HTML vs. Text Emails – What do you respond to?

5 years ago everybody wanted their email marketing to use HTML. The obvious benefits of HTML emails are that they have additional text formatting capabilities, incorporate graphics,  and puts more creative options at the marketer’s disposal.

841Take this email from Pottery Barn for example.  This is a great example of a strong HTML email.  It is visually appealing, the message is clear and it contributes nicely to the brand’s image. But what I think makes this email work, is that I am familiar with the brand.

I think HTML emails make perfect sense for any large business that has a developed brand and strong customer loyalty (not to mention a huge design budget).

I’m just talking from personal experience here…  If I get an html email from Pottery Barn, or Best Buy (for example), I’m interested in their promotion and how I might be able to benefit from a special.  If the special intrigues me enough then sure, I’ll click to visit their website and learn more. But, on the other hand, if I get an email from some small business that I never hear of, my ‘JUNK’ radar immediatly sounds.

Take this html email a client of mine was thinking about sending out. (Thanks Steve for allowing me to use this as an example).


The goal of this email was to send people to their Personal URL landing page, and ultimately sign up for their wine of the month club.

By the way this is a great deal for all you wine lovers out there.  Go to for more info.

Now this email, like Pottery Barn, is also able to carry the brand for U.S. Wine Association with their colors, logo and font choices.  It looks nice and everybody is happy….  But how will prospective customers react to the email?  If they are anything like me  my ‘JUNK’ radar immediately goes off. What about you?

My argument is this. For small businesses who don’t have a strong brand and loyal customer following (or thousand dollar design budget for each email), it is better to use plain text emails. The biggest reason is that it looks like a PERSONAL message.  From experience, I would rather receive a personal message from a company that I am unfamiliar with, than something that looks like it went out the a million people.  What do you think?  Do you have the same reaction as I do?

  • Scott Messinger

    I don’t respond to any emails from anyone I don’t know. It doesn’t matter if it’s HTML or Text

  • John Nagle

    Report spammers to “”, flag them in GMail, and report them to SpamCop. Apply as much pain as possible.

  • Stephen Beaudoin

    My recommendation would be to use an HTML template from an Email Service Provider. Many services have standard template designs that can easily be manipulated without any knowledge of HTML or design.

    For most (if not all) promotional email campaigns that I have worked with, an HTML template performs better. But a text version is needed as there are many situations where an HTML email will not render; if it get sent to junk mail, if it is read on a mobile phone or a users settings.

    Text only emails are great for transactional emails, but leave out any branding that can be done.

    The best bet in my eyes would be to send out an HTML email (with text only alternative) through an ESP using one of their templates for a relatively low price. You’ll get better results.

  • Brian Vinson

    I’m with Scott. I generally (I won’t say never) will not respond to anything from people I don’t know. However, I will usually read more of a message if it is visually appealing, so I’m more likely to read something in HTML before I delete it. Simple text will usually be deleted unread.

    I would caution about the overuse of images. Many email clients now block images until / unless the user authorizes the images to be downloaded. I get many emails over the course of a day now that I probably would have read in the past but since my email client block the images – which people are using for whatever reason to present primary information – they are now being deleted unread.

    Ziff-Davis Tech Update is one of the worst. They have a big banner at the top of their email and that’s all that shows in my preview window. It’s easy to delete the message when the first thing the message shows is an ad for itself.

    In short, it doesn’t take thousands of dollars to write an email in Word, Publisher, OpenOffice, or whatever and save it as HTML then send that file as the message; it just takes a little know-how. If you want to have a higher chance of people reading something you’re sending, make it appealing.

    The other side of the equation is that many large organizations strip HTML from incoming messages and convert them to plain text so you need to ensure that there is quality information that will inspire someone to read the message even if it’s all stripped to bare bones.

    Finally: don’t spam. If I didn’t opt-in to a list, a simple right-mouse click and “Mark as Junk” keeps me from ever having to see your messages again. I also have the pleasure of determining for my organization who goes on the blacklist and who does not. If I see several messages sent to me that I didn’t opt-in to, I just blacklist it on the server so no one will be bothered with them. So far, in more than 10 years, no one (my users) has ever complained about such blacklisting practices.

    Hope that helps,

  • Johnny Waltz

    Great Article!!! I have to agree when I was in the land development industry we hired a marketing company to send out these high-tech flashy HTML emails to generate new business……We got NOTHING….. But when I sent a generic “Hey this is Johnny…” email to a list of potential customers I got a couple new clients from it, didn’t save us from when the bubble pop’d but still!

  • Denny Richards

    Assuming it’s something I’ve opted-in to, I typically delete [and subsequently unsubscribe from] text emails. I much prefer HTML, although it’s easily & often overused.

    If I didn’t opt-in, it’s marked as junk, forwarded to the offending ISP of the originating email server and to the host of the advertised web page.


    My e-mails are all set to HTML.

    If an email wants attention (not
    just by me) it had better be in
    HTML – quality counts.

    If I have opted-in (a rarity) then
    I will open it regardless of HTML
    or plain text.

    But 99.9% of direct mail/spam
    simply gets caught by my Gmail
    or I trash it anyway, no matter
    how fancy it looks.

    I suppose this form of marketing
    must be marginally successful,
    or else folks wouldn’t persist in
    it. But it really is a dumb way to
    gain customers in my opinion.

    The era of push is rapidly drawing
    to a close, thank goodness.

  • Mark Thomas

    Im far more likely to delete html because I know html often contains tracking code telling the sender what you’re up to. Html is far less safe and secure. I will never read html from an unknown source, whereas I will read plain text. However, once the relationship is all good then html is nicer to receive.

  • James Bupp

    Text. I block all images for security and won’t bother to download images unless I know the sender.

  • Michael Anderson

    Some good advice here, but some of that info should be clarified.

    A properly coded HTML email will translate into a text-only email just fine. A good email designer will be able to do this for you. HTML for email is a wholly different animal than HTML for the web or print design – I have clients where the only creative service I provide is email design. An ESP that requires both versions is behind the times a bit (a text-only email is basically an HTML email with the HTML tags stripped out) As long as your message is a mix of text and images, you don’t have to worry about providing a text-only version. It’s already there.

    Do not just build something in Word of whatever and expect it to work in every email platform – you wouldn’t cook a prime rib in the microwave; it gets the job done, but there’s a much better way to do it.

    Templates provided by your ESP are the best place to start. Be sure to test them with a site like (free!), where you can see how your email renders in the major email readers, with images on and off, and how it will appear when viewed as text-only on mobiles, etc.

    The main point – don’t short yourself or fall into the latest email hype – always build on solid HTML code and you won’t have to worry about your message getting through. Spammers use both HTML and text-only equally, so its not even a matter to consider. You should first consider your audience and what they will want to see.


  • Maria Marsala

    I get and do both. It’s not expensive at all for a small business to create a html newsletter using one of the templates of programs.

  • Jim Gilbert

    First of all, to Frank Feather, rumors of push marketing are greatly exaggerated.

    The reason why email works (and direct mail for that matter to any naysayers out there) is it works on percentages. We strive as direct marketers to only go to interested parties. But it is not an exact science. But, if the numbers didn’t work for marketers from an ROI perspective (meaning people are receptive to our offers), we would stop.

    Again to Frank. You are all over linkedin with your naysaying. You can wish it away but you are just preaching to a an audience that we don’t want to reach anyway.

    Jim Gilbert

  • Chuck Swanson

    Hi Marty,

    This is one of those questions where you’ll get a lot of different answers based on people’s preferences. For me I’d have to say that I prefer plain text emails that feel like they were written to me from an actual person. Minimize the promotional copy and have no offer (or at least a relevant offer).

    I’ve spent a number of years in sales cold calling people and part of my process was to send an email introduction. I’d write each one to the person with them in mind and would almost always get a response – even if the response was a NO.

    To your point about lack of brand, Dell can send me HTML. I know who it’s from and my tendency to respond isn’t based on text or HTML. But if I don’t recall the brand/logo of the emailer, then for me text is best.

    All that said, you should conduct a test.

    Good luck!

  • Roger England

    Sorry, but I don’t believe anyone who says they “never” open any particular sort of email. Come on, we all click on something and open it SOMETIMES – the point is, what made us do it one time and not another.

    I think there is a lot of confusion over “plain text” vs “HTML”, when people really mean “do graphics or colour add anything”. Most people I know use MS Outlook with the default format set to HTML, yet would say they are sending “plain text” because they are not doing any fancy formatting. For what it’s worth, we use HTML to put coloured boxes, tabular layout and a little bit of interest into our emails and have not seen any demonstrable difference in opening rate compared to real plain text.

    What DOES make a difference (as alluded to by other commentators here) is familiarity – the more times we email contacts, the better our opening rate gets, and here I think that consistency is important – define your distinctive-but-not-too-sophisticated layout, and keep to it.

    My last observation also comes from an MS Outlook environment. There are several levels of junking/opening. Firstly there’s that little bubble at the bottom of the screen when an email arrives. I delete about a third of unsolicited email based on the sender, the subject and the 15 or so words shown in that bubble – if you can’t pass that test, then the HTML discussion is irrelevant. Next there is the preview screen – the sender, subject and about the first 10 lines – put big graphics in that area and you will lose me as a potential lead (I have graphics turned off like most of my colleagues), but a bit of colour or an interesting layout in that area actually draws the eye. Depending on your systems, I might read the whole email in preview, but you will never be told I have “opened” it.

    Only a trusted sender, a well written subject and a compelling first sentence will make me go the whole hog and really open the email and download the bitmaps, nothing really to do with HTML or graphics.

    At risk of revealing my age, there’s just one more turn off for me: fail to check that all-important subject and first paragraph for grammatical errors, bad punctuation or spelling mistakes and you are DEAD. Perhaps that’s just my problem ……

  • Ricardas Montvila

    Always liked this discission!
    The way I see it is that there is no correct answer to this question. You have to know your target audience in order to answer this question.

    Easiest way to resolve this dilema is asking the subscribers to specify what emails they wish to receive (on the subscription page). However if you haven’t collected the list yourself focus on the A/B split test.

    Or if you have spare time and resources I would suggest doing an A/B/C test (HTML/Text/Rich Text).

    Rich Text – A text email with basic formatting (font, style, links, etc.)

    Also never forget that you are a marketer and you look at the emails in a different way, therefore your perception of marketing emails that you receive differs from other recipients. For this reason it is diffucult to make correct judgements. If you rely on A/B split tests – you can’t go wrong.

    Ricardas Montvila