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Case Study | Feb 26
Eddie Shleyner on July 4, 2018 (last modified on June 8, 2020) • 14 minute read
HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. It’s code. HTML emails are dressed up. They’re nicely formatted and decorated with images.
Plain text is just that: words on a page. It’s not code. Plain text emails are basic, simple. They don’t have italics or bolding or formatting or visuals.
Both types can be effective at engaging an audience — at compelling people to read, click, and act — but which does so better? Is there even an answer to this question? To find out, Databox did some research.
We polled dozens of marketers, asking them a single question: Do you prefer sending HTML or plain text emails?
The results came back as we anticipated they would: 62% of marketers said they send a hybrid of both plain text and HTML designed emails as part of their strategy. [Tweet this stat.]
Only 20% and 16% of marketers actually prefer HTML or plain text, respectively. [Tweet this stat.]
In other words, most brands are still trying to figure out what type of email works best for their audience, for their business. This article aims to help answer that question by presenting a logical case for both plain text and HTML.
*Editor’s note: It’s easier to see which type of email send works best when you can track performance in real time. To make things easier, here are 2 free templates to track your email marketing campaigns in real time. Grab this one if you track email performance in Google Analytics, or, grab this one if you track in HubSpot.
Plain text emails are easy-to-read because, like most books and letters, they’re free of distractions. This also makes them feel more personal and intimate. A plain text email has the appearance of an exclusive correspondence, as though the sender crafted her message with only the recipient in mind.
“For sales inquiries, cold outreach, and networking follow-ups, plain text email is by far the best option,” said Ian Evenstar, CEO at UNINCORPORATED. “Customers and prospects want and deserve one-on-one communication.”
This makes plain text emails the favorite among B2B marketers and salespeople who are striving to forge meaningful, long-term relationships with individual prospects.
Here’s what our other survey participants had to say about why they prefer to send plain text emails:
One Tip: When it comes to lead nurturing emails, we’ve found that the more an email looks like it was sent from Outlook, the better they perform.
For example, we have a client who was sending monthly emails to their internal team with an email template. The emails got next to no engagement. We decided to copy the formatting from our client’s Outlook signature and remove all “template” elements from the messages. The next email we sent in that format had an excellent open and click rate.
For monthly newsletters, it’s hard to not use a designed template simply due to the nature of the email. The less-designed the templates can be, though, the better they’ll perform. At least in my experience.
One Tip: As a B2B marketer, I exclusively send text-based HTML email. Every email is written from a tone of a real person instead of an organization. Because of this, we get a very high reply rate and click through rate. The from name is always someone’s first and last name and is signed by that same person. All replies come to a shared inbox.
This focus on conversational email has helped us to close many deals that start as automated marketing emails. Conversations from real humans, even if they start via automation, are what close deals in the B2B world.
One Tip: Hands down, plain text works better when communicating with prospects/leads.
I use inbound marketing along with my regular email. The inbound marketing software I use allows me to know specifics about when/if the email I sent was opened, and then automate tasks based on links clicked within the email as well as actions taken on my website.
I see a higher open rate and click rate with plain text emails and also a much higher rate of replies! I think this is likely because a plain text can appear more personal and even when I’m blasting out 3000+ emails, I automatically input their name and/or business name within the content I’m writing.
This ensures that the topic remains centered on THEM and not ME trying to sell them something. Even if you’re trying to sell something, a plain text email appears less “gimmicky” and more inviting and personal.
The only time we send out HTML emails is for a newsletter or promotion.
One Tip: Although I visually prefer HTML emails, I do find that plain text performs better.
Specifically, in the IT space, they tend to lead to higher open rates. This may be because of the additional security considerations of IT professionals as HTML emails are more apt to land in promotional folders or be flagged/filtered by some email providers based on security rules.
One Tip: Plain-text emails perform better for our team and we usually recommend these types of emails for most of our clients.
Why? First, because plain-text emails get a higher deliverability rate. Second, because plain-text emails look more personal and less salesy than HTML design emails. Finally, because these emails look more natural and personal, their conversion rates (e.g., clicks, responses) are much higher.
One Tip: Although HTML emails generally look a lot better, we found that for most of our B2B email campaigns, simple, plain text emails get better engagement.
They look more personal, easy to read and digest – unlike some emails that have bold visuals; people tend to immediately want to delete or move on to the next email as soon as they realize the email they just opened has marketing content.
It obviously depends on your audience and industry; if you are a travel agent you would want to use emails with images, a nice design etc. – if you are a B2B company selling consulting services to other B2B companies – you would (not always) want to make your emails look as personal as possible (eg. make it look as if someone from your sales team is sending the emails directly, rather than from a marketing automation platform).
One Tip: While the trend has been a reduction in plain text emails, often times they perform better in many circumstances based on user preference, relevancy, they’re transactional or information based, or simply put, they’re easier to digest.
From a design perspective, when creating text-only messages, even though descriptive text may be required due to the lack of imagery, it’s still important to not overindulge and to keep the content bite-sized. In order to make the message more meaningful, it’s often best practice to break the “wall of text” into smaller chunks which helps the recipient process, understand, and remember it better.
Simple techniques like formatting text so its displayed in a consistent pattern, showing a clear visual hierarchy of text by adding additional white space, utilizing bulleted lists and emphasizing call-to-actions can help improve usability and performance.
One Tip: From a B2B standpoint, plain text outperforms dramatically, typically by an order of magnitude (e.g., 4X – 9X better) when asking for any type of engagement, like a reply.
The reason is pretty simple: HTML emails are obviously coming from one-to-many, as opposed to one-to-one, which is the point of personalized outreach.
Interestingly, click-through rates can be — and usually are — better than HTML emails, which by industry average are in the 1-2% range. Having a link as either a sample, proof point, signature element, or even as a call-to-action perform far better than HTML.
The Advisor Coach
One Tip: I have found that plain text works better for me than HTML because my email list contains a lot of financial services professionals, including insurance agents, mortgage brokers, financial advisors, and so on.
These people are in highly-regulated industries and their companies often set up such strong controls on their emails that sometimes they don’t even see it if it’s HTML-based. I have never had an HTML email ouHTMLorm a plain text email.
HTML emails are visual. They feature colors and graphics and formatting options that catch the eye and highlight information. Their media-rich aesthetic is engaging, perfect for marketers trying to drive engagement behind a new product, feature, or event.
“We tested it, and a nicely designed email always worked better in terms of click-through rate,” said David Balogh, CEO at BOOM Marketing. “I think this is because people know the email is being sent by a big brand with a team behind it.”
This makes HTML emails the favorite among B2C brands striving to appeal to a wide audience that buys on emotion rather than logic.
Here’s what our other survey participants had to say about why they prefer to send HTML emails:
One Tip: HTML seems to perform better on the marketing side, plain text better on the sales side.
One Tip: Here at Campaign Creators, we ran our own tests and interestingly found out that HTML performed better for us for our bi-weekly newsletter.
Both formats in our A/B tests were sent out to 700+ different readers and the HTML emails had better open rates (6.52% higher) and a significantly higher click-through rate (60.67% higher) than our plain text version.
However, while we have found that our weekly newsletter performed better with heavier HTML elements, our nurturing campaign emails tend to do better with a more simplified HTML approach. My theory is that people are familiar with receiving newsletters in this format – heavier HTML and more visual elements. On the other hand, our nurturing emails serve to build a more personal relationship with the recipient, and in this context, a plain text email is better suited and expected.
It seems that the majority of research out there tends to favor plain text emails, but our own personal results showed otherwise. Every business is different and the performance of either email format will vary. So, what can your business take away from this? Test for yourself, the results may surprise you.
One Tip: We have used both email formats as a means to not only communicate with our clients but also generate successful email marketing campaigns. When it comes to communicating with clients, keeping things in plain text makes things more formal, organized, and straight to the point.
When it comes to email marketing, on the other hand, using HTML emails have provided our clients with the best results. One thing that an email must do is to catch the user’s attention immediately. You only have a few seconds to get their attention, and this could spell the difference between gaining traffic or getting skimmed over. HTML emails have helped us craft interesting and well-designed emails that garner a lot of organic interactions and gain more conversions overall.
With Google launching new AMP features into emails and advertisements within the year, using HTML emails is an option one should be using, as it provides users with more functionality and interaction compared to regular plain text emails.
One Tip: I have a slightly differentiated opinion on the matter. In general, I see HTML emails as the better way, as they allow to present the content in a layout that the user already knows and can recognize. Especially for product-driven emails and services that involves emotions (such as travel, automotive, etc.). However, plain text email can provide added value for special occasions.
For example “a letter from the CEO” in a welcome cycle or a win-back message that is personally written and looks like it comes from Outlook, can bring very good KPI. I expect the reason for this being the fact that ever less personal plain text emails are being sent. Therefore, a simple email sent from a representative of a company stands out from the crowds. And this is what drives KPI.
I think for product communication and especially sales, HTML is (and will remain) the format of choice. And if it is crafted carefully, cross-device rendering and spam false-positives are not an issue there.
One Tip: Being a B2C brand that focuses on creating the most realistic artificial Christmas trees available, we tend to design the majority of our emails in HTML with a focus on the images – we want to give people a glimpse of how our product can make their celebrations come to life and image-based HTML emails help convey that better than plain text.
That being said, we also include a plain text version of every email that we send.
One Tip: HTML is better from a user experience perspective. It requires more time, effort and, resources, but provides an optimal experience.
Michael J. Schiemer
One Tip: On a large scale, I’d certainly go with HTML because of the value you’ll get from rich media. It makes your business look more professional and legitimate. It allows for greater possibilities with headers, GIFs, videos, and infographics just to name a few. Just make sure you are also offering a plain-text version along with the HTML option.
On a very small scale, though, plain text emails can work well. I do reach out to individuals or small groups (10-100) through plain text emails with my company Outlook email address or personal Gmail because there is a lower chance of it being received in their Promotional, Other, Clutter, or Spam folders. And without HTML media there are fewer distractions.
When it comes to email, there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules for marketers to follow.
Are Plain Text emails only to be used by B2B brands? No, not exclusively.
Are HTML emails only to be used by B2C brands? Of course not.
As marketers, we should always be testing, collecting data, and using it to inform our decisions.
Here’s what several survey participants had to say about their experience with both HTML and Plain Text emails:
One Tip: HTML designed emails and plain text or non designed emails typically perform equally in our tests, across our various accounts.
Why? Each email purpose and goals are different, and different people react to emails differently. It also depends on if the majority of your target persona use an offline email client, web-based email client, or mostly mobile. The main takeaway… always test and see which type of email works best for you.
One Tip: In my experience both types of email work in a different segment.
For example, we found that it’s better to use designed (HTML) emails for B2C companies with bigger lists (like an e-commerce store). We tested it, and a nicely designed email always worked better in terms of CTR and CR. I think this is because people know the email is being sent by a big brand with a team behind it, so a plain text email just looks amateurish.
Although in B2B companies – mostly smaller ones, like our agency – we got a much higher response and CTR rate when we sent out plain text emails in my name (as the CEO). A lot of people replies to an email when we ask for the opinion, which didn’t happen with a designed email.
So, a plain text email might work better, but only if it’s believable that the actual person is writing for me directly.
One Tip: When discussing plain text vs. HTML emails, its best to consider the audience and email classification before choosing one type for another.
For sales inquiries, cold outreach, and networking follow-ups, plain text email is by far the best option. Customers and prospects want and deserve 1-on-1 communication. Plain text emails feel more personal and look like they were sent from a dedicated representative.
Although plain text emails perform better than HTML emails in general, there are instances where your business may want a well-designed, media-rich, HTML email. Giveaways, event promotions, and new product announcements are fantastic opportunities to build excitement, highlight new features, and share a compelling message.
If you’re consistently experiencing low open rates and engagement, A/B test a plain text email vs. an HTML email. In some ways, less is more when it comes to email marketing.
At Databox, we agree that B2C brands benefit from HTML and that Plain Text lends itself to the B2B space. That said, it’s always best to send both, measure the response, and heed the data.
Don’t dismiss anecdotal evidence entirely, but also don’t rely on it exclusively.
Do your own research — and that effort will serve you well.
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