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HTML vs. text email: How to choose the right format for the job

by Kate Lindemann  |  December 2, 2020

7 min. read
Side-by-side comparison of text-heavy and HTML-rich emails from AP and Google.

The rise of HTML emails has given marketers a lot of choices. Should marketing emails be sleek, professionally designed works of art, or should they look more like a regular email correspondence?

In this overview, we’ll tackle the question of when to use design-heavy HTML vs. text email, so you can weigh the pros and cons and decide which format to use for your email marketing.

What are HTML and text emails?

The HTML vs. text email debate is full of confusing (and often misused) terminology. So let’s clarify a few definitions before we proceed.

Plain text emails

Plain text emails are emails without any formatting. That means no bold or italics, no fonts, no hyperlinks.

You’ll notice I’ve been using the term ‘text’ emails instead of ‘plain text’ emails. That’s because the HTML vs. plain text email debate was settled years ago, and HTML won. Nearly every email we send and receive today is an HTML email.

Screenshot of email draft in Outlook with option to disable HTML for plain text..
A true plain text email requires actively disabling HTML formatting.

There are still a few situations that require plain text, like email displays on some smartwatches. For these cases, email programs automatically generate a plain text alternative to every HTML email you send.

HTML emails

Many people equate HTML emails with highly polished marketing emails. However, most ‘regular’ emails are HTML emails too. That includes personal email correspondence and quick notes to your coworkers. If your email includes a signature, hyperlinks or the option to change font size, it’s an HTML email.

On the other end of the spectrum are sleek and fanciful designs. HTML is a web programming language, so it’s extremely flexible. In the hands of a skilled web designer, it can produce stunningly visual emails – something that more closely resembles a magazine ad than a traditional email.

HTML-rich email examples from Bellroy and Adobe Creative Cloud.

Text emails

What some people actually mean when they say ‘plain text’ is an HTML email with minimal formatting. For marketing emails, that means a simple design with mostly text and some no-frills design elements like a logo or subheadings. To avoid confusion with plain text emails, we’ll call this type of simple HTML email a ‘text’ email.

How HTML became the standard

A decade ago, experts advised caution with HTML formatting, because it wasn’t compatible with certain email clients. Now, email providers have caught up with the times. All major email clients can display HTML emails without any issues.

HTML emails from Adobe and Sonos that use images and different font sizes.

It’s easy to see why HTML has become the standard for marketing emails. Formatting and email design options have huge aesthetic advantages, allowing marketers to use on-brand colors and dazzling images. Using different font sizes for headings and calls to action makes important information stand out and improves readability.

What’s more, HTML opened the door to one of the biggest benefits of email marketing: email analytics. Analytics tools automatically embed tracking links and images in the HTML code of emails, making it easy to track clicks, opens and other metrics for success.

Should you use advanced HTML or basic text?

Since most emails are HTML emails, the question of HTML vs. text email is a bit of a false dichotomy. The real question is how much design and HTML formatting to use in your marketing emails. There’s a whole range of options between size 11 Calibri and glossy, image-heavy design.

Screenshots of four emails showing range of HTML richness.
HTML richness is a spectrum, not an either-or choice.

What makes sense for your brand?

One consideration in deciding how much HTML formatting is right for your campaigns is your brand identity. If cool, sleek design is central to who you are, your email campaigns should reflect that.

That goes double for product marketing. You’ll never convince someone to buy a sofa or a pair of shoes with words alone. When your main message is that your product looks great, stunning photos are a must.

Highly visual emails marketing Hay sofas and Under Armour sneakers.

On the other hand, if you’re a B2B marketer cultivating a conservative brand image, a no-frills email campaign might feel old-school in a good way.

In general, glossy HTML-rich emails have become the norm in consumer marketing, but text-heavy emails remain popular in B2B settings.

Regardless of which path you choose, email is a powerful branding opportunity. Even the most barebones campaign should include basic brand signifiers, like your logo and color scheme.

Emails from Starbucks and McDonalds showing on-brand colors and logos.
Use logos and colors in marketing emails for unmistakable brand recognition. It’s clear at first glance that these emails come from Starbucks and McDonalds.

What do your customers prefer?

People say they like more design, but the data is murky

Email marketing experts have tried to find a definitive answer to the HTML vs. text email question by measuring actual performance data.

It’s intuitive to assume people will be drawn to emails with more images, and marketing surveys back that up. Two thirds of people say they prefer beautiful email design with lots of images over emails with mostly text.

However, preferences only come into play if people actually see your email. One experiment found that including more images in email campaigns reduced open rates. The team behind it theorized that email providers sorting HTML-heavy emails into a separate ‘promotions’ tab were to blame.

Screenshot of Outlook's Focused Inbox feature, which sorts marketing emails into a separate view.

On the other hand, more recent data suggests that too much text can be just as harmful. When Mailchimp analyzed the image to text ratio of emails sent through their platform, they found that emails with fewer words per picture almost always performed better.

So what should you do?

What do all these conflicting experiments and changing trends mean for you? There is one common thread that provides some guidance: Don’t use too many images or too many words.

Short emails that balance text and images allow you to employ thoughtful, sleek design without massive amounts of HTML coding that might get caught up in spam filtering systems. Plus, short, direct emails are good practice from a communications standpoint anyway.

Emails from Apple and Canto that balance text and visual elements.

But don’t just take my word for it. Conduct your own experiments to find out what works best for your audience. Use A/B testing to pit heavily designed email campaigns against more pared down versions with the same message.

Numbers don’t lie. If you see a clear difference in engagement, you’ll have your answer.

Differing industry norms and a host of other factors all make a difference. So conducting your own experiments on your own mailing list is always the surest path to successful email campaign optimization.

Technical considerations

While HTML deliverability issues aren’t as acute as they once were, faulty HTML formatting will land you in customers’ spam folders – and get your domain branded a suspicious sender.

Complex HTML is more of a gray area with slight risk. It will probably reach most of your customers just fine, but might be cordoned off into a ‘promotions’ or ‘other’ tab in some inboxes. The extent to which glossy, well-designed emails are essential to your brand image – and the results of your A/B testing – should help you decide whether this risk is worth it.

Laptop with email marketing templates on screen.

One of the many advantages of using a dedicated email marketing tool is that you can be sure your emails are formatted correctly and sent from a trusted domain. This will reduce the chances of raising any red flags with your customers’ spam filters.

Let’s recap

While the HTML vs. plain text email debate is long settled, the HTML vs. text email debate is alive and well. Marketers still have to decide just how much HTML formatting is right for them.

On one end of the spectrum are emails so bare-bones they might as well be plain text. On the other, HTML masterpieces. Most companies will be best served by something between those extremes – a short email with moderate HTML formatting, on-brand colors and a balance between images and text. That way, each email can be polished and branded, but not overwhelming.

However, as with all things email marketing, it’s best let your brand identity be your guide. If you’re still not sure, A/B test a wide range of options and let cold, hard data make the final call.