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Why the plain text email version is so important – a new look at email pros, cons and accessibility

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Do you bother to update your plain text when you do HTML emails? Did you know that Gmail and Outlook expect legitimate companies to follow this basic best practice and nearly half of organizations are not doing this? Join us as we explore plain text, HTML and hybrid emails with the most recent evidence to show the differences, which is best for what you want to achieve and some useful tips around accessibility and performance.

A woman using a laptop looks up at images of coloured envelopes on the wall

When sending emails, you can choose to format them as plain text or HTML. Plain text is pretty much exactly how it sounds – only containing text information and no other data. On the other hand, you can choose HTML. These emails are more complex and similar to websites in structure. They contain hyperlinks, images, videos and CSS formatting, as well as plain text. There are pros and cons to both options – the key is understanding what they are, and how they can be beneficial to different target audiences and content types.

Plain text emails

Plain text emails are just that—plain text. They are the email equivalent to a letter written on a typewriter—no images, no pretty fonts, no hyperlinks. While they may not be nearly as attractive as HTML-based emails, they play a significant role in a well-rounded email marketing strategy.

Hidden in plain sight – pros and cons of plain text emails

The words 'pros' and 'cons' written in columns on coloured backgrounds

The label ‘plain text’ can be misleading. Plain text emails do use HTML to create styled links and enable tracking. The simple nature of plain text means these emails have a small file size, so they send faster and are less prone to spam filters. The deliverability is better and the acceptance rate among security-conscious users can be higher too.

Unfortunately, a detailed analysis of plain text email deliverability isn’t possible, as the open rates can’t be evaluated. The very limited design options are another disadvantage, especially for longer or more complex content. Recipients can find it harder to navigate in plain text layouts, meaning the clarity of the content could suffer and the key messages and calls to action of your campaign may be lost.

To optimize your plain text email copy, HubSpot recommends you avoid long content pieces and instead focus on the key points, using links sparingly. Make sure the links to the most important information are clear and go towards the end of the text if you want your email to be read all the way through.

If you are composing a plain text email using a web-based email client such as Outlook or Gmail, use the Heading Styles to provide structure and make the email accessible to any assistive technology, like screen readers. Without headings, someone using a screen reader can’t navigate the content or scan section titles to understand the structure of the email.

Key points to remember when using plain text:
* Text should be clear and easy to read
* Use a font size of 12 points or larger
* Sans-serif fonts are your friend! (Arial, Calibri, Verdana or Franklin Gothic Book)
* Avoid difficult, fancy or decorative fonts with curly edges
* Make sure you have a strong contrast between the foreground and background colour.

HTML emails

An @ symbol sits in the sand on a sunny beach

HTML emails give you great design freedom, using hyperlinks, images, videos and formatting. This means you can design the visual layout and appearance of your email to suit the content and call to action. HTML also has integrated tracking pixels, so you can evaluate the opening rates and see how successful your campaign has been.

There are some disadvantages to HTML - particularly the display limitations in some email programmes and webmail systems. Filter systems sometimes react sensitively to HTML, marking the emails as spam. There are things you can do to avoid the spam trap – a handy guide from Campaign Monitor covers the key points:

Always have text and images. If you have a balance of HTML text and some images, then the email is useful even without images. If the email entirely consists of images that are blocked, the email is a waste of time and might draw some unsubscribes. Spam filters often use the ratio of images versus text as a flag to gauge whether an email is legitimate. All-image emails are more likely to be marked as spam versus mixed content emails.

Campaign Monitor, Avoiding Spam Filters - Email Marketing and Deliverability

Make sure you avoid using image only emails – any text displayed on the images can be inaccessible to readers with visual impairments, and the emails are more likely to be blocked by spam filters. Always provide text-based information, then add your images in, adding Alt Text descriptions of 200 characters or less. Using Alt Text means visually impaired readers can still understand the image being used as they can discover the Alt-Text using text-to-speech assistive technologies (AT), such as screen readers.

Why not both? Hybrid emails could be the way forward

Lots of organizations choose to use hybrid emails in their marketing campaigns. These are HTML messages with minimum formatting that can imitate plain-text emails. They appear personal and handwritten, yet retain the tracking ability of a HTML email.

The (HTML) email should also contain a plain-text version. Most email marketing tools will let you easily create plain-text versions within their email editor, so take those five extra minutes to create and optimize the plain-text version of your email. Otherwise, email providers such as Gmail or Outlook might think your email is dodgy -- they expect legitimate companies to follow this basic best practice.

If an email client or app can only show the plain text version of an email, but no plain text version exists, most email clients will either show the raw HTML of the message or try to format it into plain text, both of which results in a sub-optimal experience for the reader.

Offer both an HTML and a plain text version of your emails. It’s not only an indicator of legitimacy to ISPs, but it also makes your emails more user-friendly.

An essential step – testing your emails every time

The word test is made out of a tower of wooden Scrabble cubes

It is always worth taking the extra few minutes to test your emails – both versions, before they are sent out. You can make sure that links are displaying properly and that the headings you have created for your plain text versions are clear and useful. A 2019 marketing survey by Litmus found that 43% of companies were not doing these checks every time, and this is when you risk getting your emails caught in the spam filter, or misunderstood by the reader.

In summary, there are benefits to creating either and both plain text and HTML emails, but if you are going to make your marketing campaigns accessible to as many people as possible, and avoid the dreaded spam filters, you need to cover all the bases and create both versions when doing HTML. Make sure your HTML version is well designed and has a powerful call to action, and focus your plain text version on breaking the text up with really clear headings and signposting any links. Finally, test test test! Do a test on both versions before you send it, and then your campaign will have the best chance of reaching a wider audience, and a better chance of being opened, read and acted upon.

Check out a recent masterclass on email marketing for even more hints and tips


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