Finding the right words can engage user more than finding the right email layout. Photo by @melindagimpel on Unsplash

Use plain text emails

01 December, 2021

A few notes on how plain text can give a more personal feeling than HTML emails, seems to have better deliverability, and how to properly send HTML emails when you need to.


According to "Not another marketing report 2014" by Hubspot, 2/3 say they prefer styled HTML emails. But in testing, they actually engage and convert better with plain text emails.

An idea is that marketing is thought of in context of billboards, banners and commercials, but when it comes to emails it is perceived as a 1-to-1 conversation by the customers. It's also a nice reminder that people can be poor judges of what they actually want.

My incoming emails

Looking through my email inbox, I see that my plain-text (or close to) emails come from

  • colleagues, friends and family (personal emails)
  • support ticket replies (some, but little html)
  • most welcome emails
  • forgot password emails

While HTML dominantly come from

  • sales emails showing products or promotions.
  • 3rd party emails (when a company uses e.g. Shopify for handling bookings, payments etc.)
  • Blogposts via email

"Your package is enroute" or order receipt emails are split about 50/50 plain text/html.

It seems like a good rule of thumb for describing my email inbox is:

  • 1 recipient = plain text.
  • Multiple recipients = HTML.

Opening rates

Opening rates are affected by the sender name, subject of the email and deliverability. According to Hubspot, it looks like deliverability of HTML emails can suffer.

If we need to send an HTML email, make sure that:

  • The HTML is properly encoded – keep it clean.
  • The email also includes a plain text version.
  • Don't use unnecessarily much HTML – keep it simple.

Summary

  • Adobe Marketo found higher click-through rates for plain text emails.
  • Hubspot found higher click-through rates for plain text emails.
  • Deliverability can suffer with HTML emails if not encoded properly, or if a plain text version is missing.

Subjective thoughts

  • HTML emails requires more work – time spent on visuals is either added or replaces time spent on content.
  • Sales og promotion emails containing more than 1 product can't realisticly work in plain text. "Spammy" emails like these needs to be scannable (html, with images, headers) for me to interact with them at all.
  • Plain text can seem more personal, and work better for existing customers than new ones.
  • Rule of thumb: Always use plain text if you got 1 recipient (at a time), e.g. for reset password links.
  • Every group is different. Your customers are not "average customers". Do a test!
  • Subject line matters most. Always A/B test the subject line.
  • Pushing a brand is simpler with html emails, and may therefore work better for "end user products"?

Offtopic: I read (somewhere) recently about a guy who alwyas sent his emails with the same emoji at the start of the subject line to create recognizability :) Also about someone who in the welcome asked the new user to confirm their email by responding to the email. It increases deliverability (as there is no links), and also his server reputation (as people were engaging with his emails, adding legitimacy). Weird, but genius!

Related links

Almost half of the Google results when searching for "Plain text vs HTML email" is articles written by companies who sell email templates: Stripo, Campaignmonitor, Sparkpost.

Obviously, these sources are bias. Links below seems more trustworthy :)