HTML vs Plain Text Email: Making the Right Choice for Your Campaigns 

html vs plain text email cover with screen showing html code

Plain text in emails focuses on simplicity and deliverability, while HTML gives you rich formatting and visuals. Plain text is your best option if you want maximum visibility. 

You’ve carefully crafted your message for your next campaign, and now it’s time to build the campaign. 

But there’s a lingering question in your mind: should you go with a straightforward, plain-text email or an eye-catching HTML design? 

This decision is about more than just aesthetics; it’s about choosing the path that will define how your audience interacts with your message.

Go with HTML, and you risk your beautifully designed email getting lost in the promotions tab. Opt for plain text, and your message might not have the impact you want. What’s the best choice? 

We’re here to help you find an answer to the age-old question of HTML vs. plain text emails. We’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of deliverability, unravel the technical side of email creation, and decode how your choice of formatting might affect your campaign metrics. 


Table of Contents


HTML vs Plain Text Email: Which is Better?

Let’s cut to the chase. You’re most likely here for a definitive answer, and we have one: plain text with minimal formatting. 

In email marketing, less is usually more. Plain text emails often enjoy better deliverability and more engagement. 

So, keep your emails simple and light. Don’t use too many banners, buttons, or other graphics if you want your emails to steer clear of the promotions tab — or the spam folder. 

Now, if the answer is so clear-cut, why did we go into the trouble of writing this piece? 

Because you need to understand the logic behind the answer. This way, you don’t have to take our word for it. And if there’s ever a situation where HTML is the better choice — which there is — you’ll know how to decide. 


HTML vs Plain Text Email: What’s the Difference?

HTML and plain text emails are mainly different in terms of design and functionality. Plain text emails are just straightforward text, but HTML emails can contain images, fonts, and formatting. 

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. It’s the standard language to create web pages. It uses various tags to structure and display content. For example, you can use specific tags to insert images, change font styles, create lists, and even layout entire sections with different backgrounds and colors. 

This capability makes HTML emails versatile since you can create emails that match your brand identity and engage recipients with a visually rich experience.

 


Plain Text Isn’t Really “Plain” These Days

Before we go any further, we need to go over some history. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, a plain text email was exactly what it sounded like: just text without any formatting, images, or styling. 

A pure plain text email looks like it was typed out on a basic text editor — no colors, no different font sizes, just straight-up text.

But today, when we say “plain text emails,” we mean emails that look like plain text. In most cases, these emails are still created using HTML, but they have minimal styling. That means no fancy visuals, flashy colors, or complex layouts that you might associate with typical HTML emails.

The objective of modern plain text emails is to combine the best of both worlds: the responsive design, dynamic content, and tracking abilities of HTML with the simplicity and high deliverability of traditional plain text emails.

So, these days, if you send emails that only contain text, you’ll still have no trouble tracking and personalizing them. 

With that brief explanation, let’s go deeper into the differences. Here’s a summary table before we start: 

CriteriaHTML EmailsPlain-Text Emails
Deliverability LowHigh 
AnalyticsAdvanced Limited 
PerformanceVariedHigh 
Design featuresFlexibleNone
Visual appealHighLow 
ReadabilityDepends on design High
Accessibility issues With screen readersNone
Compatibility issues With old email clients None
Comparing HTML and plain-text emails

Plain Text Emails Have Higher Deliverability

Email deliverability is the measure of how successful an email is at getting into recipients’ inboxes. It’s an important metric in email marketing because an email that doesn’t get in front of your audience, doesn’t make an impact, no matter how well-crafted it is.

Email providers use spam filters to decide whether an email goes to the primary inbox or the spam folder. 

On top of sender reputation, these filters scan incoming emails for signs that one might be spam: 

  • Email content with trigger words, 
  • Misleading subject lines,
  • Strange formatting, 
  • Too many images,
  • Flashy graphics, 
  • Excessive links.

So, it’s easy to see why HTML emails have a higher chance of being marked as spam — there are more opportunities to set off spam alarms. 


HTML Emails Are More Likely to Land in the Promotions Tab

In 2013, Gmail introduced a tabbed user experience that automatically categorizes emails based on their purpose. Social media updates and promotional messages got tucked away into separate tabs. 

This change made it easier for users to find the most important emails, but email marketers saw their open rates drop. 

If you want to avoid the promotions tab, your messages need to look like regular emails that subscribers would receive from their friends and coworkers, which means less HTML and more plain text. 

Your ESP’s deliverability practices also play a critical role. Our clients at Campaign Refinery enjoy industry-high deliverability. So, their emails rarely end up in the promotions tab — unless they ignore our recommendations. 

The promotions tab isn’t all that bad, though. Over time, it’s become a space where subscribers expect to find promotional emails. So, they’re in the right mindset when browsing through them. 

Google introduced the annotations feature in 2018. It lets email marketers add extra visual elements to emails directly in the inbox, such as images, special offers, and carousels. The recipient doesn’t have to open the email to view these details. 

Here’s what the carousels will look like in your recipient’s promotions tab. 

Promotions Tab carousels
An example of emails implementing Gmail’s annotations for promotional messages

Plain Text Emails Are Less Engaging and Visually Appealing

HTML lets you incorporate colors, images, and custom fonts. These elements add a visual pop and help with brand recognition. 

You can also have big, bold buttons that stand out and invite clicks. It’s possible to design these buttons to match the email’s look and feel and include clear CTAs. 

However, these features aren’t always necessary for a successful email campaign. Sometimes, what your audience values most is direct, clear communication that feels genuine and uncluttered.

HTML emails have their place, especially in scenarios where visual appeal is key. Yet, you should never underestimate the power of a well-written plain text email that resembles a personal note. 


You Can Include Dynamic Content in HTML Emails

With HTML, you can keep parts of the email the same, while changing other parts based on what you know the recipient will like. This technique is called dynamic content.

For example, if you run a clothing store, you can send the same promotional email to all your recipients but add some HTML to show men’s clothes to the men and women’s clothes to the women. You’ll send one email, but the content will adapt automatically. 

You can even take dynamic content one step further and include live content. This way, the email’s content will update when the recipient opens the email, instead of when the email is sent. 

So, if you have a sale and items are selling out, the email can show the most up-to-date inventory or prices.


Responsive Design Is Possible With HTML Emails

Using responsive design means making sure your emails are easy to read on any device, whether it’s a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. 

A mobile-friendly design is important in email marketing because more and more people are reading emails on their phones. If an email doesn’t look good on a small screen, people are likely to ignore it. 

HTML emails are necessary for creating responsive designs. They use a special coding language, known as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), to change the way the email looks depending on the screen size. 

For example, on a small phone screen, an HTML email can show a single-column layout with big text and buttons that are easy to tap. But on a larger desktop screen, the same email can show a more complex layout with more details. 

This kind of smart adjustment isn’t possible with pure plain text emails. Plain text emails are just basic text without any styling, so they look the same on every device. 


Creating HTML Emails Requires More Technical Expertise

While HTML emails can be more engaging and offer a wide range of design possibilities, they definitely require more technical know-how. It’s like learning to cook a fancy dish instead of just making a sandwich — you need to understand more ingredients and techniques.

To create a professional HTML email template, you need to know about: 

  • HTML, 
  • CSS, 
  • Responsive design,
  • Image optimization, 
  • Email client compatibility, 
  • Testing and troubleshooting. 

The good news is that there are lots of resources out there to help you learn. 

And if you’re not the technical type, you can always use pre-designed email marketing templates. These templates are often customizable, so you can still give your emails a personal touch without needing to write the code from scratch.


HTML Emails Might Have Compatibility Issues

Different email clients and devices interpret HTML code in their own unique ways. So, the same email might look different depending on where and how it’s being viewed. 

This is especially the case if you want to view an email on an old or less popular client. 

Some frequent issues include:

  • Layout breaking: The email layout might appear jumbled or broken in certain email clients. For example, your columns or alignment might not look the way you wanted them to.
  • Images not displaying correctly: Images may not load or appear at the right size, affecting the email’s visual appeal and even functionality. 
  • Non-supported CSS styles: Not all email clients support every CSS property and selector. So, your fonts, colors, and even the overall style of your email might appear slightly different. For example, a gradient styling effect might look great in one client but be completely lost in another.

To avoid these compatibility issues, you need to test your HTML emails across multiple platforms to make sure everything looks right. 


Tracking Opens and Clicks Is Easier in HTML Emails

When you send out an email, tracking open rates and clicks tells you a lot. You can understand what your audience likes and what doesn’t grab their attention. This way, you can make your future emails more targeted.

But tracking isn’t possible with pure plain text emails because of how email tracking software works. 

HTML emails make tracking possible in a clever way. They use tiny, invisible images called tracking pixels. When someone opens the email, this pixel loads, and it sends a signal back to the server to record the event. 

When you put links in your HTML email, you can add special tracking codes to them. Then, when someone clicks on these links, you know exactly which link they clicked and how often. 

This information is super helpful for understanding what parts of your email are working well.


When to Use Plain Text Emails

Plain text emails are simple and direct. So, they appear more personal, like a one-to-one conversation. You can use this to your advantage if you want to establish a personal connection or convey sincerity. 

Plus, these emails usually have higher deliverability compared to HTML emails since they don’t contain complex code or embedded images. 

Here’s a table listing the pros and cons of plain text emails to help you weigh your options when deciding between HTML vs plain text emails: 

ProsCons
Less likely to trigger spam filters.Limited design options.
Easier to read. No interactive elements like buttons.
Can feel more direct and personal.No brand colors, logos, or visual identity.
Display consistently across email clients.No dynamic content.
Directs attention to the message.No visual elements to catch the eye.
Comparing the advantages and disadvantages of using plain text emails

We recommend going with plain text emails in these situations: 

  1. Ensuring deliverability: If it’s critical to have your message reach the inbox without ending up in the promotions tab, plain text is a safer bet.
  2. Personalized outreach: When your emails need a personal touch, like outreach to specific individuals or sensitive messages, plain text can feel more genuine and less like a marketing pitch.
  3. Content-focused newsletters: For email newsletters that prioritize substance over style or where the audience values straightforward, no-frills information, plain text can be the better choice, especially since you’ll enjoy superior deliverability. 
  4. Formal or legal communications: Official communications, like legal notices or formal announcements, benefit from the simplicity of plain text.
  5. Accessibility: If your recipients use screen readers or have other accessibility needs, plain-text emails are often easier to navigate.

When to Use HTML Emails

HTML emails let you use rich visuals, interactive elements, and complex layouts to create a unique experience for your subscribers. They also support advanced functionalities like dynamic content to take your email personalization efforts to the next level. 

The table below outlines the pros and cons of using HTML emails:

ProsCons
Visually engaging designRequires knowledge of HTML and CSS
Supports clickable buttons and linksMore likely to be flagged by spam filters
Enables consistent branding through visual elements Can take longer to load because of images and complex code
Lets you track opens, clicks, and engagementsMay not render consistently across all email clients.
Personalization: Allows for dynamic content and personalized user experiences.Needs thorough testing across different email clients and devices.
Comparing the advantages and disadvantages of using HTML emails

Here are specific situations where HTML emails can be a good choice:

  1. Marketing campaigns: For promotional content, product launches, and sales, HTML emails with eye-catching designs and clear CTA buttons can significantly increase engagement and conversions.
  2. Newsletters: When the content benefits from rich media, such as images or graphics, HTML emails can make newsletters more attractive and engaging.
  3. Event invitations: HTML emails can include enticing visuals and interactive elements to encourage recipients to RSVP or learn more about an event.
  4. Transactional emails: For order confirmations, receipts, or shipping updates, HTML emails can provide a clear and visually organized format that improves readability.
  5. Brand building: You can use HTML to reinforce your brand identity through colors, logos, and styling.

Maximize Your HTML Email’s Potential

You don’t have to give up on HTML entirely if you want good deliverability. 

If you want your HTML emails to land in people’s primary inbox and not get shuffled off to the promotions tab, here’s what you can do:

  1. Make your emails personal: Write your emails like you’re talking to a friend. Use the recipient’s name, and tailor the content to their interests. This way, you’ll make your email feel less like a generic marketing message.
  2. Keep the sales pitch low-key: Don’t try to sell something. Share useful tips or interesting stories instead. When your email is more informative or entertaining, it’s more likely to end up in the main inbox.
  3. Design matters, but keep it simple: Your emails should look good, but not over the top. Think clean and straightforward. Too many flashy graphics or colors might make your message look like an ad, which often goes straight to the promotions tab.
  4. Don’t go overboard with images and links: Too many images can make your email look like a catalog. Use them thoughtfully and only when they really add something valuable to your message.
  5. Ask for a reply: Encourage your subscribers to interact with your emails. This could be as simple as asking them to reply to your email or adding them to their contacts.
  6. Clean your list regularly: Make sure there are no inactive subscribers on your list. Gmail likes it when your emails get high engagement, so a list full of people who are interested in what you’re sending is a good thing.

How HTML Works in Emails

HTML consists of elements, or “tags” that tell a web browser or email client how to display content. 

Here’s a table of some of the most common HTML tags used in emails, along with a brief description of each:

HTML TagDescription
<p>Represents a paragraph.
<h1>, … <h6>Heading tags, with <h1> being the largest and <h6> the smallest.
<a>Defines a hyperlink, used to link from one page to another.
<img>Embeds an image in the document.
<ul>Defines an unordered list (bullets).
<ol>Defines an ordered list (numbers).
<li>Defines a list item inside <ul> or <ol> tags.
<table>Creates a table structure.
The most common HTML tags 

Every HTML element has an opening and a closing tag. The element’s content comes between the two tags. For example, a paragraph’s text goes between <p> and </p>. 

For a more elaborate example, check out the code below and how it displays a simple email in an email client. 

But pure HTML barely has any visual appeal, and this is where CSS comes in. It lets you apply styles to your HTML content. 

Using CSS, you can: 

  • Set fonts and colors. 
  • Adjust the size of elements. 
  • Make your emails responsive. 
  • Control the layout of the elements. 

I didn’t include another screenshot here because any decent demonstration would have a long code. But if you want to learn more about CSS and maybe fiddle around a bit, I suggest the tutorials by W3School


Reach More Inboxes with Campaign Refinery

At Campaign Refinery, we know that getting your message across to your audience is your top priority, and our platform is built to make that happen. 

Every aspect of our platform is designed to achieve one goal: industry-high deliverability rates. 

Our simple but powerful editor lets you focus on what really matters: your content. We believe that a good email doesn’t need to be overloaded with fancy designs. It should be about clear, engaging content that speaks directly to your audience. 

So, if you’re looking to improve your email marketing strategy with a platform that prioritizes getting your emails read, Campaign Refinery is here for you. 

We invite you to apply to become a customer and see how we can help you connect better with your audience through email. 

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