Who Cares About Plain Text?

With all the bells and whistles that you can add to HTML email messages, it’s easy to ask “Why bother with your plain text message at all?”

It’s true that not everyone does. Some just stick a link in it to an online version of the message. Others don’t even put a plain text version at all.

So have plain text emails bought the farm?

Hardly. Plain text still matters. And it probably always will.

Don’t Skimp on Plain Text

You may like reading HTML messages. You may like creating and sending them, especially when you can take advantage of HTML email templates.

That doesn’t mean you can scrap your text message. Neither ISPs nor subscribers will be happy with you if you do.

Content Filtering

Sending a message that only has an HTML version is a good way to make yourself look like a spammer.

Sending a message with a plain text version that’s a lot shorter than your HTML version – like one that only includes a link to your website – isn’t a whole lot better.

That second fact may surprise you a bit, but it comes from the same idea as the first one. Let me explain.

If It Looks Like a Duck, and It Quacks Like a Duck…

Spammers send a lot of HTML-only messages. ISPs know this, and so messages that have only an HTML version are more heavily filtered.

Now, spammers aren’t stupid. Annoying, yes. The scourge of the Internet, yes. Stupid, no. The savvier ones realize they need to include a plain text version.

But, on the other hand, most people display HTML, so that plain text version isn’t going to be seen by a whole lot of people, proportionally.

So the spammer doesn’t spend a lot of time on the plain text message. He just puts something in there to try to avoid getting filtered. And most of the time, it’s not anything like the HTML version (after all, you can’t put an image in a plain text message).

So ISPs start seeing a lot of spam that contains plain text and HTML versions that aren’t alike at all.

Guess what they start doing to your messages if you have dissimilar plain text and HTML versions?

Plain Text Subscribers

Some people, however few they may be, still use email client programs that don’t support HTML. Then you have people who intentionally disable HTML in their client.

It may seem strange that someone would intentionally turn away from getting your well-designed, colorful HTML message.

But consider this: not every HTML message they get is well-designed (think about the messages you get). A lot of them are image-heavy, and may or may not make use of ALT text. So, they turn off HTML in their email client.

HTML Isn’t Going Away, Either

I’m not saying ditch your HTML messages. Sending an HTML version still holds advantages over not doing so (like tracking message open rates).

But don’t ignore plain text. While it’s not as flashy as HTML, it’s necessary, and omitting it can only hurt you.

Hopefully I’ve got you thinking about your plain text messages. I’ll follow up on this post with some advice on how to create and format your plain text messages.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on plain text below.

By:
Justin Premick is the former Director of Educational Products at AWeber.

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24 Comments

  1. We at STI send out both formats because many of our customers are mobile. So if they are out in the field, they may be reading their mail on cell phones or other mobile devices that might not handle html. And when they are in the office they like the "pretty" html format. In either case we have our message gets out in the most appropriate format.

    3/1/2007 10:52 am
  2. We send out both html and plain text messages and always see about 50% more of our plain text emails getting opened and read then the html versions.

    Ty Cohen

    3/1/2007 11:07 am
  3. Remember the newness and excitement of getting your very first email?

    Now emails are old hat, and we’re getting lots of spam and phishing, obviously. If you’ve ever clicked a link in an email and gotten a virus, you likely don’t click anything anymore even from friends and you know why…

    My point? As a "consumer" I’m wary about everything in my inbox. Who knows, maybe that lovely Aweber HTML blog update will be stolen by scammer/spammers and I’ll click on "Aweber Blog" and get a virus.

    Finally my point? If I’m that wary and as "tech savvy" as I am, then how wary might my email recipients be?

    Isn’t ditching HTML and making all outbound email plain text going to raise less suspicion? Isn’t the "#1 best solution" to either make your entire message plain text, or a teaser with a link to your entire message on your "safe" website?

    David

    3/1/2007 11:27 am
  4. Very interesting article! I just recently joined the crowd in "Email Marketing" and I am very thankful for any advice on getting my emails through.

    I love it that I can come to this blog and find very helpful information instantly.

    Ilka ;o)

    3/1/2007 1:50 pm
  5. As with many things in life "More is Less". I actually will respond to a plain text email over the HTML version, because when someone sends a message in HTML it is as if the message ain’t that great-so they’ll jazz it up a bit with HTML.

    3/1/2007 2:34 pm
  6. I feel very strongly that when I send out an email, it is only useful to the recipient if it has good, useful information. For my purposes, text does the job. I don’t need HTML to put words on the page.

    3/1/2007 4:05 pm
  7. Another good article and one I’m sure will raise a lot of contention.

    We send out a lot of HTML and some text only emails depending on the offer on hand. I agree – you have to give people what they want & luckily the Aweber technology lets us do that…

    Question – How big an impact do you think Outlook 2007 is/will have on HTML emails? We’ve already started changing our HTML templates to cope with MS Words reduced functionality over IE…

    3/1/2007 6:05 pm
  8. I guess I have an opposing view. I used to send both text and html for the 2 newletters I edit. For the last couple of years, I’ve used my own standard template for each with the view that it provides branding and familiarity when a subscriber sees it in their inbox.

    I don’t recall seeing a fall off in my open rate when I switched to html only. But like everything in marketing – its worth testing – so I’ll start mailing both text and html versions again and check the response over the next few months.

    The real problem I see with many of the text emails I receive is poor formatting and bad links. Publishers need to use the awebers test function before they publish to their list.

    3/1/2007 7:09 pm
  9. I use both versions. Text for the ones who block them or for whatever reason and HTML to spice up my emails. I dont use graphic in it but as soon as i get my template done, i will.

    People buy through text, images and sound.

    Diana Fontanez

    3/1/2007 8:32 pm
  10. We tend to use both HTML and plain text messages but in different ways according to the use of the email.

    Our newsletters get sent out with a pretty html version + a plain text version that explains to the recipient why they are receiving the plain text message and link so that they can click through to our site to see the pretty HTML version if they wish.

    Also with follow up auto responders we still use plain text and html versions.
    Both messages look identical, we generaly put the full URL in the html versions as well rather than anchor text.

    In doing so we can create a "plain text look" email but with html we control the font and therefore can make it present in a better format to the reader.

    Gary

    3/2/2007 12:40 am
  11. Kevin

    How about the other option of sending NO html version of your msg, sending only text msg and adding a link to the HTML version. It seems a lot of email campaigns are only text designed, or am I wrong?

    Also text msg that point there way to fancy HTML off the email such as videos, instantaudio, blogs, sales pages etc.

    3/2/2007 10:10 am
  12. This data is a little bit out of date, but according the DMA a couple of years ago, roughly 50% of all email users can only see the text version. Even for Outlook users, the default viewing setting really screw your efforts to send a pretty HTML email. The default settings of images being disabled, layout consistency issues and vertical/horizontal viewing panes make an HTML experience sketchy at best. And the last report I read stated that 80%+ of Outlook users never change the default settings.

    The only true negative about text version is the lack of track-ability outside of outbound links. It might just be the tool we use, but we cannot even track open rates of text emails.

    3/3/2007 8:50 am
  13. I use only HTML emails. I figure that, once people open my mail, they should be greeted by something familiar like the standard email header I always use.
    Most spam comes in plain text and may lead to my newsletter being mistaken as spam if it looks just like the spam messages. The ‘branding’ HTML format/header sets my newsletter apart from the plain text spam.
    Just my 2 cents…

    3/5/2007 12:09 am
  14. Someone a few posts back said that if they were wary of clicking a link in an email – even from a friend – how wary are their customers?

    I used to feel the same way. Then I started talking with a relative who sells a different email list service. Even though she sells a service similar to aWeber, she is completely unfamiliar with phishing techniques, and clicks on "interesting" links in emails sent to her, no matter if they are from someone she knows or not. She was telling me of all the viruses she gets, and she did not understand why.

    "So," I think to myself. "If this gal will click on any link under the sun, then how many others out there will?"

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing my customers. However, many of us who are business-savvy, who may program their own webpages, definitely have a greater knowledge of such issues than, say, a little old grandmother who uses the Internet to keep in touch with her grandchildren.

    3/5/2007 4:20 pm
  15. The article is nice. I think we can also opt-in list by asking user directly whether they like PLAIN TEXT emails or HTML based emails.

    It would be easy for us while sending follow up & broadcast messages in splits.

    3/7/2007 6:07 pm
  16. I am running Outlook 2007. I cannot read incoming plain text messages from people. In the preview section,,,i can see the first line but when i open the mail, nothing is there. It’s really frustrating, i have tried everything. Help a Lady!!!

    5/25/2007 11:15 pm
  17. It is amazing that in this day in age, there are still users out there that still only use plain text email messages, but it is true. Having the ability to create one message and use one system to serve all the users is great. Thank you for a great product.

    6/5/2007 3:46 pm
  18. Rob

    Accessibility laws in some countries (such as UK) necessitate that readability for diabled people. (for disabled think of those who can’t see/hear as well). Poorly sighted people use a scanner to read web sites and e-mail, so a text version is pretty essential in some countries if you want to avoid the long arm of the law.

    12/5/2007 5:47 am
  19. In researching my email campaign, I keep coming back to your site for valuable information. This is a great reminder to always include a plain text version.

    8/5/2011 11:43 am
  20. Emmanuel

    We’re now in 2012, it is almost impossible to actually see the text version in all the major email clients. Would anybody still consider it is worth it sending a text version? I feel people may have had the same conversation about the AOL version 10 years ago.

    1/17/2012 5:16 pm