HTML vs Plain Text Emails: The Complete Guide to Choosing the Right Format

Love styling your emails with custom fonts, colors and images? Or do you prefer the raw simplicity of plain text?

Understanding the HTML vs plain text email format decision can optimize your campaigns. Discover when each format shines and how to balance design with compatibility.

Ready to enhance your email game? Let’s dive in!

Page Contents

The Key Differences Between HTML and Plain Text Emails

Choosing between HTML and plain text emails can be tricky. At first glance, HTML seems like an obvious winner. Just think of all those beautiful email newsletters full of images, buttons, and stylish fonts. Who wouldn’t want to create emails that look just like a webpage or match your brand’s website?

It’s true that HTML emails allow for much more visual creativity and customization. But plain text has its place as well, especially for automated messages, personal prospecting, and simplicity. To pick the right format for your next email campaign, you need to understand the core differences between HTML vs plain text.

Overview of HTML Emails: More Than Meets the Eye

When you hear “HTML email”, you probably picture fully formatted messages with colorful text, embedded images, clickable buttons, and dynamic layouts. Ever get an email newsletter that looks like a beautiful web page, matching the sender’s brand and style? Then you’ve seen the power of HTML email.

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language, which is essentially the code used to structure and format web pages. An HTML email allows you to code an email using HTML in the same way you would a webpage, so you can customize things like:

  • Font styling: Change fonts, colors, sizes, make text bold/italicized
  • Layout: Format alignment, columns, sections
  • Links: Add clickable links for navigation
  • Images: Embed images and graphics
  • Buttons: Insert clickable call-to-action buttons
  • Responsiveness: Make the email adapt to mobile screens
  • Personalization: Use merge tags to customize with data
  • Tracking: Insert snippets to track opens and clicks

With all these options, you may be thinking: why wouldn’t someone use HTML for every email?

Well, while HTML emails can look beautiful, they come with limitations as well. Not all email clients (Outlook, Gmail) support the same HTML and CSS formatting options. Images and large file sizes can impact load speeds. HTML code can sometimes be stripped out completely, wrecking your carefully designed layout.

Still, when formatted properly, HTML emails clearly provide more formatting freedom and branding potential. Just keep the limitations in mind as you craft and test your HTML emails. An email service like MailChimp can handle a lot of the technical details for you.

Plain Text Emails: Back to Basics

Plain text emails represent the complete opposite end of the spectrum from intricate HTML newsletters. As the name implies, plain text only includes bare text elements, without any styling, formatting or imagery.

Think back to the olden days of email…wait, you mean text-only messages still exist today? They sure do! While they seem archaic compared to visual HTML emails, plain text serves some key functions.

Here’s an overview of what you can expect with plain text email:

  • Just text: No fonts, formatting, colors. Plain text is like a typed page.
  • No graphics: No embedded images or multimedia allowed.
  • Limited branding: Can’t match colors or visual branding.
  • No tracking: No opens or clicks can be tracked.
  • Fast loading: Very lightweight so loads instantly.
  • Compatible: Works on any email client.
  • Simplistic: Straightforward hyperlinked text and paragraphs.

When all you need is to convey basic information in an email, plain text works just fine. It’s like the flip phone of emails, while HTML is the smartphone loaded with features.

Plain text is highly compatible across devices and email platforms. Its simplicity makes it ideal for short transactional emails. But for visual appeal and customization, HTML can’t be beat.

HTML Lets You Style and Format, Plain Text Doesn’t

Here’s where the paths clearly diverge. The core difference between the two formats comes down to the lack of design capabilities in plain text.

Building an HTML email is like designing a website. You can customize:

  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Text sizes
  • Text styling (bold, italicize, underline)
  • Paragraph and alignment formatting
  • Sections with headings
  • Lists and tables

With HTML emails, you control the design. Use CSS styling to make text red for the headings and links. Increase font sizes for impact. Align paragraphs left or center. Embed your brand font for consistency.

In stark contrast, a plain text email is like Notepad on steroids. You get paragraphs of monotonous default text. No styling or alignment options. It renders in the default font and text size chosen by the email client.

For some emails, this complete lack of design and branding control doesn’t matter. But if you want a polished email matching your brand identity, HTML is a must.

Open and Click Tracking: Major HTML Advantage

Here’s one of the starkest differences between the formats: the ability to track opens and clicks. One of the core email marketing metrics is open rate, indicating how many people opened the email. HTML allows open tracking by embedding a tiny 1×1 pixel image in the code that fires when the email is opened.

HTML also makes click tracking easy by hyperlinking text and buttons that can be tracked. With plain text, no graphics means no tracking. You might see clicks if you link a URL in the text, but opens are impossible to track.

This gives HTML a huge leg up for seeing email campaign performance and engagement levels. However, services like MailChimp allow you to separately test plain text and HTML to compare open and click rates. When tracking is important, HTML pulls ahead. But plain text can complement it when subscribers request the plain text version.

Consistent Rendering with Plain Text vs. Blocked HTML

Here’s one potential landmine when using formatted HTML emails: email clients do not universally support the same HTML features. Gmail in the past has blocked CSS styling, Microsoft Outlook is notorious for rendering issues, and mobile apps can mangle emails.

Plain text sidesteps these inconsistencies. Since the emails just use basic text characters, you know the content will render properly across any email platform. No worries about styling being stripped or images blocked on certain devices.

Granted, HTML issues have improved with wider responsive design support. But you still need to test HTML emails extensively. With plain text, the rendering is consistent. But at the cost of losing your beautiful design work!

Increased Spam Risks With HTML

No company wants their emails banished to the dreaded spam folder. Unfortunately, HTML emails tend to be at higher risk of getting flagged as spam compared to plain text.

  • Overuse of images: Too many large images can trigger spam filters.
  • Suspicious links: Excess links can seem like spammy behavior.
  • Slow load times: Big file sizes impact deliverability.
  • Tricky styling: Odd text colors or flashing fonts can seem suspicious.

Since plain text emails don’t contain images or unknown styling, they’re less likely to be perceived as spam. Though blacklisted domain reputations, spammy language, and other factors can still land plain text in the junk box too.

The takeaway is don’t go overboard with HTML formatting and maximize deliverability with your email service. Plain text has an inherent trust advantage, while HTML requires more care to avoid looking spammy.

HTML for Marketing, Plain Text for Personal Outreach

So when should you actually use HTML vs plain text? Their different strengths make each format ideal for certain email types.

HTML works best for:

For marketing-focused emails, you want to stand out and catch interest. HTML enables eye-catching and branded messages to engage your audience.

Plain text suits:

  • One-to-one prospecting
  • Personalized outreach
  • Cold sales inquiries
  • Simple notifications/confirmations
  • Automated alerts

Plain text has an informal, personal feel fitting one-on-one conversations. Using it for relationship-building outreach can seem more natural versus formatted HTML blasts.

In reality, you might want to use both for different purposes. Segment your lists by preferences to tailor the format. Provide an option for contacts to choose plain text. The right choice depends on the goal and audience for each email campaign.

Key Takeaways on HTML vs. Plain Text

HTML and plain text emails clearly have distinct uses and advantages. To summarize the key differences:

  • HTML enables gorgeous email design, but has formatting risks.
  • Plain text ensures consistent rendering but lacks customization.
  • HTML allows opens and clicks to be tracked unlike plain text.
  • Overusing HTML can increase chances of spam filtering.
  • HTML suits marketing emails, plain text fits personal outreach.

Neither format is inherently “better” than the other. The ideal option depends on your specific email goal, target audience, brand style, and more. Many effective email marketers use both HTML and plain text strategically based on the scenario.

Hopefully this gives you a complete picture of the HTML vs plain text decision. Armed with this knowledge, you can craft optimized emails in the ideal format for each campaign and audience segment you target. Both formats have their place in the email marketer’s toolkit!

When Should You Use HTML Emails?

HTML emails allow for beautiful designs and custom branding, but also come with technical challenges. Should you use HTML across all your email campaigns? Or only for certain scenarios?

Understanding the strengths of HTML email will help you determine the ideal situations to use it vs plain text formats. Let’s explore top use cases where HTML emails excel and some pro tips for creating stunning emails.

HTML Shines for Email Newsletters and Promotions

One of the most popular uses of HTML email is for branded newsletter content and sales promotions. Want to highlight new products, share company updates, or announce a sale? An HTML newsletter lets you do it in style.

Here are some benefits of using HTML for newsletters and promotions:

  • Show product images or lifestyle photos
  • Link out to landing pages
  • Format sections and headings
  • Spotlight sales announcements
  • Match website colors and branding
  • Embed video content
  • Increase engagement with interactivity

Email newsletters are often sent regularly like monthly or weekly, so designing a polished HTML template ahead of time works well. You can maintain consistent branding and swap in new content each time.

For special promotions like Black Friday or product releases, a one-off HTML email works great. Go all out with images of your products, incentives to buy, and limited-time offers. HTML emails also allow better tracking of the campaign’s results.

Match Your Brand Identity and Website Design

Do you meticulously design your website and marketing materials to showcase your brand? An HTML email lets you extend that brand experience directly into subscribers’ inboxes.

Some ways HTML emails can reflect your brand identity:

  • Use brand font(s)
  • Incorporate logo & colors
  • Maintain visual style
  • Display branded assets like illustrations
  • Link to website and social pages
  • Show imagery reflecting brand values
  • Match newsletter design to website pages

With HTML, your email subscribers feel immersed in your brand world from the moment they open your message. The seamless experience builds familiarity and trust.

For companies with strong visual brand recognition like Target or Coca-Cola, plain text would feel completely disconnected and do a disservice to the brand. HTML brings everything full circle.

Showcase Visual Elements Like Images and Video

Here’s an obvious one: you need HTML if you want to include images, graphics or video in your email campaigns. Jpeg, png and gif files can’t magically display in plain text.

Visual assets in HTML email allow you to:

  • Highlight products
  • Depict lifestyle scenes
  • Show off team members/locations
  • Include infographics
  • Embed video tutorials
  • Display charts or data
  • Insert icons and illustrations

Imagery and multimedia make your emails more lively and engaging. Let readers see your products, meet your staff, and interact with video instead of just reading blocks of text.

Granted, you need to watch your email file size. But a few choice visuals go a long way in HTML. Just look at email newsletters from brands like Madewell or Glossier to see HTML images done right.

Leverage Email Tracking and Analytics

Here’s an HTML advantage we keep coming back to: the ability to embed tracking so you can see opens, clicks and more. Plain text just can’t compete here.

Email open rate is one of the top email marketing metrics because it shows your email successfully reached and engaged a contact. Click tracking helps you optimize content by seeing what resonates.

With HTML email, you can:

  • See open and click rates for each campaign
  • Track subscriber engagement over time
  • Identify your best email content
  • Monitor mobile vs. desktop performance
  • Optimize day/time sending
  • Watch unsubscribe trends
  • Improve subject lines and preheaders

Analytics let you continually refine your email approach. Over time, you learn exactly what your subscribers respond to best.

Pro Tips for Creating Effective HTML Emails

Now that you know when HTML email works best, let’s get into some tips for actually creating effective HTML campaigns.

Use a Tested Framework Like a Template

Don’t start coding HTML emails completely from scratch as a beginner. Instead, use a framework like a pre-designed template to minimize formatting headaches.

Email services like MailChimp offer thousands of responsive templates created by designers. You just pick one, plug in your content, and customize the colors/header.

Benefits of templates:

  • Mobile-friendly responsive design
  • Consistent structure and spacing
  • Properly styled fonts and text sizes
  • Optimized headers, footers, and calls to action
  • Supported by all major email clients
  • Provides an easy starting point

The template handles the technical stuff, leaving you to focus on content. As you get skilled with HTML, you can customize templates further or try designing your own.

Ensure a Mobile Responsive Design

With the majority of emails now opened on mobile, a responsive design is mandatory. The email layout should detect screen width and adapt the arrangement automatically to fit desktop or mobile devices.

Tips for mobile-friendly HTML:

  • Use a fluid column structure that stacks vertically
  • Avoid fixed pixel widths that won’t fit screens
  • Large text and buttons for smaller screens
  • Image sizing with max-width for flexible resizing
  • Minimal side-scrolling, horizontal layouts

Test the email on actual mobile devices like iPhones to see the responsive behavior firsthand. Your subscribers expect emails to work beautifully whether they open it on a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop monitor.

Limit File Size and Load Time

Another technical consideration is keeping file size reasonable to prevent slow email load times. Image and video assets quickly bloat HTML emails.

Some tips for optimizing HTML email file size:

  • Compress and resize images before embedding
  • Host large images on a server instead of attaching
  • Avoid huge background images
  • Use video sparingly, optimize file formats
  • Eliminate unnecessary HTML/CSS code
  • Inline CSS instead of embedding a stylesheet

Ideally, aim for an email size under 150 kb. This ensures most emails load in under 3 seconds even on slower connections. Prioritize fast loading so readers instantly see your message.

Test Your Emails Extensively

The last step with any HTML email is extensive testing across different email clients and devices. Don’t assume it looks perfect because you designed it in one platform.

Be sure to test:

  • Major web clients like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo
  • Mobile apps on iOS and Android
  • Desktop apps like Windows Mail, Apple Mail
  • Multiple device sizes and resolutions
  • Image blocking and stripped CSS scenarios

Use a service like Email on Acid to automate testing across 30+ platforms. Confirm all styling, imagery, and content renders properly before sending. With testing, your beautifully coded HTML email will display flawlessly for every recipient.

Key Takeaways for Leveraging HTML Email

HTML email enables you to send gorgeous branded content and compelling visual messages, provided you follow email marketing best practices. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Use HTML for newsletters, promotions and showcasing products
  • Match the style of your website and visual brand identity
  • Embed relevant images, graphics and video
  • Take advantage of detailed analytics and tracking
  • Start with pre-designed responsive templates
  • Confirm a flawless experience across mobile and desktop

The versatility of HTML email makes it perfect for many marketing uses like lead nurturing campaigns, announcements, special offers and more. Now that you know when and how to utilize HTML, you can create emails as stunning as your product packaging and websites!

When Does Plain Text Work Best?

Plain text email might seem outdated, but it still plays an important role for specific use cases. When do plain text emails make more sense than formatted HTML?

Certain types of email campaigns and objectives are better suited to simple plain text. Let’s explore top scenarios where using plain text shines, along with tips to make your plain text emails pop.

One-on-One Prospecting and Outreach

Do you spend your days personally emailing potential leads to generate new business? Plain text can make your outreach feel more natural and personal.

Here’s why plain text works well for one-to-one prospecting:

  • Informal vibe suits sales follow-up
  • Fast composition from any device
  • Less intrusive for cold contacts
  • No heavy formatting to disrupt text
  • Familiar experience for recipients

An HTML sales template has its place. But casually reaching out to new leads benefits from a plain text approach. It feels like an individualized, conversational way to introduce yourself and your offering.

Don’t sleep on plain text’s ability to craft personalized messages that feel distinctly human rather than an automated blast.

Match a Text-Focused Brand Identity

Believe it or not, some company cultures and brand identities shine best through simple, text-oriented communication.

Examples include:

  • Enterprise IT companies
  • Technical/engineering organizations
  • Research firms sharing data
  • Low-key companies focused on transparency
  • Brands cultivating an old-school or nostalgic feel

If flashy graphics don’t mesh with who you are, plain text emails might perfectly capture your brand essence. And you can still include links, banners, and light formatting for visual interest when needed.

Optimize for Accessibility

Here’s an important consideration – plain text emails provide the most accessible experience for people with disabilities. They integrate seamlessly with screen readers for the blind and remove other access barriers.

Ways plain text emails enhance accessibility:

  • Screen reader friendly
  • Easily enlarged text
  • No reliance on images/video
  • Simple formatting doesn’t interfere
  • Lightweight downloads for assistive tech
  • Accessible on almost any device

When emailing groups including people with impairments, sticking to plain text ensures you deliver content to everyone.

Send Time-Sensitive Alerts

Do you need to send customers real-time order confirmations, shipping notifications or password reset emails? Plain text enables getting vital info delivered instantly.

Benefits of plain text for time-critical automated emails:

  • No render delays from tracking pixels
  • Super fast transmission and load times
  • No blocking images or heavy code
  • Reliable rendering across any device
  • Straight to the point message

When you need to reach people ASAP without fuss or distractions, plain text is the way to go. Transactional and alert style emails sent in bulk benefit from plain text reliability.

Pro Tips for Writing Compelling Plain Text

Crafting an engaging plain text email without images or formatting presents a creative challenge. Here are some pro tips for making plain text shine.

Craft a Strong Subject Line

Without visuals to grab attention, a compelling subject line is vital for driving opens of plain text emails. Take extra time to test different subject lines and optimize them.

Good practices include:

  • Curating subject lines tailored to segments
  • Using personalization to intrigue
  • Focusing on subscriber benefits
  • Being clear about the value provided
  • Keeping subjects concise and scannable

A subject line that sparks interest or curiosity prompts subscribers to open and read your plain text content.

Use White Space and Line Breaks for Easy Scanning

Don’t just include big blocks of dense text in plain text emails. White space and frequent paragraph breaks improve scannability.

Formatting tips:

  • Separate each key idea or section with line breaks
  • Use numbered or bulleted lists when applicable
  • Keep paragraph text to 2-3 sentences
  • Insert empty lines between paragraphs
  • Left align text for easy flow

With readable formatting, plain text content becomes digestible rather than an intimidating wall of text.

Focus on Clear, Concise Writing

This goes for all email content, but strong writing is especially key for plain text. Tighten up sentences for brisk pacing and quick comprehension.

How to improve writing for plain text:

  • Use simple, common words over jargon
  • Keep average sentence length short
  • Stick to one clear message per paragraph
  • Cut unnecessary words to tighten text
  • Use active voice and avoid passive voice
  • Vary sentence structure to add energy

Plain text forces you to engage readers through strong writing alone. rising to the challenge strengthens your overall email voice and messaging.

Include a Standout Call-to-Action

Even without buttons, use attention-grabbing text and asterisks to highlight calls-to-action in your plain text emails.

Techniques to emphasize your CTA:

  • CAPS or bolding for visual contrast
  • Line breaks before and after the CTA
  • Arrows (>>>) or asterisks (* ** *) to flank the CTA
  • Numbered or bulleted CTA points
  • Encouragement to click email links

Your CTA provides a next step for readers. Make it pop so people know how to immediately act on your email.

Overcome Plain Text Limitations Creatively

Sometimes your plain text content needs a little extra oomph. Look for creative workarounds to limitations like images.

For adding visuals, you can:

  • Include a link to view images on your site
  • Attach images and say to view the attachments
  • Host images publicly and provide the URLs
  • Send a follow-up HTML email with images

Think outside the plain text box to enhance emails when needed. Test what resonates best with your recipients.

Takeaways for Optimizing Plain Text Emails

With strong writing and creative solutions, plain text emails can be informative, professional, and even inspiring. Remember these tips:

  • Use plain text when establishing personal outreach
  • Match the direct vibe of text-focused brands
  • Prioritize accessibility for people with disabilities
  • Rely on lightning-fast plain text for timeliness
  • Write succinctly and boost readability with formatting
  • Draw attention to CTAs with symbols and contrast
  • Compensate for limitations like images with workarounds

Hopefully you now see all the potential plain text wields when used strategically. Sometimes less is more, and for certain campaigns, plain text hits the perfect note.

Key Factors in Choosing Between HTML and Plain Text

You now understand the core differences between HTML and plain text emails. But how do you decide which one to use for your next campaign?

There’s no single right answer. The best format depends on multiple factors from your subscribers to brand strategy. Let’s explore considerations for when to use HTML vs plain text.

Inbox Delivery Success Rate

When navigating the delicate balance of email marketing, the choice between HTML and plain text plays a pivotal role in determining the success of inbox delivery. HTML emails often allow for visually engaging content, branding elements, and interactive features, enhancing the overall user experience.

However, the sophistication comes with potential challenges, particularly in terms of spam filters and compatibility issues. On the flip side, plain text emails boast simplicity and a higher likelihood of bypassing spam filters, ensuring a more direct route to the recipient’s inbox.

The key factors in this decision hinge on the nature of your content, your target audience’s preferences, and the delicate dance between design flair and deliverability reliability. It’s a nuanced choice that requires a thoughtful consideration of your specific audience and communication goals.

Tailor Email Format to Subscriber Preferences

One major factor is understanding your audience’s preferences. Some demographics lean towards plain text, while others love visual HTML emails.

Tips for optimizing format based on subscribers:

  • Ask subscribers directly which they prefer
  • Segment your list by demographics like age
  • Send surveys to get feedback on formats
  • Test different formats against segments
  • Analyze engagement for trends among groups
  • Allow opt-out of HTML or plain text

Dialing in your subscribers’ tastes ensures your format suits their email reading habits. Respect their wishes to build loyalty.

Evaluate the Importance of Design vs. Broad Reach

With HTML, you control the look and feel. But plain text has wider device and client compatibility. This factor involves a strategic choice:

  • If design is critical for showcasing visuals, HTML takes priority
  • If guaranteed reach matters most, stick with universally compatible plain text
  • For visual brands, consistency matters more than reach
  • For text-focused brands, design matters less than wide delivery

Consider your brand identity and objectives. A stylish fashion line might pick HTML over reach. But an urgent delivery alert needs universal plain text reach.

Assess the Value of Email Tracking Capabilities

This one’s easy: if you require open and click tracking, engagement metrics or segmentation, go with HTML. Plain text just can’t provide that data.

Some examples of when tracking is worthwhile:

  • Sales or lead gen emails to monitor conversions
  • A/B testing email content and designs
  • Nurture campaigns with engagement scoring
  • Segmenting based on email behavior
  • Reporting on marketing ROI across campaigns

Conversely, transactional emails and one-off conversations need minimal tracking. The ability to customize and test content makes tracking incredibly useful.

Pick the Format That Best Aligns to Your Brand Identity

Here’s an important one we keep circling back to: how do HTML and plain text sync with your brand?

  • Playful brands like Airbnb thrive on HTML rich media
  • B2B companies may prefer properly branded yet simple HTML
  • Tech brands like Basecamp lean towards stripped down plain text
  • Research firms and academics align better with text

There are no set rules. Evaluate your brand personality and values to determine alignment. And don’t forget to test subscriber reactions to each format as well.

Consider Expected Email Norms in Your Industry

What do your competitors do? What email formats seem to work best in your field? The answers influence your own format decisions.

Some common industry norms:

  • HTML newsletters in retail/ecommerce
  • Plain text outreach in B2B software
  • Visual HTML invites in hospitality
  • Plain text shipping confirmations everywhere

Align with your industry’s format expectations, or strategically swerve if you spot an underutilized format opportunity. Just make sure the format ultimately suits subscribers.

When Might a Hybrid Approach Work Best?

The previous factors might lead you to a split decision. In that case, consider embracing both HTML and plain text.

Some ways to employ a hybrid approach:

Send Both HTML and Plain Text Versions

Design snazzy HTML emails as your primary format. But also include a plain text alternative for compatibility. This ensures anyone can read the email.

Use Plain Text for Automated Emails

Use HTML primarily for marketing content you control. But switch to plain text for high volume automated emails to improve deliverability.

Test Each Format Against Different Audience Segments

Slice your list by demographics to test if Gen Z prefers HTML while Baby Boomers respond better to plain text. Send each segment their favored format.

Alternate Formats for Specific Campains or Industries

Maybe plain text works amazingly for your lead nurturing emails. But HTML nails your seasonal newsletter aesthetics. Mix it up based on use case.

Choose the best of both worlds. The two formats can complement each other when applied strategically to your email campaigns.

Email Design Tips for Both HTML and Plain Text

Regardless of which format you select, there are overarching best practices to ensure your emails look professional.

Here are some key design tips relevant for HTML and plain text emails alike:

  • Write a clear, benefit-driven subject line. Keep it short enough for the preview pane.
  • Focus your content for fast skimming. Use concise paragraphs, bullets and scannable formatting.
  • Drive action with clickable CTAs. Give next steps prominence. Links are clickable in both formats when done right.
  • Personalize content with merge tags where possible. Insert first names, locations, preferences and other data.
  • Speak directly to recipients’ needs and interests. Define the subscriber value proposition upfront.
  • Aim for a natural writing voice. Avoid overly salesy language in favor of helpfulness.
  • Make unsubscribing easy. Include visibility preference options and an unsubscribe link.

No matter which format you use, applying fundamental design principles optimizes engagement. Put subscribers first, then consider how HTML vs plain text best serves your goals and brand style.

Key Takeaways on the HTML vs Plain Text Decision

Whether you choose HTML, plain text or both, focus on the subscriber experience instead of what looks coolest.

Here are some final pointers:

  • Know the pros and cons of each format
  • Align format with your brand personality
  • Test which resonates better with each audience segment
  • Use the right format for specific email content types and goals
  • Optimize design for skimmability and conversions in both

Email format decisions require strategy just like your content. Apply the tips in this guide to pick the formats tailored to your customers and email purpose. With smart implementation, both HTML and plain text emails have value in your marketing mix.

Email Design Best Practices for Both Formats

Now that we’ve covered when and why to use HTML vs plain text emails, let’s dig into design optimization tips.

Certain best practices boost engagement for both HTML and plain text content. Apply these guidelines to create high-converting emails in any format.

Lead With a Clear, Benefit-Driven Subject Line

The subject line is the first and possibly only element recipients see before opening. Make it count! These tips help craft compelling subjects:

  • Highlight tangible benefits like “Get 20% off our best-selling leggings today only”
  • Use emotional triggers like exclusivity and missing out – “VIP sale ends tonight!”
  • Personalize with merge tags to intrigue – “John, your order has shipped!”
  • Urgency works for limited-time offers – “24 hours left for 50% off!”
  • Curiosity encourages opens – “What our customers are saying…”
  • Education intrigues readers – “5 tips for better sleep”

The ideal subject line states succinctly what’s inside and why to care. Establish relevance in under 50 characters whenever possible.

Execute a Concise, Scannable Writing Style

In today’s world of information overload, you want your email copy to be easily digestible. Tight, scannable writing removes friction.

How to streamline writing for all emails:

  • Use short 1-3 sentence paragraphs
  • Cut unnecessary words and sentences
  • Stick to one message per paragraph
  • Highlight key points with bolding
  • Include bulleted or numbered lists
  • Use descriptive headers and subheaders
  • Present ideas linearly for easy flow

With compact writing, readers grasp your messaging quickly. Usability beat excessive wordiness every time.

Drive Action With a Clickable Call-to-Action Link

What next step do you want subscribers to take after reading? Don’t leave them guessing – provide a clear CTA.

Techniques for effective CTAs include:

  • Lead with a compelling verb – Click, Download, View
  • Use contrasting colors if possible in HTML
  • Underline the CTA for emphasis
  • Place CTAs prominently like end of emails
  • Limit to one or two CTAs max per email
  • Track clicks on CTAs to see engagement

Without guidance, email recipients wander. Direct them with strategically placed and formatted CTAs.

Personalize Content with Dynamic Merge Tags

One way to provide subscriber value is showing you know them as an individual. Personalization helps.

Personalization options include:

  • First name – Hi [First Name]!
  • Location – [City] just got a new yoga studio!
  • Purchase history – Since you bought [Product], check out this..
  • Preference – Based on your interest in [Category]
  • Behavior – You opened our last email about [Topic]
  • Date – Happy [date]! Enjoy your day.

Merge tags populate personalized data dynamically in each email for a tailored feel.

Focus on Delivering Value to Subscribers

At its core, effective email marketing gives more than it asks for. Provide subscribers content and offers of genuine interest to them.

Some ways to ensure value:

  • Understand pain points and goals
  • Educate with useful tips
  • Entertain with engaging stories
  • Offer exclusive access to sales or content
  • Poll subscribers to identify topics of interest
  • Segment and personalize emails based on needs
  • Share subscriber success stories they can relate to

Demonstrate you respect subscribers’ time with relevant information they appreciate.Educational and entertaining content works well for many business types.

Conversational Voice Trumps Salesy Language

You want open and click rates. But a hard sales approach frequently backfires. Friendly yet informative works better.

Some tips for finding the right email voice:

  • Establish a consistent tone over time
  • Imagine you’re helping a friend one-on-one
  • Share ideas vs demanding purchases
  • Use natural phrasing like “Here’s a tip…”
  • Write like you speak in real life
  • Ask questions to spark engagement
  • Add humor when it aligns with your brand

Ultimately, you want recipients to enjoy and look forward to your emails vs dread seeing them.

Make Unsubscribing Accessible

Not everyone will love every email you send. Make unsubscribing easy for those seeking an out.

To help subscribers manage preferences:

  • Place visible unsubscribe links in email footers
  • Remind readers they can update preferences
  • Thank those who do unsubscribe for their past readership
  • Automatically exclude unsubscribes from future emails
  • Periodically re-engage unsubscribers with content previews

Handling unsubscribes respectfully preserves your sending reputation. And some subscribers will re-engage down the road.

Key Takeaways on HTML vs Plain Text Email

We’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to navigating the HTML vs plain text email decision. Here are some key tips to remember:

  • Know the unique pros and cons of HTML and plain text formats
  • Test both formats against audience segments to see which converts better
  • Pick the appropriate format based on the specific email purpose
  • Regardless of format, apply essential design practices for skimmable content
  • Work within the limitations of each format but get creative if needed
  • Continually optimize performance and provide subscriber value above all

Email format decisions require thought just like your content strategy. With testing and segmentation, you can learn which formats your subscribers best respond to.

Apply the lessons from this guide to keep your email program effective regardless of whether you choose HTML, plain text or both!

Conclusion on Choosing HTML vs Plain Text Email Formats

Deciding between HTML and plain text email requires weighing multiple factors from audience preferences to capabilities. Here are the key lessons to help you determine the best formats to use:

  • HTML enables beautiful designs, branding and tracking while plain text ensures compatibility and simplicity. Neither is inherently better.
  • Use HTML for newsletters, promotions and showcasing products visually. Plain text suits one-on-one conversations.
  • Test different formats against audience segments to see which style engages each group best.
  • Pick the format that aligns closely to your brand identity and industry norms.
  • HTML provides open and click tracking analytics unavailable in plain text emails.
  • Overusing design elements in HTML can increase spam risks compared to plain text.
  • For timeliness, plain text transmits quickest without heavy code to slow it down.
  • HTML is better optimized for marketing while plain text fits personal outreach.
  • For accessibility, plain text integrates best with screen readers for the visually impaired.
  • Start with a pre-designed template when creating HTML emails to simplify coding.
  • Follow best practices like strong subject lines and scannable content for both formats.
  • Don’t assume HTML is inherently better than plain text. Test performance for each campaign.
  • Consider using a hybrid approach with HTML for design and plain text for compatibility.

The ideal format depends on your goals, brand, subscribers and more. Apply these lessons to craft optimized HTML and plain text emails.

Frequently Asked Questions About HTML vs Plain Text Email

Choosing between HTML and plain text email formats brings up many common questions for email marketers. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What are the pros of using HTML email?

HTML enables better design control, custom branding, multimedia elements, and email analytics from open and click tracking. It creates visually appealing, engaging emails.

What are the cons of HTML emails?

Compatibility issues on some devices/clients, greater spam risks, more likely to be flagged as promotional, and slower load times than plain text. HTML design can also be “stripped” during rendering.

When is plain text email a better choice?

For automated alerts and notifications, one-on-one prospecting, simple announcements, mobile compatibility, and increased accessibility for the visually impaired.

What can you not do in plain text emails?

Plain text does not allow embedded imagery, clickable buttons, interactive elements, custom styling and fonts, branded visual templates, or open and click tracking.

What are ways to optimize plain text emails?

Use white space, line breaks and lists for easy reading. Craft a compelling subject line. Write concisely. Make the CTA stand out. Send a follow-up HTML message with visuals.

How do you track analytics for plain text emails?

You can include clickable links to track some behavior. But without HTML code, opens and clicks cannot be fully tracked. Some email services let you detect when links are clicked to estimate opens.

Can you switch between HTML and plain text in the same email series?

Absolutely. Many email marketers use HTML for newsletters and promotions then plain text for one-to-one outreach. Just be sure to design both formats well.

Should you ask subscribers their email format preference?

Yes, allowing subscribers to choose their preferred format or opt-out of HTML ensures your emails match their reading experience. Segmenting lists based on preferences is ideal.

What’s the best way to create HTML emails?

Use a tested framework like a pre-built responsive template through your email service. Hand coding HTML from scratch is extremely complex. Most opt for the template route.

Hopefully these answers help provide a handle on choosing and optimizing HTML vs plain text email formats for your campaigns!