More on Plain Text: Keys to a Good Header

Recently we went over the case for spending a bit more time on your plain text messages.

Today, let’s talk about how to design them so that you get the best ROI of that extra time spent.

The Challenge: Make Plain Text Look… Well, Not Plain

Let’s suppose for a moment that you’d previously been sending only HTML and you’re ready to work in your plain text message.

You like the way your HTML messages look:

  • They’re branded at the top with your header graphic or logo, making it easy for subscribers to recognize them in the preview panes of their email clients.
  • Content is broken up into small, digestible sections – you’re even using two-column format with a sidebar to advertise one of your products/services, showcase recent newsletters or blog posts, or provide “about the author” information

Now, as we talked about before, HTML has its advantages, and we’re not suggesting you stop using it. But not everyone sees your HTML version, and so you want to format your plain text message in a way that’s still familiar and readable for your subscribers.

Quick Refresher

You need to have a plain text version so you don’t look like the kind of spammer who sends out HTML with a little text stuck in there (to get past the least sophisticated content filters).

But, you also want to make sure that your plain text message is not only delivered, but read and acted on. So it’s not just enough to put something in there. You want to convey your message effectively, just like you’ve been doing using HTML.

And this starts at…

The Very Beginning (a Very Good Place to Start)

Your first opportunity for branding in an email message is at the top of your body.

Many subscribers use the Preview pane in their email programs to scan their inboxes, so you want to make sure they can easily identify your messages as ones they want to open.

There’s not one “right” and “wrong” format here – however, you do want to make sure that you’re providing a few basic pieces of information to help your subscribers identify your messages.

Who You Are

Your subscribers need to know who’s taking up their time and inbox space.

The importance of this varies by how well your “From” line does this already. The better it communicates who you are, the less you need to focus on identifying yourself in your message body.

Why You’re Emailing Them

Who you are isn’t necessarily enough. Ever been trapped in a conversation with someone you didn’t recognize?

Before you know it, they’re mid-conversation, and you’re totally lost… mentally scanning your family photos, high school yearbook and anything else you can think of to try and figure out why they’ve selected you to recount the last 5 years of their life to.

For most of us, etiquette keeps us in that awkward position for at least a couple minutes longer than we’d like, sometimes long enough to remember how we know Mr/s. Chatterbox.

Not so with email. We scan and delete. Fast.

So, you need to make sure your subscribers understand how it is that you know them (or, more importantly, how they know you) and why they should give your email any more than a few seconds of their time.

Example: A “Summary Box”

Let’s take a look at one way to do this. There are certainly many more, but this should give you an idea of how you might format the beginning of your plain text messages.

For our example, we’ll use our good ol’ fictional Widget Newsletter (those of you who have sat in on one of our webinars are familiar with this).

One way you can do this is to put your summary information into a “box” at the top of your messages:

Summary Box

This communicates your message/newsletter title and date, and provides a quick and provides a link to an online HTML version of your message.

If you’re not putting a version of your message online, that’s OK, just use a link to your homepage. Or consider putting an online version, so that you can offer your plain text subscribers the same rich content/format as you provide your HTML subscribers.

The link also has the added benefit of giving the subscriber a website to associate this email with – maybe he doesn’t recognize the message content right away, but you’ve given him a quick way to check and see where this is coming from, and remember that he did sign up on your site.If you’re looking for another chance to add in some branding here, you could add another line to the summary box with your slogan or other branded text content.

You’ll notice I didn’t put sides on the box. The reason for that is that not every plain text email client uses the same font (and in software-based clients like Outlook, the user can choose the font that they read plain text messages in).

Different fonts will make different characters wider or narrower, so while the sides could look OK:

Here The Sides Look OK...

They could also look awful:

In Another Email Program, The Sides Don't Line Up Right

Plus, if you have a particularly long URL to put into the summary box, adding sides could be awkward.

This short, simple opening will display well in both horizontal and vertical preview panes, and give your subscribers the information they need to recognize who is emailing them and take the appropriate action (read your message and/or click through to your online version).

How Do You Build Recognition For Your Plain Text Messages?

As I noted, this certainly isn’t the only way to go about branding your plain text messages. As long as your subscribers can quickly/easily recognize who’s sending them that message and why, they’ll be much more likely to read your messages, rather than deleting or marking them as spam.

Have you done something like this in your own plain text messages? If not, what do you do to help subscribers pick your plain text messages out of the other mail in their inboxes?