HTML vs Text - Why bother with HTML at all?

We have been operating a couple of successful ecommerce websites now for the past five years, and to date have never used email for promotions to either our customers or anyone else. Just been to skittish about being labeled a spammer - even with opt-in. (Our concern has been that after six months people will tend to forget that they opted in, and will not hesitate to label any email they don't recognize as spam.)

Still we see all of our competition making heavy use of email, and can't help but think we are missing out on an opportunity to increase our sales. So we have decided to dip our toes into the waters. I have reviewed and studied as much information that I can find about best practices for email, but one thing still eludes me. Why does anyone use HTML based email when there seems to be such huge issues with incorrect display of the message, or a higher risk of the email getting labeled as spam?

I noticed that much of the email I get from larger companies only use text based email. For example the email messages I get from Google are nearly always in plain text.

I am sure I am not unique, but I always have my email software setup to NOT display images in any email messages, and Gmail has that turned on by default. So most of the HTML email messages I get from companies looks butt ugly, and makes a quick trip to my trash folder.

I know that there are some benefits to trackability, and some people do respond better to a graphical message, but I can't help to think that using HTML is simply not worth the risk of having such a large percentage of the email you send out not even looked at.

Or am I missing something here?

Mathew Mathew, 7 years ago

You raise a good point, and for many people plain text is perfect.

However, just as people prefer images on their web pages (remember when the web was almost all just text?), they often prefer some colour in their emails. That's why all the major email clients send in HTML format, mostly by default.

Even for a purely text message, having HTML gives you more control over highlighting important sections, adding some bolding, line height, headings etc. It can make a text heavy email much easier to read.

If you are selling a product, having a picture right there is so much more effective than a text label (although image blocking is a big issue). You do need to design with that in mind.

Although you can point to emails from major companies that use plain text, in the retail area HTML is by far the most popular format. Think of emails from Apple and Amazon for example.

Research has shown that offering people a choice of formats now sees most people choose HTML over text. This probably does not hold true for geeks though.

All of which is to say: You are not your audience. You might not like HTML email, but overall most people do. If your audience is big fans of plain text, then by all means stick to that, but don't just assume it.

Also, you should always provide a text alternative for your HTML of course.


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warrisr, 7 years ago

Thank you for your reply. Makes a lot of sense. In the end I guess we will have to do some A/B testing to see what format really works better for us. Although I am still leaning towards just keeping it simple with text only email, but perhaps using HTML for light formatting as you suggested.

inspiration, 7 years ago

Critical point there, Mathew, and a very well-stated summary: we are not our clients.

The essence of marketing isn't in saying we sent something out, it's in saying something was received. To this point, understanding who we speak to--and adjusting our message to be what they need to hear (not necessarily the same as what we want to say) is SO key.

Well done.

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