. However, there is a small but vocal minority of people who are in complete favour of text-only emails.

This shift towards the HTML format is significant though and as the old direct marketing rule says, “Success is 40% offer, 40% list, and 20% creative.” Plain text emails eliminate the creative element for every recipient, whereas choosing a HTML format only affects a small percentage of people, although it’s worth noting that this is still a significant number of people.

However, when making the final choice it’s worth taking into account how Mark Brownlow of puts it:

“Every half decent email marketing software or service provider gives you the tools to test, measure, and compare the two formats, so you can choose the one that works best for you. Not to mention that it’s not necessarily an either/or debate. You can offer people both…. let the test results speak for themselves.”

You can even ask people to choose which format they prefer when they register, and it’s always a good idea to include text-only versions with HTML emails. Ultimately it comes down to what your customers want. The figures suggest that most people will prefer HTML emails, but don’t forget about those that don’t.

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