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Email Marketing

Plain Text vs. HTML Emails: An Easy Guide for Non-Marketers

An email is more than just an email.

Some are simple text, like they were written by a friend. Others, especially in ecommerce, are flooded with images, videos, gifs, and other visual elements. 

There are reasons why some companies keep their email formats simple, and others go for more complicated designs. We’re going to talk about the types of emails you could send to your email list, and what to know before you choose.

Plain Text vs. HTML Emails: What’s the Difference?

A plain text email is just that: an email that consists of simple text. It has no images, graphics, videos, gifs, or colors, and it’s easy for ALL email recipients (like Gmail or Outlook) to display. 

HTML emails, on the other hand, are coded so that an HTML reader, like a web browser, can interpret them. They can have lots of visuals to make the email look pretty and catch the reader’s attention.

It’s important to note that sometimes, emails may look like plain text, but are in fact HTML emails when you look under the hood. Gmail, for example, defaults to HTML. So that simple email you sent to your boss this morning? That was HTML—unless you manually changed it to plain text. 

Cool. Why Are We Talking About This?

There are pros and cons to using plain text or HTML, and the one you choose can hurt or help your open rates and click through rates.

Not all email clients can display all elements of HTML emails. When you use this format, there’s a small risk that recipients will get a nonsensical jumble of code rather than a pretty email, depending on what device they’re using. The Apple Watch, for example, doesn’t always do well with HTML. 

Plus, too many HTML elements can land your email in the promotions tab or the spam folder. A study by Hubspot compared plain-text and HTML versions of the same emails. They found that a gif can reduce open rates by 37%, and their email from an HTML template got 25% fewer opens than the plain-text version. A likely culprit? Filters that caught the email messages before they ever hit the inbox.

That same study also found that emails with just a single image got lower clicks once they had been opened. And in general, the click rate went down the more images were added.

So Plain Text It Is, Right?

Not necessarily. 

While Hubspot’s study is interesting, it’s also Hubspot…which makes inbound marketing software. Not exactly a highly visual product. 

My client GRAV®, on the other hand, makes quality glass products for cannabis use. As an e-commerce site, their emails are highly visual with photos, gifs, and/or videos of the products. This visual approach is important because customers have to see the piece to know if they want to buy it. 

It would be downright bizarre if you got an email from a clothing brand that described a swimsuit, instead of showing it to you.

Plus, HTML emails have better tracking capabilities. Usually, your email software will embed an invisible image in your HTML email. When it loads, the email program knows that the email has been opened. So if you’re keeping an eye on your open rates, you may want to stick with HTML.

While some industries can get away with a plain text email, it’s much more common to use an HTML email format with minimal visual elements. 

The HTML, Low-Visuals Email

For many small businesses, a good approach is to send HTML emails, but keep the visuals to a minimum. That’s what I do at EDWC, and it’s the most common email type I get from other small businesses (with the exception of ecommerce). 

In my emails, I have a logo, occasionally one image or gif, and sometimes a call to action button down at the bottom. HTML lets you create a more visually appealing CTA, which may improve clicks. But remember, if you have too many visual elements, you can hurt your opens. You have to find the right balance!

In hospitality, this approach allows you to let the words do the heavy lifting, while you still can include 1-2 images to share a new menu item, a beautiful wedding from last weekend, or a dreamy photo of your hotel pool.

Creating HTML and Plain Text Emails

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to create HTML and plain text emails. Most email services default to HTML, with drag-and-drop formats that let you easily place your text and images. And some, like Mailchimp, automatically create a plain text email to accompany your HTML version. It sends both, and lets the email client choose which format to display. 

You can also skip the HTML entirely on your email platform, and opt to create a plain text email instead. While it may be more difficult to track open rates in HTML, your plain text email should still be able to track link clicks.

As always, the best way to figure out the right email option for your business is to test! 

And if you need help writing the copy for those emails, my typing fingers are at your disposal

Plain text vs. HTML Emails: What You Should Know

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