HTML or plain-text email: which gets better results?

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It’s a question that often gets asked. And if you want the short answer, there’s not a definitive one. I’m not going to get techie here, but I am going to consider different email formats in terms of marketing effectiveness for your business. And that might help you.

First, some definitions

In the olden days (when monitors were chunky grey boxes and we had dial-up), all emails were sent in a plain-text format. You typed the email in the format provided. Links would show as, well, links (the long URL, that is) and the inclusion of images was just not a consideration.

Think BASIC.

But it got the message across and there was little to upset spam filters (those that existed back then). So, this is the official explanation of plain-text emails in layman’s terms (I’m avoiding techie, remember).

By contrast, HMTL emails are prettier, brighter, image-rich things. They include your logo and fancy formatting if you please. Of course, they’re bigger in file size, but the advance of broadband (be gone dial-up!) made fast work of this.

So, you might ask why on earth you wouldn’t want to use fancy HTML emails all the time? And that, my dear reader, is what I’ll now discuss.

The challenge for HTML emails

Did you know there’s lots of geeky code behind HTML emails? Granted, the likes of MailChimp handles much of it for you. But there remains the risk of bits breaking and links not working.

Your image size can also be a headache. If it’s all too big, the resultant email can become HUUUGE.

So what?

There’s broadband, I hear you say. I know. But there are also spam filters.

Deliverability is a key thing for email. If they all end up blocked by spam filters, you might as well chuck your marketing message in the lake. You can expect a few email addresses to fall foul of spam (assuming good quality data), but no more.

Poorly built HTML emails can become a problem. Check how you’re creating them. Watch your image size. Always check every link is working. You need to keep on the right side of the spam police. If you want to get techie (I don’t) there’s plenty of advice online about avoiding spam traps.

But it’s more than spam. It’s about the reader experience too. Many people (myself included) receive emails with images off as default. That means there can be lots of white space for image-rich HTML emails. If you place your key message in an image, chances are it’s not being seen by everyone.

Tip: avoid placing your special offer in an image! If you do, make sure it’s in text too.

Of course, they might switch the images on (I do if I’m interested). You can help this by mixing up copy with images, so they get the gist and want to see the email in its full glory.

Another issue to watch is new HTML functionality, such as embedded video or scrolling imagery. Not all email platforms recognise and display this yet. In short, don’t get too clever for your own boots.

Make believe plain-text emails

There’s no doubt that whilst real plain-text emails offer lower risks on deliverability (but not always), they can look, well, dull. Fonts and formatting are limited, and the links display in a very long line. Rather uninspiring.

But… an email written from a person to a person, in engaging copy, can be refreshingly interesting. Especially if your inbox is stacked with HTML emails showing all those white boxes where the images should be.

There’s a growing trend in many circumstances to enjoy the best of both worlds. A text-type email can be created within an HTML format. You might still show your logo. Your links can look tidier. And yet, your entire message will show when they receive it and the spam filters will find less to argue with.

I do like this route for many B2B options. It’s plain speaking and professional. We’re used to it in business. We don’t necessarily need all those pretty pictures.

Make your choice carefully

So, which method to choose? That comes down to many factors. Here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. What do you want to achieve?

Might sound silly, but this matters. If you want to introduce your business services to high-level decision makers. I’d choose more of a text approach. And send it from a person. Not info@.

If it’s your e-newsletter with many links to your website. An HTML approach might be better. Short introductions to your stories and link them into your site.

For B2C, HTML is still the preferred option. Though you might stand out with a text style?

2. What’s your business type?

E-commerce companies, for example, generally favour HTML emails. They have product images and links to incorporate. It makes sense.

If you are your brand and expertise, you might wish to opt for a personable, text-heavy style.

3. What’s your level of awareness?

If nobody knows you, there’s an argument that an HTML email with logos and images is best. You might want to build up a brand profile first. So, it might depend if you’re talking to established customers or prospects.

Remember: your message is the powerful bit

Whatever method you choose, the most important aspect (to my mind) is your message. The greatest HTML designed email in the world will not deliver results if the copy is poor.

To create a sharper message, I suggest you read: 10 ways to make your business copy more powerful

Still deliberating between HTML or plain-text emails? Test!

And that’s the joy of email. You can do just that. Try an HTML email complete with many images. Then create a more basic text design (with some fabulous copy). See what works best for your target audience.

Even better, mix the two styles up. There are no rules for this.


I hope my thoughts prompt you to think about how you approach your own email marketing. Too many companies run on auto-pilot. It’s worth switching things up a bit sometimes to see what delivers better results.

Want some help? Always a pleasure. Please get in touch with me.