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Heather Seitz: HTML vs Text: Which is Best for Email?


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HTML vs text, which is best?

If you ask whether HTML emails are better than text-only emails, the answer depends on who you ask.

To listen to the HTML advocates, text is boring and only a Neanderthals would choose to send such antiquated emails.

However, if you ask the text advocates, you’ll hear that HTML is too ‘corporate’, images may be turned off and cause your message to look awful, or even get filtered to the spam folder.  Plus, unless you format for mobile users, your email might be slow to load or look nothing like you intended.

Advocates for each can be surprisingly passionate about their preferred format.  You may have gotten an earful in the past after innocently asking for advice on the subject.

So, which is REALLY better, HTML or Text?

While it may sound unhelpful at first glance, the answer is this: it depends.  This report will no doubt generate controversy among purists on both sides, but that’s Okay.  We’re looking out for what’s best for you and your business.  We’ll take the heat and tell you the unvarnished truth after having used both (gasp) formats over the last decade.

When posing the question about which is better, the mistake is built into the question itself.  In our experience, there is no need to find a ‘one size fits all’ answer.  And, before we’re done here, you’ll discover how to combine the best of both formats. Before we get to that, it’s best to bring up the pros and cons to each format so you can make an informed decision.

Pros of HTML Formatted Emails:

  1. Images: The biggest visual difference between text and HTML is that with the latter you can include images and design in your emails.   In fact, you can make your emails look like a web page or blog post or even a glossy brochure.  This ability can increase the visual appeal and perceived value of your emails.
  2. Branding:  You may have spent a considerable sum on graphic design and branding for your logo and your website and other collateral for your business.  Or, perhaps you work for a company or corporation who has a brand and has a priority to maintain a consistent look and feel across all communication channels, including email.  For this, HTML would be essential.
  3. Tracking: Sophisticated tracking is now possible using HTML emails.  You can determine how many people opened your emails, how many clicked through your links, and you can even place retargeting cookies in your messages so that your subscribers see your ads as they browse the web.  However, all of this requires HTML, though click through and sales can be tracked on your website without HTML in the email itself.

Cons of HTML Formatted Emails:

  1. Images turned off:  For a variety of reasons, including virus protection, many email clients in the past have images turned off by default.  This meant that you could design the most beautiful email with HTML, full of images and branding, and if the images were turned off they would not show up.  Ironically, your subscriber, perhaps unaware of this default setting, would see a very ugly formatted email and perhaps not even be able to read your text.  While this can still be an issue, now with recent changes in how Gmail and others cache images for web browsers, the this problem can be mitigated.
  2. Load time:  In the early days of the Internet all the way through just a few years ago, images could take a long time to load in web browsers and email messages.  This had the effect of frustrating the recipient and could dramatically reduce conversion.  While internet speeds are generally much faster now with improvements in bandwidth, the new frontier is mobile users and if you use images you will want to be careful not to overdo it and keep file sizes small.  You can even choose to create mobile friendly versions of your HTML messages to minimize this issue.
  3. Over-design: While we’re being blunt, there is a risk in letting your graphic design team run wild with HTML emails.  There is a battle between form and function in design and while you want your HTML emails to look nice, the design choices should not impede the readability of the message itself.  For example, there is a regrettable trend in magazines and website design that uses reverse print, meaning that instead of black text on white background the text is white (or worse, some other color) and the background is a color or image. Studies consistently show that black text on white background is easier to read and eye fatigue will not increase your conversions.  If your message is hard to read or confusing because of design, your subscriber is likely to conclude the email is a hot mess and delete it.  This is especially true if your target audience is over 45 or 50 years old.

With that said, let’s look at the other option…

Pros of Text Formatted Emails:

  1. A pile and B pile:  The late, great Gary Halbert was a legendary copywriter and spend hundreds of millions of dollars testing direct mail marketing.  Famously, he believed that people sort their mail over the trashcan into an A Pile and a B Pile – and the B Pile was for junk mail and other undesirable mail that ended up in the trash, unread.  The goal then, as now, is to end up in the A Pile of interesting, personal, or important mail.  This is believed to be true with email messages, too, and there is a school of thought that says text emails have a better chance of being perceived as A Pile material because of reason 2.
  2. Friends and family send text: When you get an email from friends or family it’s almost always text.  Yes, there are exceptions, but most email messages are text and therefore, if you want to look like your message is personal, it makes sense to just use text.  Fancy corporate branding betrays a commercial intent and makes it hard to portray a personal look and feel.  The personal look is favored by direct marketers for the most part, whereas corporate brands tend to prefer the HTML look.  Of course, these roles can be reversed and some corporations want to overcome consumer distrust of big brands by appearing personal and some solo marketers want to look more corporate to appear larger than they are.
  3. Simplicity: Simple black on white text is often easier to read than fancy magazine layout and prevents ‘over design’ as mentioned earlier.  As long as you avoid using large blocks of text and instead break up paragraphs into less than 3 lines each, text can be easier to read.  Beyond design, if you want to craft a quick email to your list, it will most likely be easier in text than HTML, though with well-designed templates the difference could be minimal.  Then again, you have to actually create the template with HTML, whereas with text you do not.

Cons of Text Formatted Emails:

  1. Limited design:  You can’t use images at all in text messages.  You also can’t use tables, borders, or anything else besides plain text.  This may look more personal, but it can be stifling and prevent you from using even the most modest design elements.
  2. Font and Point size: Even within the use of text, you are limited to on the font and size choices.  This can cause the same problem of using reverse print or overly busy lay out design for those over 45 because small font can be hard to read, especially on mobile devices.
  3. No tracking: You can’t use the tracking abilities of email programs or the other features mentioned in the HTML formatted emails.  It bears repeating that here as a negative because an imperative in marketing is the ability to test and track using accurate data.  While open rate data using HTML emails is not perfect and is subject to under-reporting the true open rate, the limitation with text formatting is absolute and unforgiving in this regard.

Which is better?

The answer really depends on your priorities.  You may already know the answer for your situation. Do you need to project a corporate image?  Do you reach the consumer market and want to benefit from that personal look and feel?  Do you need to track opens?

However, as we hinted above, there is another way that can allow you to have the best of both HTML and text.  Format your HTML emails to look like text.  It’s that simple.  You can add in as much or as little design or font changes as you prefer if you want to go beyond just text, but you can keep the file size and mobile friendly and make the email look as close to personal as your brand allows.

By using HTML, even though it looks like plain text, you can get the best text has to offer with the tracking abilities and font choices and formatting options from HTML.  And, you can also add subtle branding and images (like adding a screenshot of a video) that can boost conversions, and still have the benefits of the personal look of text formatted emails.

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