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Article first published in January 2015, updated June 2019

We’re pretty big fans of beautiful HTML emails over here at Campaign Monitor.

We recently compiled the top 97 top email marketing campaign examples from campaign monitor clients, we launched a free tool to help you create them, and we regularly write about how to structure themcode them, and optimize them for conversion.

However, one thing we don’t talk about as much are plain-text emails and how to use them to drive conversions.

That’s why, today, we wanted to share with you some best practices for sending plain-text emails that convert.

The importance of plain-text emails

Although they’re not quite as pretty, sending plain-text emails alongside your HTML email is quite important for a couple of reasons:

  • Preferences – Some people prefer plain-text emails over their HTML counterparts and email clients like Gmail and Outlook do allow people to view the plain-text-only version quite easily.
  • Email client support – While virtually all email clients these days support HTML email, new wearable devices like the Apple Watch are likely to default to plain-text emails due to their limited screen size, meaning the plain-text email could be making a comeback in the near future.

What is the difference between HTML emails and plain-text emails?

There are a few differences between HTML emails and plain-text emails that are worth noting.

The first difference is the most obvious, and that’s in how each type of email appears. Typically, plain-text emails are just that—emails typed out in a standard format with very few, if any, images videos, or GIFs. When plain-text emails do make use of these, they’re typically shared using a link within the text instead of being uploaded into the email itself.

There are a few differences between HTML emails and plain-text emails that are worth noting.

Source: Gmail

An HTML email, however, makes use of coding to create visually appealing emails. These emails have GIFs, images, and videos often embedded directly into the email to help retain the reader’s attention, while company branding through logos and varying colors are used to make the email stand out from the crowd.

Source: Gmail

How do I convert HTML to plain text?

Converting HTML language to plain text is possible thanks to the many tools available online. Many email providers are including HTML-to-text email converters in their available tools.

One tool available is the xmlgrid.net online HTML to plain text converter. With this tool, users can upload an HTML document, or simply copy and paste a URL with HTML content in it into the first box, select the node they want to be converted, hit “Convert,” and the plain-text version is displayed in the bottom box.

In our test, we used the URL:
We entered this URL into the top box, then selected the “body” node from the list within the box.

We entered this URL into the top box, then selected the “body” node from the list within the box.

Source: xmlgrid.net

Once we hit “Convert,” we were given the following plain text:

Once we hit “Convert,” we were given the following plain text:

How do I include a plain-text version of HTML email?

As wonderful as HTML emails are, it’s considered an email best practice to include a plain-text copy, in case your subscriber’s email client has trouble loading the HTML version, for whatever reason. Many marketing tools, including Campaign Monitor, now make it easier than ever to send a plain-text copy of your HTML emails by automatically generating a plain-text copy.

How to send plain-text emails that convert

If you use an email marketing service like Campaign Monitor, then the tool will automatically create a plain-text version of your campaign and send it alongside the HTML version.

However, given the importance of these plain-text emails, it’s worth spending a little bit of time optimizing it to help ensure you get the maximum amount of conversions from your campaign.

So, on that note, here are several ways you can optimize your plain-text email to help increase readability and conversions.

Leverage whitespace to make it easily readable.

Leaving areas of open white space in between groups of copy helps increase readability and improve comprehension.

In fact, psychologists found that, when readers looked at web-based copy, white space and margins were more satisfying to read and caused them to slow down and examine the information more carefully

To demonstrate the impact, let’s look at an example of two plain text emails with and without proper use of whitespace.

Without whitespace:

With whitespace:

As you can see, breaking the email up with some extended whitespace makes it much more legible and helps prevent people from being overwhelmed and simply clicking away.

Create a hierarchy.

One of the biggest drawbacks of plain-text email is you can’t use common text formatting elements, like headers, in your email design.

However, even without those things at your disposal, it’s important to create an information hierarchy to help readers comprehend how the different elements in your email go together to form a complete story.

The best way to do this is using either capital letters or symbols to establish your headers.

To illustrate, here are two instances of the same email we’ve been using through this post, one with a defined header and one without.

Without a defined header:

With a defined header:

As you can see, by defining the header using some basic plain-text formatting tricks, you can still create a visual hierarchy that separates the various elements of the email and makes it easy to consume.

Highlight your main CTA.

We recently tested the effect of using CTA buttons in email campaigns and found that they increase conversion quite significantly.

However, buttons don’t increase conversions because people simply love clicking on them. They increase conversions because they stand out above the rest of the content and focus the user’s attention on the call to action.

Even though you can’t use fancy buttons in plain-text emails, you can still use other formatting tricks to make them stand out above other content and draw the reader’s attention.

Characters like the asterisk (*) or angled brackets (< >) can be used to surround CTAs and, when combined with a bit of extra whitespace, can help your CTA get noticed.

Without CTA formatting:

With CTA formatting

By adding angled brackets and a bit of extra whitespace, we were able to make the CTA stand out from the body text, while still maintaining the information hierarchy of the email. This means people still consume the email in the order intended (heading, body, CTA) but are much clearer on what the next step is.

Real-world examples of plain-text emails in action

Plain-text emails are still very relevant in today’s fast-paced world. In fact, many big businesses still make use of plain-text emails in their automated campaigns.

Microsoft 365 renewal email

Microsoft includes a nicely formatted plain-text email for their Office 365 users. In this email example, we see that the only real formatting included is the Microsoft logo and a blank sidebar to move the text over. Everything else is plain-text, and, instead of hyperlinking the text, they simply add in entire links within it for users to click on.

Microsoft includes a nicely formatted plain-text email for their Office 365 users. In this email example, we see that the only real formatting included is the Microsoft logo and a blank sidebar to move the text over.

Source: Microsoft

Illinois Secretary of State license plate renewal confirmation email

The Illinois Secretary of State also makes use of plain-text emails. In this example, it’s a plain-text transactional email sent out to users who’ve opted to renew their license plates online, instead of visiting their local DMV.

The Illinois Secretary of State also makes use of plain-text emails. Source: Illinois Secretary of State

Your Stay at Marriott summary email

Our final example is of a follow-up email sent after a recent visit to a Marriott hotel. There’s some form of text hierarchy used, and, instead of simply pasting links into the text, Marriott chose to hyperlink relevant anchor text.

Our final example is of a follow-up email sent after a recent visit to a Marriott hotel.

Source: Marriott

Wrap Up

By implementing the three best practices outlined above, we were able to progressively transform a basic plain-text email that was almost impossible to read into a legible, compelling email campaign, complete with headers, CTAs, and more.

So, next time you’re creating and sending an email campaign, don’t just skip over the plain-text version. By implementing these three best practices, you can transform your plain-text email into a conversion machine.

Want to learn more about how Campaign Monitor helps users send plain-text versions of their HTML emails? Check out our helpful article on the subject.Want to improve your email marketing?

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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