Difference Between HTML and Plain Text Emails

HTML vs plain text emails
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Back when email first became a thing, the only type of email you could send were plain text emails. However, with the advancement of technology, HTML emails soon became the standard.

Still, plain text emails have been able to hold their ground and coexist with the rising popularity of HTML. This article breaks down the use of HTML vs plain text and how you can use either or both to elevate your online marketing presence.

HTML vs plain text emails definitions

Before delving into the specifics of HTML vs plain text, let’s first discuss the definitions of plain text emails and HTML emails.

What are plain text emails?

Plain text emails get their name because of their simplistic nature. These emails are the oldest email form, contain text alone, and are devoid of any design, images, or even hyperlinks.

Plain text email example

These emails are usually sent using ASCII or the American Standard Code of Information Interchange. This code comprises all the letters in the English alphabet, a couple of special characters, punctuation marks, and certain symbols. This means of communication had its humble beginnings in teleprinters or typewriters (thus kind of explaining their simplicity) but soon found great use in the world of personal computers.

ASCII is a universal language of sorts. It allows you to get your message across almost all computer devices be it your laptops, phones, or your watches. It is also an efficient tool used in various programming setups.

With ASCII, you only get control as to what characters appear on the screen of your recipient. However, how they appear in font, color, or style depends entirely on the email service provider’s default settings.

Pro tip: While you cannot place images and graphics on plain text emails, you can position characters in a specific way to create a design. This is known as ASCII art (and is probably familiar to a lot of people who had cell phones in the mid to late 2000s).

You can create designs like this:

Example of simple ASCII art sent through text messages
Source: 9GAG

Or, if you fancy a bit of a challenge, you can create something like this:

Example of intricate ASCII art depicting The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Source: Twilio

These emails are best for simple day-to-day interactions such as workplace emails, log-in alerts from apps, and the like. It has also been found that plain text emails work great forB2B marketing allowing for up to 23% more engagement because of their simplicity and intimate feel. 

While they may be basic, they get the job done. Still, plain text emails lack a certain level of impact due to the lack of graphics and design.

HTML emails explained

Nowadays, HTML (HyperText Markup Language) emails are the norm. These emails first rose to prominence in the early 2000s and contain designs (sometimes very complex), images, and hyperlinks that intend to communicate and grab the attention of their recipients.

HTML is a way of coding that is commonly used in web pages. Thus, HTML emails appear like mini-web pages in your inboxes. Web applications and email providers interpret these codes to depict various images, designs, and embedded links on a single page.

Example of HTML email by Nassau Paradise island
Source: Really Good Emails

These emails currently dominate the marketing world and are increasingly used in consumer-targeted campaigns and promotional emails because of their looks and attention-grabbing quality.

Pro tip: Looking to design an HTML email for your campaign? Selzy’s email builder offers various methods to help you either

or

How to tell if an email is HTML or plain text

In short, an email is HTML if it contains graphics and designs, while plain text emails come with text and only text. 

To better understand the situation, check out these examples of emails I received from Metrobank.

This email is a plain text email:

Statement/Promotional email from Metrobank

It contains only text and, aside from the occasional phrase or sentence in bold here and there, it includes no design aspect, hyperlinks, or graphics.

It might be interesting to note that although this email’s primary purpose is to function as a statement email, it also serves a second purpose as a promotional campaign email by including information on the latest promos and reminders that Metrobank has to offer.

This second email is an HTML email:

Promotional email from Metrobank

It contains various graphics and appears more like a digital pamphlet or mini promotional website. This was meticulously designed either by coding or using an email or graphics builder.

In addition, it includes many calls to action and many hyperlinks that the recipient can choose to respond to and interact with.

So, what’s the difference between HTML and plain text?

Aside from their striking differences in outright appearances, HTML and plain text also differ in accessibility, analytics, and tendency to be marked as spam.

Accessibility

In this paragraph, we will talk about accessibility in two ways. 

  1. Accessibility that refers to whether the email service or device is able to view the email as it was intended.

Plain text doesn’t have many issues with this. The absence of images, designs, and other doodads allows them to be viewed by all email service providers and almost all devices.

The only downside to plain text emails is that the sender has no control over what it looks like when viewed. It all depends on how the email service provider chooses the font, color, and style the recipient will see when viewing the email.

HTML, however, has had a bumpier ride due to its more complicated nature. In the early 2000s, when HTML first burst out onto the scene, email providers still weren’t well equipped to decode and display HTML emails. Of course, this changed over time, and most (if not all) email service providers can now show HTML emails with no problem.

However, specific devices still can’t display HTML emails completely. Take smartwatches, for example. Despite becoming more commonplace, these devices still aren’t well equipped to display these types of emails.

  1. Accessibility with regards to how people with disabilities are able to go through your email.

In this case, plain text can easily be read by screen readers that translate their content to Braille as well as other text-to-speech tools manipulated by those who have visual impairments. They can also be a bit friendlier on the eyes because of their simple design.

Conversely, HTML emails because of their graphic nature, might not be as friendly to text-to-speech tools and screen readers due to their flashy graphics. They may also not visually translate as well to those who have color vision impairments.

While they both have issues, plain text is considered more accessible than HTML.

Analytics

Email analytics refers to how you keep track of client interaction with your email. Often, it is how you measure the success of your campaign. The more opens, click-throughs, replies, and overall interaction you get from clients, the better your campaign is.

Because of the lack of personalized links, plain text struggles in this aspect. It’s hard to gauge whether or not your email had the desired impact without embedded links and calls-to-action that your client can interact with or respond to.

On the other hand, HTML dominates in this aspect. In fact, HTML paved the way for email analytics to be born. These emails are specifically designed to enable analytics through the use of various aspects such as links or hidden images that allow them to measure open rates and click-through rates. 

Given that, it is easy to keep track of consumer interaction to gauge campaign success. Plus,  you can use information gathered through these metrics to project customer behavior and improve your next campaign.

With that, HTML has better analytics.

Spam

When it comes to being marked as spam, plain text and HTML have almost the same chances of falling victim.

Plain text email has a slightly lower chance of getting chucked into the spam folder because of its simple style. However, depending on your practices (using a lot of spam language or sending emails too often), these emails can still be mistaken as spam.

To send emails in bulk without getting marked as spam, you need to use specialized software or learn how to work with what you’ve got. To learn more, check out how to send bulk emails and not be a spammer: dos and don’ts.

Meanwhile, HTML is more likely to get marked as spam because of faulty coding or formatting. Several emails also tend to mark them due to the overuse of images if not the email solely containing an image. 

Aside from getting marked as spam, they can also get thrown in the “Promotions” folder that many users tend to ignore.

Avoiding being marked as spam can be pretty tricky, but having the right balance of text and images in your design as well as utilizing a great email service provider can help you a lot.

About hybrid emails

Now, there are some emails out there masquerading as plain text emails but are actually HTML emails. How do they pull it off, you ask? Well, these emails appear as plain text emails but actually contain hyperlinks that make them HTML.

Hybrid emails are constructed to appear simple and intimate (much like plain text emails). But, they contain certain aspects only found in HTML emails such as hyperlinks or calls to action. Sometimes they may even have minimal graphics.

Hybrid email from Maple Jeans
Source: Really Good Emails

These emails are referred to as hybrid emails as they are a hybrid combination of the simplistic appearance of plain text emails and the interactive nature of HTML emails. 

You could say that hybrid emails combine the best of both worlds. As a result, business after business opts to practice the use of this email in several campaigns. 

Question: Did you manage to spot the other hybrid email masquerading as a plain text email in this article? 😜

HTML or plain text: pros and cons of each type

The debate of HTML vs. plain text can get intense, but we cannot deny that each of these emails typically offers its own pros and cons. 

For plain text, you can expect to encounter the following:

Pros:

  • More straightforward and simple design
  • More accessible
  • Lesser chances of getting marked as spam

Cons:

  • Less visual impact
  • Fewer opportunities for personalization
  • Problems with analytics

On the other hand, HTML offers the following:

Pros:

  • More visually appealing and attention-grabbing
  • Allows for ease in analytics
  • Greater freedom for design

Cons:

  • Greater chances of getting marked as spam
  • Limited viewing in certain devices (i.e., smartwatch)

Final thoughts

HTML and plain text emails are both highly efficient tools in email marketing. While they each have advantages over the other, neither can truly trump the other.

In summary:

  • Plain text emails contain only text and are best for overall accessibility, B2B marketing, and simple, intimate correspondence.
  • HTML emails are more personalized and visually pleasing, making them fit consumer campaigns. They also allow for ease in monitoring.
  • Both emails have the potential to be marked as spam if utilized in the wrong way.

Each type offers its corresponding advantages. However, if you want to get the best of both worlds, you can also try forming hybrid emails that combine the simplicity of plain text with the analytical ease of HTML.

Whatever your choice, make sure that the type of email you go for best suits your goals, and allows you to deliver your message the way you want.

Do you use plain text emails?

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