Text Vs. HTML: Is Moderation The Key?

The debate over whether to use plain text or HTML never really stops, it just gets quiet for a while before someone brings it up again.

MarketingExperiements just brought it back up by blogging their recent research on how well each version converts.

Their team makes an interesting assertion:

The Key Isn’t Whether To Use HTML, But How Much Of It To Use

Maria Hendricks of MarketingExperiments suggests that not all HTML messages are created equal. She makes a distinction between two types of HTML:

  • “Heavy” HTML (which she defines as “Ad Style” – I take that to mean a high ratio of imagery to text, frequent use of bold and italicized text… a design that brings to mind the emails I’m used to seeing Chad White discuss on RetailEmail.Blogspot)
  • “Lite” HTML (low imagery to text ratio, less frequent use of bold/highlighted/italicized text)

In the experiments they ran, they found that while Lite HTML pulled a higher clickthrough rate than plain text (by 55%), Heavy HTML actually performed worse than plain text – 34% worse.

What Does This Mean?

The issue isn’t as simple as “use plain text” or “use HTML.”

Not all HTML messages are created equal, and they won’t all perform equally. While you need to test for yourself, you may find that sending a message that uses HTML sparingly to enhance how the reader experiences your message (a timely image here, a helpful contextual link there) is better than plain text only, which is better than sending out a spammy-looking “email blast” that’s chock-full of poor HTML practices like giant red text or several large images and little to no text.

A Word of Caution

We haven’t seen the details of this experiment. There may be factors at play here that don’t apply to your own email campaign. We’ll be keeping an eye out for a more detailed brief from MarketingExperiments and once we have some more information on their tests, we’ll note them here.

That said, I’ve always found their experiments to be thorough and well thought-out. And I think their results are probably true for most of us – email subscribers respond to valuable content that they can easily digest and interact with. If you use HTML in a way that makes it easier for your readers to do that, they’ll respond better. If you use it poorly, it can hurt your response.

As Hendricks notes:

“No one likes to read boring messages, especially today’s readers who are getting more and more sophisticated with new ways to interact… [w]ith that said, we also need to constantly remind ourselves to respect our readers with every marketing effort we make.”

What Do You Think?

Have you had tested different styles of HTML against each other and/or against plain text? What have you found to best engage subscribers?