March 16, 2011

Hopefully you’re using a managed email service for email marketing. Otherwise you’re completely insane – you’ll be dicing with server blacklists, trying to manage bounces and unsubscribes manually, and faffing around with ancient technology like Outlook mail merges.

One of the big questions for email marketing is ‘Should I send my email in a pretty HTML template? Or is plain text better?’ There are some good arguments for and against each approach – but my advice is “it depends”.

Pros of HTML email

  • A well-desiged HTML email looks good and is easy to read
  • With your logos and colours, it is consistent with your brand
  • A well-structured template makes it easy for your reader to find information that’s important to them
  • You’re more in control of how it looks across different email clients
  • HTML allows you to use coloured fonts, bold, italics, bullet points, images, tables of data etc.
  • You can track the open rate of your email via a remotely hosted image hidden in the template

Cons of HTML email

  • An HTML email can look contrived, especially if it has lightweight content in a serious-looking template
  • It can seem impersonal, as a template email often carries the impression of being obviously a mass, one-to-many email
  • Because email templates must be created with HTML tables, it can be difficult to create or change a template if you don’t know HTML
  • If images don’t render, it can look really weird, like a jumble of words on the page floating in space

Pros of plain text email

  • A plain text email looks much more basic, so it feels more personal
  • It feels more like a one-to-one direct communication, compared to an HTML email
  • It’s usually much quicker to write a plain text email – making it suitable for a time-critical news flash

Cons of plain text email

  • You cannot track the open rate, since there are no remotely-hosted images in the message
  • Without the structure and formatting that HTML gives you, a long message can be difficult to present in an appealing way in plain text (e.g. you cannot use a 2-column layout in plain text)
  • You cannot use images, bold, italics, bullet points, tables of data, etc.

So… if you’re sending commercial email, like a monthly newsletter or your latest specials from your online shop, you should use an HTML template. You’ll need to do some planning around it, get some nice images, and format it nicely.

On the other hand, if you just need to tell your 1,000 customers that your office will be closed from 2pm to 4pm tomorrow because the power is going to be off, then a plain text email is perfectly good for this. You can write it and send it in 5 minutes. And because it’s not a marketing exercise, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t know how many people opened it.

Has anyone done any rigorous testing around HTML vs plain-text for email marketing? I would be interested to hear the results.