Which E-mail Format Works Best: Plain Text or HTML?
To use HTML e-mail, or not to use HTML e-mail? That is the question e-mail marketers are asking themselves these days. And with good reason. No complete studies, to my knowledge, have been published on whether the plain-text or HTML format works best.
The anecdotal evidence is often contradictory. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I contacted two friends who are experts in the field of e-mail marketing. Here is what they had to say:
“Generally, HTML e-mail results are superior to plain text … it definitely makes sense to use HTML,” says Jeff Wilkin, formerly the CEO of MarketModels, a modeling and data integration company.
“For our customers, text performs best … the tech buyer generally doesn’t like to use bandwidth on e-mail messages and often they refuse it at their e-mail client, or when they sign up. Now that bandwidth is not such an issue, we are starting to see better results in HTML B-to-B e-mail marketing,” says Robert Mendez, CEO of NetHawk Interactive, an B-to-B media buying and strategy company.
As you can see, there are different points of view out there. (I must add that these quotes are excerpts only, and both e-mail marketing experts provided more nuanced views and certainly advocated testing both formats!)
Though I can’t say definitively whether a plain-text or HTML format is right for you, I’d like to provide you with some food for thought. Let’s start with the basics.
Sophisticated e-mail marketers send their sales messages in three distinct formats: AOL, HTML and plain-text. Some mailers try to figure out which formats individual prospects can read by checking domains. For example, AOL recipients are easy to spot by looking for the “aol.com” domain in their e-mail addresses. A mailer would also know that all Hotmail.com accounts can handle HTML. Despite this ability to infer format-reading capability by domain name, many e-mail marketers send both a plain-text version AND HTML version as multi-part MIME attachments to all non-AOL recipients. Then it’s up to the recipient’s e-mail “client” (the recipient’s software) to decide which version to display.
HTML messages that get opened (called “opens”), plus transmissions and deliveries, can all be tracked by the sender. This means that a subscriber can be definitively classed as an HTML recipient. What’s more, the open-rate data can tell you a lot about the quality of a list or subject line—information that’s hard to glean from plain-text mailings. Plain-text recipients can be identified if they click through on an embedded link. (Plain-text recipients and HTML recipients that don’t open or clickthrough can’t be tracked.)
The Case for HTML
As you can see from the information above, if you’re into tracking responses, (and you should be!) HTML can’t be beat. Though there are people out there whose e-mail software can’t read HTML, the number of them is declining quickly. Also, I’ve heard so many anecdotal stories of HTML e-mail results beating the heck out of plain-text results that I’m starting to become a fan.
If you do plan on using HTML e-mail, it is important to consider how your HTML e-mail page will look. There are so many dreadful-looking HTML e-mails out there that you really want to make your page as attractive and readable as possible. This should be a priority!
Take a look at an excellent article by Dr. Ralph Wilson, titled “HTML E-mail: Text Font Readability Study.” The article tells you which fonts and type sizes work best on the Web. Interesting stuff. Published in 2001, it’s still well worth reading! Check it out at: http://www.wilsonweb.com/wmt6/html-email-fonts.htm
The Case for Plain-Text
For all the pro-HTML things I’ve mentioned above, in my own e-newsletters I use plain-text, not HTML. (See: www.levison.com) Why? Because I personally like the simplicity, immediacy and directness of plain-text. Also, my audience is a business audience used to getting business e-mails. I don’t want readers to feel like they’re being sold something or confuse my message for a consumer HTML message selling mortgage refinancing, online drug stores or whatever.
Before laser printing and the web became ubiquitous, I used to advise clients to use a courier typewriter font for their paper direct mail letters. I liked the simplicity and cleanness of the typewriter look. For the same reason, I like plain-text better than HTML, but remember, I’m talking about an e-newsletter. If you’re doing lead-generation to a mass audience, or some rock-em, sock-em business-to-consumer e-mail, test HTML for sure!
The takeaway message this month? HTML e-mail in many cases makes sense, but don’t give up on the plain-text format. As always, in direct-response marketing, test, test and test again!
Ivan Levison is a freelance direct response copywriter who works for such companies as Bank of America, Fireman’s Fund, Intel and Microsoft. Levison writes direct mail sales letters, e-mails and ads. For a free subscription to his monthly e-mail newsletter for marketers, visit his website at www.levison.com. He can be reached at (415) 461-0672 or at email@example.com.