Age Old Debate Revisited: HTML Email v. Plain Text Format

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Ever since the first pretty picture could be sent embedded in an email message, businesses have been struggling with the question of which is more effective, sending plain text emails or using html.  The answer, unfortunately, is still as clear as mud.

On the surface, html seems to be the obvious winner.  The primary benefit of html is that you can send high quality graphics right in this email.  This allows you to include company branding and logos, set the tone of the email through the use of templates and color, or include product pictures.   Theoretically a colorful message gets more attention than plain text, and in this stuffed-inbox climate your customer’s attention is your #1 business asset.

There are still some major disadvantages to sending an html mail.

First, an html email is like sending your customer a web page to their inbox.  And because an html email is like a web page, you should probably know how to code your own before sending.  Although most email marketing services include templates to help you with this, it’s pretty easy to mess the templates up if you don’t have a basic understanding of simple html.

Second, html is harder to deliver.  Most email programs now block all images in your html email by default.  If you haven’t changed your setting, you’ll have to right click on an image to download it or push a button to display images in your emails.  For many of your customers this means their first impression of your email looks incomplete, or even worse, “broken”.

Third, in the same way that web pages look different depending on the browser being used, html email displays differently based on email programs (Like Outlook or Apple Mail) and webmail services (like Gmail or Hotmail).  The best way to avoid problems with this is keeping your mail design simple.  Avoid using css, div tags and embedded tables like you might with a web page.

Should you decide these challenges don’t scare you, perhaps the idea of doubling your work will.  When you send an html email you still need to prepare a plain text one to send at the same time.  It’s necessary to send your html email in Multipart MIME format.  This sends and automatically displays a plain text version of your email along with the html letter for those clients that can’t or refuse to view the html one.  Many mobile devices will also show this version.

While you may be tempted to just copy the text part of your html mail for this purpose, you’ll have to take special care to write a text email that doesn’t refer to images your customer can’t see.  Your call to action will also need special attention.  Because you can’t send a clickable link with a plain text email you’ll need to write out the entire URL.  Fortunately most email viewers will automatically make the link clickable for you.


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