I was born in ’85, and I sent my first email around ’96 (it was a plain text email of course). Back then, I had no idea that I’ll be neck-deep in email marketing and email design today.

I think it was around 2006 when I first struggled with editing an HTML email. As I’m not a developer, I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I got used to it.

I hardly understood the reasons for all those rendering issues. Why did my email look different in Outlook on my computer or in Yahoo Mail? It was a mess, and unfortunately, the situation is still a bit similar.

There are tons of articles talking about email marketing and email design, but you can hardly find a collection of articles that will truly help a non-techie email marketer understand the tech part of email design.

This is why I decided to come up with an article series that will help a non-techie email marketer to understand how those fancy responsive email templates really work.

Before we dive into responsive emails, let’s jump back in time and start with a brief history of email, just to put us on the same page.

The history behind Plain text & HTML emails

Deciding between plain text and HTML for email marketing is widely debated, with good reason. Both approaches offer distinct advantages and disadvantages to your end-users.

Difference between HTML and plain text emails

Plain text emails are emails with just text. It’s regarded as an appropriate approach for personal, text-heavy messages. In contrast, the HTML approach offers visually appealing emails that are easier for users to scan through and digest.

When deciding on your approach, the important thing to consider as an email marketer is the type of message you are presenting to the audience.

Email HTML vs rich text

Plain text emails are text based email messages — no formatting, no buttons, and no images. Unsurprisingly, this approach produces a more personal, one-on-one message for your users.

The following image is an example of a plain text email.

plain text like HTML email

Yes, it’s me talking to myself. I wanted to show you the difference between an actual plain text email (1st email) and one with basic HTML (2nd email).

What exactly is HTML? HTML is a markup language that is used to create web pages, web applications, and email templates with formatted text, images, and links.

The goal of HTML emails is to add a little spice to your messages — buttons, images, text styles, colors, etc.

These days even the simplest messages are HTML based. For example, the link and the italic styling in my email above show that HTML was used to create this message.

There are unlimited possibilities when using HTML. The following email was created with Chamaileon email builder. The software generates robust responsive email code (which includes HTML and CSS).

Free responsive email template

If you want to create similar, visually rich, and responsive email templates, you will need to use both HTML and CSS.

But maybe you don’t have to. Plain text or very basic HTML emails (like my 2nd email) might work better in your industry.

What are the advantages of plain text emails?

Higher chance of delivery to primary inbox in Gmail

As promotional messages were once full of images, emails with plain text or basic HTML are less likely to be recognized as spam.

The rise of wearable devices

Since smartwatches can only display text, the future might favor plain text emails or HTML emails with a plain text option.

Personal communication

People often perceive email as a one-on-one conversation, so plain text gives a personal touch to your message.

What are the disadvantages of plain text emails?

Unable to track open rates

A key component of email marketing is the ability to monitor the impact of each campaign. Unfortunately, you cannot track open rates or enable click tracking in plain text emails. This makes it difficult to track the success of a campaign that employs the plain text approach.

Minimal designs and customization

Since plain text emails don’t include colors, formatting, and graphics, the resulting email will lack visual impact.

Unable to display links

Any URLs included in the message must be fully typed out, which can create visual clutter for the end-users.

Hard to break into sections

An email written in plain text may be difficult to divide into easy-to-read sections due to the lack of visual organization.

Unable to achieve multiple-column formatting

The lack of formatting options in the plain text approach prevents multi-column formatting from being an easy task.

What are the advantages of HTML emails?

There’s no denying that plain text email templates produce simple, visually unappealing messages. In a world dominated by images, HTML emails are often necessary to grab the attention of your subscribers.

There are several advantages to using HTML email templates, including:

Higher conversion rates

Typically, HTML emails have higher rates of conversion when compared to their plain text counterparts in industries such as eCommerce.

Visually appealing emails

can be easily accomplished by incorporating brand images, logos, links, and colors into HTML emails.

Dynamic and personalized emails

With the information you collect on clients, you have the power to send custom content straight to their inboxes. Matched with the variety of formatting options in HTML, the resulting possibilities are endless.

Emails are easier to scan

because HTML based emails can be organized efficiently into digestible sections.

Clickable links and buttons

allow your audience to quickly and easily take action upon receiving your message.

The ability to track open rates

exists only when HTML is used. Email opens are often enabled by adding a pixel (1pxx1px image) to the email’s body and by measuring the downloads. When attempting to gauge the success of your campaign, it is necessary to consider open rates. Click-tracking can be enabled through HTML to understand what your audience clicks.

👉 Learn how to design your first HTML email in Chamaileon – no coding needed!

Comparing Basic HTML to Complex HTML

What happens when we compare basic HTML to complex HTML emails? Does this difference affect your subscribers?

ProImpact7’s Study

In a study done by ProImpact7, two similar emails were tested on 100,000 opt-in users to determine which copy was more effective in engaging customers.

The content of the emails remained the same but the way they presented the information changed. The content of Version A was presented using rich HTML — clickable links, buttons, graphics, and multiple-column format. Version B was presented in basic HTML — clickable links, and basic text formatting.

Plain text email vs HTML email case study

Version B was more effective in engaging customers. Compared to the HTML-rich Version A, the basic HTML utilized in Version B increased visits to the website by 194.51%.

Why? According to ProImpact7:

  • “Many email clients have images disabled by default.” This would have made Version A look broken and
  • “The plain email was more personal (included customer support representative name, plus contact details) and as it loaded in each email client without any problem, so it got read more.”

HubSpot’s Study

In a similar study done by HubSpot, the authors found that the more HTML-rich an email is, the lower the open rate. The authors compared an email written in basic HTML to emails with varying levels of HTML.

One thing was consistent: messages with simpler HTML had higher open rates than HTML rich emails. Why?

The HTML-heavy emails were less likely to arrive in a user’s primary inbox due to various filters set up by email providers.

In the following example, a basic HTML template was compared with an HTML-heavy template. By increasing the amount of HTML in the email, the open rate decreased by 23%.

plain text vs html email case study

One of the reasons for this difference might be that light HTML can help you to get your emails delivered to the Gmail primary tab.

Email plain text to HTML: when to use HTML emails?

While both options have specific strengths and weaknesses, how do you know which approach is better for your audience?

Get to know the interests and preferences of your audience in the following ways:

  • Engage your audience by asking for their input about what they would like to see in their inbox
  • Use a form to collect your users’ preferences when they initially sign up on your website
  • Create and issue a survey to your email list to gather information
  • Include “Yes” and “No” buttons, or a rating scale to allow users the opportunity to quickly provide feedback on the email

If you are still in doubt about which approach to take, then test, test, test.

👉 Download our email testing guidebook!

The integration of HTML into email marketing allows for advanced email personalization. Behavior-based dynamic content can be easily created and sent to your subscribers. And this can only be done when using HTML email templates.

Plain text still has a purpose, but according to Mathew Sweezey, the author of Marketing Automation for Dummies, it is recommended to reserve plain text for one-on-one messages with your audience.

With the endless possibilities to produce personalized, dynamic content, the future (and present) of email marketing seems to be paved with HTML.

Wrapping up

This article is the first piece in our series about email design. Below, you can check out other articles, all dealing with specific topics.

In the forthcoming 9 articles, we’ll go through the ins and outs of email design to help non-technical email marketers understand HTML email like never before.

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