HTML vs. Plain Text Emails: Which One Performs Better?

Vladislav Podolyako
Apr 05, 2022
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What’s the main criterion for assessing the success of email outreach? The answer is simple: email deliverability. If your emails can’t get through spam filters, your cold email campaign won’t get any opens and click-throughs. Let’s apply this logic of effectiveness to the tired debate around HTML vs. plain text emails.

Superficially, when you look at a plain text version email, there’s nothing to write home about. A plain text email looks… plain. And you think, who can get engaged with mostly text when banner blindness is real? There are many tricks to get users interested in what you have to say, including the use of sleek designs and pictures. If you survey the issue and ask your clients about their preferences, the majority would say we prefer images and HTML-based emails over plain text messages.

At Folderly, we have a solid understanding of the issue because we tested our own emails. And we were surprised to find out that users’ preferences are not supported by statistics. HTML-heavy emails perform way worse than their plain counterparts.

If clients love images and beautiful designs whereas statistically, plain text has better opens and clicks, what should marketers and sales professionals do when having the choice to send either plain text or HTML formatted emails? This article will explain the differences between plain text and HTML emails, as well as give some best practices for when to use each of these email types.

The HTML vs. plain text emails debate

At first glance, HTML emails and plain text emails may seem similar. After all, they’re both simply blocks of text sent to subscribers in their email inboxes. But there are a few key differences between the two that you should be aware of before you start sending out your next email campaign.

HTML emails are coded using HTML code (HyperText Markup Language), and they should be properly coded to boot; otherwise, it’s flagged spam. Plain text emails are written using only text.

HTML emails can contain formatting like italics, bold, underline, and hyperlinks. Plain text emails cannot. Plain-text is a specific type of text made of ASCII characters (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) that include all the letters in our English alphabet, numbers, punctuation marks, and some symbols.

HTML emails can contain images and embedded videos (not shown to unknown senders by some email programs but still). Plain text emails do not support images or video embeds.

You can always tell when you're looking at an HTML template because it's usually extremely colorful, has multiple columns and sections, and usually contains at least one image. If you've ever gotten marketing materials from a business, chances are they were in HTML format. These are the ones that get deleted right away!

Statistical significance

Being aware of users’ preference to receive beautifully designed emails, most companies want at least to include a flashy CTA or embedded links to their emails to add more visual appeal. But how does it impact the success of their cold email outreach?

We’ve decided to conduct an experiment on this topic and study its results. For that purpose, we divided our email list into three equal segments. The first segment received simple text emails; the second one received simpler HTML emails, while the third one had HTML-rich emails. However, they all had the same subject line and CTAs.

The results revealed that statistically, HTML-heavy emails have the worst open rates among the three, while plain-text had the best deliverability metrics. It turns out that even though most of us prefer receiving beautifully designed emails, our actual behavior suggests otherwise. In other words, we're more likely to respond to plain text emails than we are to HTML emails.

Well, it makes sense if you think about it. First of all, our inboxes are already full of flashy HTML emails vying for our attention. We spend so much time sifting through ads and promotions that when we see an email from a friend or family memberor a brand we recognizewe're drawn to it precisely because we can tell at first glance that it's not a promotional email and won't take up too much of our time or energy.

Deliverability issues

The problem, most likely, is a matter of deliverability. Simply having something show up at someone’s inbox does not guarantee that it will be read or noticed.

The increasing use of email services that "filter" or "sift" emails is aimed at providing a better experience for the user. Commercial emails may be filtered from the inbox by default. Gmail, for example, sets aside special folders for commercial mailings unless the user changes the settings.

Using image tags and HTML-rich templates can lead to a message not being let through spam filters. (And thus, if an email has these elements, users can’t receive and open an email.) That’s why your cold outreach campaign with HTML-heavy emails can have great deliverability rates yet reduced open and click-through rates.

But email open rates are just one data point among many. Even if HTML emails had lower open rates than plain-text emails, many marketers assumed they'd have better conversion rates because HTML email formatting looked more professional.

For example, would an email with an image of the eBook being promoted do better than an email with no visualization of the offer? Is a plain-text email too boring to attract the audience to the offer? Doesn't aesthetics influence people's purchasing decisions, and do humans instinctively respond well to attractive designs?

No, when we’re talking about email. Unlike other marketing channels, email feels too personal to look so heavily professional. Email is a personal communication where a human is talking to a human rather than a company to a user.

When you send an email to a colleague or friend, do you usually include images or use snazzy templates? Probably not—nor does your audience. It's better to send an email with a look and feel that matches how you talk with people in person. Emails from brands that look like personal messages will appeal to your audience more.

HTML emails vs. plain text emails: Benefits

Despite the benefits of plain text emails, HTML-formatted emails are more user-friendly. Before email marketers make a final decision, let’s consider the perks of HTML email and plain text email.

Plain text email benefits

Many marketers may prefer plain text as an amazing tool for businesses, large and small, as not all brands are hooked on visual appeal. In this digital age, plain text email has some serious benefits:

Accessibility. You can’t go wrong if you go old school in terms of email marketing. Literally, any ESP can open a plain text version. You never know if your emails are forwarded to email clients that cannot handle the formatting of an HTML email. HTML coding can be rendered not as intended on mobile devices or for users who have their email providers set to display only plain text messages by default. Thus, simple, unadorned formatting is especially beneficial for users of web-enabled smart devices, those who have limited vision and use screen readers, and people in low-bandwidth areas — all of whom have difficulty reading anything but plain text emails. When you send a plain text message, your customers will see what you want them to see no matter how they access their inbox.

Deliverability. There are many factors that determine whether or not an email gets delivered to the intended recipient, including spam filters and email servers. Plain text emails are more likely to get past spam filters because emails with plain text versions are less likely to be red-flagged. For example, plain text emails are not encoded and have no CSS styles and details, so there is less risk of your marketing message being filtered by antivirus software. Also, plain text emails are more likely to be delivered directly to the inbox, ensuring consistent delivery.

Intimacy. Plain text emails feel more personal. It seems like a one-on-one conversation, unlike an email blast sent to scores of other users. The simple format of plain text can help you engage with customers in a way not possible with HTML versions of the same messages. They're also less visually distracting and intrusive—not just because they don't include as much imagery, but because they're immediately viewable in the inbox (rather than requiring the recipient to download images).

Ease of Use. You don’t need to care about the right format. It takes less time to compose any given plain text message than it. Since using plain text requires no special coding, there is no need to rely on third-party services and technology to format your email. This gives you more control over how your message is displayed and makes it difficult for your message to be garbled. And there's less of a chance that the formatting will be wrong on a MailChimp message.

Security. Plain text does not contain code. Codes can hide malicious links and open users to virus attacks and phishing scams. Security risks are lower with plain text since you can’t embed images, tracking pixels, or hidden links. This means you can be sure that the link you follow is to a valid website.

Engagement. Folderly’s experiments found that email recipients were more engaged with emails that were text-only and with minimal formatting. Generally, unique open and click-through rates grow as HTML components decrease. We believe that people prefer emails with fewer HTML components because of the extra time they require to read and process, even when they reportedly choose beautifully designed emails. It’s true that creating tools are rather limited for plain text yet not non-existent. For example, you can still use ASCII art in your content just as marketers did it back in the 1990s.  

HTML email benefits

Even when HTML marketing emails are often perceived as impersonal marketing tactics, they have their own share of perks.

Creative control. Even basic HTML makes an email look appealing. Using a full-blown HTML richness and coding potential allows marketers to use the email almost like a website. HTML email has all the features of a plain text email, plus the ability to control layout, color, and graphics. HTML gives email writers the means to fashion an image-rich and dynamic message. Using HTML email, you can make your message look as informed, professional, or creative as you desire.

Tracking ability. Metrics are an essential part of marketing. Marketers use tracking systems to measure the effectiveness of email campaigns and other marketing activities. HTML emails allow tracking pixels, which can follow how users interact with your email, such as when they open it and how many click-throughs it receives. Thus, we discover what works in our email marketing campaigns and what doesn’t.

Stand out CTAs. HTML allows you to draw attention to links that you want people to click, and frequently this means using an eye-catching button. A call-to-action button stands out by itself. Having just that can give a three-fold increase in clicks and a ten-fold boost in sales. CTA buttons also tend to perform better than anything else in your email, and even color can influence your results.

Personalization. Email personalization can be achieved with HTML by using multimedia, dynamic content, or merged image tags. Email marketing personalization inadvertently increases sales manifolds, and customers are more likely to purchase products when they get an email with products they might be interested in. Besides, thanks to responsive design that changes depending on the width of the browser window or email reader, you do not have to spend hours massaging your email template to work across all devices.

Brand consistency. Design-first formats like HTML email require accessibility considerations but offer brands the opportunity to create a distinctive look and feel for emails. Consistent brand identity is one of the most important factors for marketing success, and email presents a unique opportunity to develop your own brand identity. Email can be a powerful means of advertising and promotion by using the same style and design across multiple platforms. On the other hand, if the same email is rendered differently in different browsers, it’s far from consistent.

Engagement. HTML elements make content more readable, creating an opportunity for future engagement. The layout of HTML email makes it easier to scan and consume content, increasing the likelihood that readers will engage with your message. This is especially the case when coupled with an enticing subject line and compelling images. Although some marketers see lower performance when using HTML email, some industries can see interactive content and videos increase click-to-open rates.

Interactivity. Even though tests show that HTML-heavy emails perform worse than plain-text only, you can bump up email ROI by over 100% for some industries if you add dynamic content. Email content, such as font size and buttons that can be changed on the fly (dynamic components), or the one allowing viewers to interact with the message in some way (interactive components), can significantly improve email marketing campaign returns. HTML works to bridge the gap between the text and HTML email by providing subscribers with more functionality than plain text could ever offer.

When to use what?

It’s annoying that email marketers have to choose between HTML and plain text. Obviously, sales professionals would love to have high email deliverability and brand consistency with one-on-one intimacy. Can we have the “hybrid” of HTML and plain text? Yes, it’s possible to have hybrid emails that are simple enough to pass through spam filters yet engaging enough to keep users’ attention with flashy CTA buttons and interactivity.

But as usual, A/B testing is your guiding star. If you have a go-to email format for getting in touch with your customers, run tests and see how it performs. While HTML templates are shiny and visually appealing, there are a number of reasons that plain text is the better choice for most emails. Plain text emails are great for B2B cold outreach and reaching out to senior positions.

On the other hand, there are many industries that benefit from having more images on email. Use HTML-heavy emails for eCommerce, branded content, and when you need tracking data.

Different audiences may have different preferences, so it’s always wise to test potential messages before sending them out.

Vladislav Podolyako
Vladislav Podolyako
Founder & CEO
Vlad’s decades of entrepreneurial wisdom and business building experience have allowed him to successfully mentor a diverse group of business owners, entrepreneurs in growing their companies. A recognized expert in the areas of transforming organizational culture and leadership development, B2B Sales, Marketing, spent more than 10 years building technology products, with a background in communication networks and electronic device engineering.

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