HTML vs. Plain Text Emails: What Is the Best Choice in 2024?

HTML vs. Plain Text Emails: What Is the Best Choice in 2024?

Author
Vladyslav Podoliako
Published
May 19, 2023
Reading duration
16 min

What will work the best in the upcoming year? Should you stick to emails with more bells and whistles, or emails that are simple and represent more authenticity? Well, we’ve done extensive research on plain text vs. HTML-based emails and gathered our in-house testing results to share our most recent insights with you, synchronized with some global trends. 

But first, to save you time, here’s a brief resolution to the doubts you might have: 

For cold outreach (❗) or personalized connections with customers, plain text emails will always be a better choice since you want to act like a human rather than a commercial brand. But for newsletters, mass campaigns, and double opt-out email addresses in your contact base, experimenting with HTML still has a place. Do some testing, or (the best solution!) ask your audience about their preferred format.

The Article Walkthrough:

HTML and Plain Text Emails: Overview With Examples

Before we move on, it's essential to briefly outline what HTML format vs. plain text emails are to avoid future confusion.

HTML emails are emails formatted using HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the same coding language used to create web pages. This means they can include various design elements like different fonts, colors, images, and sometimes even multimedia like videos. In simple terms, HTML emails are like mini webpages sent to your inbox.

Plain text emails are emails that consist solely of text without any additional formatting or styling. They don't include fonts, colors, images, or any other types of rich media. Essentially, plain text emails look like a simple text document. This format ensures maximum compatibility across various email clients and devices, as it doesn't require any special rendering capabilities. BTW, plain text emails may also have visual elements, such as images, GIFs, and videos.

Screenshot 2023 08 09 at 12.33.14

Now, after learning the difference between HTML and plain text on a basic level, let’s review what makes each format distinct from the other based on crucial criteria.

Key Differences Between HTML and Plain Text

The table below reflects the main criteria and their correlation with HTML and plain-text emails.

Criteria Plain-text emails HTML emails
Email Deliverability

πŸ‘ Better email deliverability
πŸ‘ Less prone to email filters

πŸ‘Ž Lower email deliverability
πŸ‘Ž More prone to spam filters

Personalization

πŸ‘ Personalized content
πŸ‘ Feels authentic and personal

πŸ‘ Personalized dynamic content
πŸ‘Ž Feels like bulk emailing
Accessibility

πŸ‘ Accessible across multiple devices/clients
πŸ‘ Fit for specific audiences/ situations
πŸ‘ Compatible with assistive technology
πŸ‘ Correct depiction across all ESPs

πŸ‘Ž Inaccessible for users with disabilities
πŸ‘Ž Non-compliant with assistive technology
πŸ‘Ž  Incompatible with some emailclients and devicess -
Readability

πŸ‘ Save users' time with only key messages 
πŸ‘ Mobile-friendly layout
πŸ‘Ž Long-reads category

πŸ‘ More visually appealing
πŸ‘Ž Less user-friendly for audience expecting brief, personal messages 

Design πŸ‘Ž Limited customization
πŸ‘ Mobile-friendly design
πŸ‘ Tailored content

πŸ‘Ž Chance of turned-off images in some ESPs
πŸ‘ Unlimited customization
πŸ‘ Enhanced and professional look
πŸ‘Ž Difficult to adapt to mobile

Analytics πŸ‘  User-relied stats
πŸ‘Ž Only a few trackable elements available
πŸ‘ Campaign's performance tracking
πŸ‘ Analytics for better conversion  
Engagement πŸ‘  Higher engagement rates for cold outreach
πŸ‘Ž Lower engagement rates for warm audience

πŸ‘  Higher engagement rates for warm audience
πŸ‘Ž Lower engagement rates for warm audience

Creation time & cost

πŸ‘  No coding required
πŸ‘  Faster template generation
πŸ‘  Shorter testing period

πŸ‘Ž  Time and effort-consuming creation
πŸ‘Ž  Design and coding skills required
πŸ‘Ž  Complex management process
πŸ‘Ž  Multi-layered testing process-
Target audience type πŸ‘ A more sustainable choice for cold email outreach, transactional emails, and and messages where simplicity and clarity hold a key role​. πŸ‘ More suitable for newsletters, promotional emails, or mass campaigns where visual elements play a key role (and only to double-signed-up subscribers)

Email deliverability: plain text vs. HTML emails

First things first, you should remember that both email formats can be affected by present-day email spam filters. And that’s why it’s so crucial to monitor email deliverability.

There’re many other factors determining whether your email will land in the inbox, including your email sender reputation, spam trigger words, email authentication protocols set-up, adherence to email compliance, a clean email list (without spam email sign up), and others. Make sure to check special email list hygiene software that will help to clean your list.

However, HTML emails are more prone to being flagged as spam. All because of 

  • Codes and formatting mistakes (Even a small error in the code tag will trigger a spam filter's attention ❗) 
  • An excess of images and email size
  • Images being disabled in the recipient’s ESP settings

Quick pro-tip: The inclusion of alternative text, commonly known as 'alt text', with your images will help boost HTML email deliverability. Alt text functions as a descriptive equivalent for your images, catering to subscribers who utilize assistive technology or have opted to turn off image display. Also, this practice provides indispensable context for users without visual comprehension, ensuring no one is left uninformed.

Plain text emails are much less attractive to spam filters. They are accessible to any email service provider and more accessible to visually-impaired users, increasing the engagement rate, which ultimately results in higher deliverability. However, it’s important to regularly perform email deliverability test to ensure flawless email deliverability.

❗ KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • While plain text email deliverability is robust, it’s not 100% guaranteed.
  • HTML emails that are clearly-crafted, properly coded, and put to the test have a high chance of being delivered.
  • It takes a dedicated approach to the matter, and you may want to stick to the best practices to increase email deliverability in either case and stay safe with professional email deliverability consulting.

Personalization: plain text vs. HTML emails

There's something inexplicably intimate about plain-text emails, since they usually remind the targeted recipient of 1-on-1 communication with someone they know.  

It's easy to provide appropriately tailored content and drive user interest with plain text since fewer distractions exist. The same goes for personalized signatures. 

At the same time, HTML emails are spiced with dynamic content based on recipient location, preferences, and behavior. Together with personalized images, such as offered product lines and personalized CTAs, they will positively affect the overall email experience. Some examples of personalized ideas for HTML emails are: 

  • Creating a dynamic birthday email with tailored birthday month graphics
  • Mailing real-time updates in a dynamic email 
  • Adding timers for upcoming webinars etc.

However, the most important thing to note is that users understand that HTML emails are usually used to send bulk emails.  That’s why, when a personal touch is a priority in your email outreach campaign, even the most personalized HTML email will not create the intimacy that can be created with plain text. (Check out our post on email marketing personalization for 14 more ways to customise your marketing efforts)

That is if the HTML email copy securely passes spam filters and is well-displayed on the device. Not all devices and email clients are equally susceptible to HTML emails, which are the major limitations of the format.

Accessibility: plain text vs. HTML emails

When comparing HTML vs. text email format in terms of accessibility, the former loses from the start. There's barely an email client or device which can't reflect plain text. At the same time, while dealing with high-end coding and formatting, some email clients/devices can't access the HTML copy fully.

Moreover, HTML messages are inaccessible for blind people and users with related disabilities who use different assistive technology to 'read' email. Besides, there are an estimated 300 million people globally with color blindness, affecting approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women (0.5%).

Because of the clickable buttons, images, and graphics, HTML emails can't be accessed correctly by the mentioned technology. Thus, they can't be delivered to the reader even if opened.

Small pro tip from Hubspot: Perception of colors can vary among individuals, thus, integrating color with iconography and text ensures effective communication for all. Take, for instance, a green check mark and a red X—these are more universally comprehensible than just green and red buttons. The key is to deliver your message in a way that can be easily understood by all, regardless of their color perception.

Image1

Readability: plain text vs. HTML emails

This is the category where the HTML email format wins. While plain-text messages can be easily accessed across multiple devices and email clients, not every user has a ton of time to read through the hand-crafted chapter.

A small tip to make plain text emails more readable: add as many white spaces as possible (ideally, one paragraph should be 1-2 sentences). Also, bullet points significantly help make the text more scannable. 

At the same time, HTML copies are more concise and spiced with appealing visuals, interactive links, and other dynamic content. However, it's essential to remember that if you miss out on any of the mentioned factors, the readability scores will drop regardless of the format:

  • Clarity of the message
  • Conciseness
  • Relevance
  • Tone
  • Colors combination
  • Font type

Take this example of the best HTML practices in terms of readability: 

Image3

Design: plain text vs. HTML emails

When considering whether you should refer to either text or HTML email format during your marketing campaign, you must evaluate the needs of your target audience and your pre-set goals. Both formats have specific design characteristics that can affect the overall user experience.

The plain text emails are simple to the core. You can change your template design customization in a limited ways:

  • Font alteration (color, size, bold/italics font)
  • Adding images and videos
  • Adding buttons

HTML emails have no design boundaries with all the images, interactive formatting, and other present-day customization. Not to mention the countless HTML template services available.

3 great HTML email design ideas: 

Image2

The mentioned perks make plain emails easier to read for certain people and require a slower Internet connection. At the same time, HTML emails are more professional and fun-looking, but not all clients can appreciate the well-thought-out and targeted design.

Sometimes less is more :)

Email analytics: plain text vs. HTML emails

We have an undeniable winner — HTML email format.

Tracking your email campaign's success is vital; HTML emails present all the best opportunities. You can add special links to the template to monitor user interaction with the message. As you monitor your email marketing KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), you can attune the campaign to your needs quickly.

With plain-text emails, it is almost impossible to track detailed performance metrics (only with the best email outreach tools)unless your clients choose to share their feedback with you through dedicated links added to the body of the email. However, that is a questionable monitoring method.

FYI: Before you start thinking that plain text is an ultimate waste of time and resources regarding email marketing analytics-wise, you must realize that better analytics does not always mean better marketing outcomes. As you focus on flying metrics, you may forget the sole goal of your email campaign­­­­­­­­­­—providing genuine and valuable content for your audience.

 Engagement: plain text vs. HTML emails

Users often claim that they prefer visual emails to plain text. However, the statistical data proves otherwise. According to HubSpot research, HTML templates spiced with images had a 21% lower clickthrough rate as opposed to simple text-based messages.

Why the controversy? The answer is simple — sometimes, less is more. People are weary of flashy emails filled with overwhelming visuals. Besides, the chances that such emails contain unwanted promotional information, or worse — spam, bring the engagement score further down, which will negatively affect email deliverability rate.

Whereas plain-text emails seem appealing and somewhat more personal to a specific segment, it does not mean you should eliminate HTML campaigns from your strategy.

It takes balance to achieve all pre-set goals.

Creation time and costs: plain text vs. HTML emails

Plain-text emails are easier to create and more cost-effective since there is little coding and high-end formatting required to come up with a neat email template. Moreover, it takes less time to test text-based messages since you don't have to ensure that the copy suits most devices, mail clients, and screen sizes.

HTML email cost is much higher than plain text since you usually need dedicated coding software and skilled professionals to fulfill the task. Free HTML templates are offered by different platforms, but they usually lack the personal touch you require to stand out from the rest.

The same is true of the creation time — the creation process is longer despite the variety of templates available. Besides, HTML emails are more challenging to maintain and update. Such emails must be updated on a regular basis since email clients and general web standards change all the time.

Additionally, it takes the best email outreach trends to come up with the best HTML copy so that the ROI (Return On Investment) covers the means invested in the development stage. Not to mention that such emails must be tested across different devices to ensure their top-notch accessibility.

Minding target audience:  plain text vs. HTML emails

There isn't a magical one-for-all email copy we can advise using on all occasions. Depending on your sender goal, type of shared message, and recipients' preferences, you can use plain-text and HTML emails interchangeably.

Plain-text emails

  • B2B cold outreach: When you want to present yourself to a new user, you don't have to overspend on the campaign, and plain-text messages suffice the purpose. Not to mention, they are easier to pass by spam filters undetected.
  • Senior audience: Older generations are more comfortable with something they already know about, and overwhelming them with flashy email content may serve you a poor service.
  • Informative and transactional messages: Order confirmations, appointment reminders, or account activity updates don't need more than a few lines of well-written text.

HTML emails

  • Promotional messages: after you are through the cold phase of your relationship, you want to advertise to seal the deal, and that is where hand-crafted, high-end HTML copies come into play.
  • Younger generation: Younger audiences are more used to HTML emails and may ignore the old-fashioned plain text. The visual appeal of HTML copies makes younger people more proactive, and that's the goal you pursue.

Remember that the mentioned division is genuinely subjective since countless exceptions exist. The format you choose for any campaign should rely on specific circumstances. Thus, you must discover what makes your target audience tick.

❗ Expert tip from Folderly: Never ever use HTML for cold emails! Adding HTML templates, pictures, GIFs, colorful fonts, and other flashy elements to your email will not make it look fancy. When it comes to cold emails, plain text emails look more natural to spam filters. If your email has less plain text, it looks suspicious and may end up in spam.

Remember again — sometimes less is more :) 

Your target in cold emails is simplicity.

Plain Text + HTML Hybrid Format: Pros and Cons

Reaping the benefits of the two email formats are how some people would describe hybrid email formats. While that's definitely true, the format has some limitations to keep in mind.

Image4

Pros of hybrid emails:

  • Hand-crafted and personal touch preserved
  • Useful marketing metrics available
  • Higher email client compatibility
  • Enhanced user experience provided
  • Improved email deliverability granted
  • Reinforced brand recognition

Cons of hybrid emails:

  • Increased development time
  • Multiple-version management required
  • Question of accessibility arises
  • Question of design and formatting consistency
  • Spam filter alert possibility preserved

Rule of the thumb: If you combine two formats, the majority of your email copy should be incorporated in your email as live text inside of HTML elements. 

We recommend checking out this incredible guide from Litmus on accessibility in email marketing, including the best practices for using HTML. 

Image5

Ask Yourself These Questions To Choose the Best Format

Both plain-text emails and HTML messages come with a set of undeniable advantages and potential downsides. So, how do you choose which format type serves you best? Try answering these questions to find the answer you seek:

  1. Do you aim for conversation-like messages between you and your recipients? Choose plain text email.
  2.  Are you sending to a broad client base with the goal of entertaining? Use HTML format.
  3. Is it a time-sensitive email that you are trying to convey? Stick to plain text.
  4. Are you experiencing any technical issues with delivering HTML copies? Swap them for text-based variants.
  5. Do you want to reap the benefits of both worlds? Try crafting hybrid emails.
  6. What is the intended recipient group? Seniors — send a plain text; younger people — stick to HTML copies.
  7. Do you want the recipient to respond to your email in a chosen way? Choose HTML emails.
  8. Would you like to track your marketing stats on a larger scale? Send HTML email copies.
  9. Do you have any spam-related concerns? Try sending plain text emails.

Also, if you decide sticking to HTML-based emails, you should know that some ESPs have own dedicated template builders (for instance, using Mailchimp template builder may stop mailchimp emails going to spam).

In conclusion: A/B Testing is Your Compass

When making a choice between HTML and plain text emails, it's important to understand there is no definitive champion for all circumstances. Every marketing campaign is distinct with its own key email marketing KPI to achieve, as is your target audience. A thorough investigation and effective A/B email testing are needed to discern which versions elicit the desired responses from your clients.

If you're uncertain about the efficacy of your emails, initiate an email deliverability test. Subsequent analytics will provide deeper insights, and email deliverability solutions experts are on hand to guide you through any complexities or challenges.

 

Vladyslav Podoliako
Author:
Vladyslav Podoliako
Founder & CEO
Vlad is a Founder & CEO of Belkins and Folderly, a series entrepreneur and investor with over ten years of management expertise in companies with 100 million evaluation. Vlad has years of experience building and growing service companies and SaaS startups in SalesTech and MarTech. He is skilled in creating successful businesses from the ground up and building top-notch teams that drive all ventures to the top of their industries.

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