Plain Text vs. HTML – the Conversation Continues

In previous posts we’ve looked at html vs. plain text emails and also shown you ways to optimize your plain text campaigns. The question of which converts better is an on-going debate and the fact is most email marketers have had success from using both types in their email newsletters. OK, maybe it’s not so much a debate.  After all, neither party can really bash the other’s preferred method if it’s getting desirable results, right?

However, does one actually out-perform the other in terms of converting? Unfortunately there isn’t a straight answer. Yes, plain text emails have an easier time of slipping through spam filters, but it also depends on your target market, segmentation and what message it is that you are trying to convey.

Perhaps first of all we need to determine what ‘conversion’ means for you. Your call to action could be:

  • Clicking through to the desired landing page
  • Downloading a report or white paper
  • Subscribing to a newsletter
  • Completing a survey
  • Making an enquiry
  • Ordering or purchasing a product or service or
  • Requesting further information

Your specific call-to-action might determine the type of email message you send. Does your message rely heavily on visuals or images, or can you achieve similar results by directing subscribers to an external URL through a link in your plain text email message? Image heavy emails are considerably more difficult to get through to your subscribers. Spam filters zone in on them, they are often blocked by default, they can turn your once beautiful design into a something that looks like a two year child has drawn (read: messy and nonsensical) and the message can be lost completely if you haven’t bothered to include alt text.  If you’re going to go the image heavy route though, don’t embed them. This way, subscribers can at least decide whether they want to download them or not.

With the increasing difficulty that email marketers face in reaching their subscribers inbox, many find that plain text emails make it easier to slip through the spam filters. While they might not provide as much eye-candy as their html counterparts, if they’re getting through, it means you have a greater chance of engaging with your subscribers the way you intend. And if you’re engaging, you’re probably converting too.

Another thing we need to take into consideration is the increasing number of people who access their email on a mobile device. You might be surprised to find a significant percentage of your subscribers do this (if you haven’t already, you should do a short survey to find out which of them do, or add the option to your email preference centre and segment accordingly). Right now, there are still a few problems with html email rendering on mobiles. No doubt it’s gotten easier but for now, quite a few marketers prefer to still use plain text emails for their mobile subscribers. There’s less risk and it increases the chances of their messages being read and acted on. Plain text emails generally load faster (or seem to because they are image ‘free’) and if you’ve optimized your copy, they should be easier to read on the screen. If however, you’re intent on using html then stick to a single call-to-action image and make sure the message you want to get through is absolutely clear.

Because html and plain text conversion can depend on your target audience and segmentation you should experiment (sorry, I mean test) each version against each other. Be sure to also test different variables, notably subject line, calls-to-action, body content and landing pages, all of which can be changed in both plain text and html emails. This way, you can see for yourself which version converts better for each type of message and decide from there whether html or plain text is best for you.

When it comes down to it, there is no denying that a beautifully designed html email that renders correctly, has a clear call-to-action, links to all the right places and has the necessary bells and whistles sticks in people’s minds. However, if you’re still in the learning stages of creating email campaigns, then take your foot off the heavy html pedal and stick to content and a layout that you know will reach your subscribers. Don’t worry, email marketing is a long term ‘relationship’ and there’s plenty of time to impress them at a later stage with your awesome design skills.


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