More on Plain Text: Keys to a Good Header

Recently we went over the case for spending a bit

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?


  1. Graham Cox

    3/22/2007 10:49 am

    I’ve been putting my website URL in brackets at the end of each email’s subject line to help my subscribers recognize and become familiar with my emails.

  2. Marc

    3/23/2007 7:35 am

    I enjoyed this blog post. It does pay to keep the message focused. Everyone is used to reading script like they would read a newspaper. They read for the content; who, why, what, where and how.

    Good info, Justin!

  3. Making Plain Text Look Good « The Isolated Entrepreneur

    3/23/2007 8:01 am

    […] But is there a way to make plain text look pretty?  AWeber’s blog had a posting about how to create a great looking header for your plain-text newsletter.  The post talks about using dividers above and below your newsletter’s header information. […]

  4. Dan Goodwin

    3/24/2007 7:22 am

    Good to see some advice on old plain text ezines.

    I use plain text only, so the focus is on the quality of content and I don’t have to worry about if everyone is seeing my html exactly as I created it.

    I use a consistent subject line for my ezine, with its name, the date and the title of the lead article. eg:

    Create Create! – 15th Feb 2007 – “How Deeply Are YOU Creating?”

    I also use a consistant header at the top of the email body, as I agree, most people use the preview pane in their email app to check who the email’s from and whether it’s worth reading.


    Create Create!

    The ezine from for people who want simple
    and powerful articles, tips and exercises to help them unleash
    their creative talents.

    A warm welcome to all new subscribers to Create Create!


    Then I follow this with the date of the issue, and my intro to that issue etc.

    Will be interesting to hear the comments of other people…

  5. Raam Anand

    3/28/2007 7:07 am

    With the subject line, though, you can use letters that can make your subject line a little taller than others… for example, use the letters y, g, q, d, f, j, t, l etc. in combination, so that, your subject line catches the eyes of your readers.

    For example,
    Good: !firstname, here’s your download
    NotGood: !firstname, here’s the download

    Because of the letter ‘y’ present in the first subject, it appears taller than the second subject line.

    Obviously, your readers will be getting hundreds of emails everyday. The ones that catch their attention will be opened… and the rest go to (you know what). This is the first thing your reader have to do even BEFORE they read your email!

    So, focus on your subject line and DO NOT spam or use unrelated and cheeky subject lines. Also, an all CAPS subject line is like shouting (though it attracts attention – don’t use).

    Hope this helps.

  6. Shari

    5/27/2007 2:53 pm

    Hi AWeber team!

    I’ve been a member for more than 6 years, having signed up a number of old online business clients when I was self-employed. Once each account was set up, months and months could go by without logging back in (AWeber works so smoothly).

    When I did log in, however, I was pleased to see progressive additions and changes.

    As our company makes natural pet food and treat products–dynamic solution for households hit by the nationwide pet food recalls, I thought to review and update our auto responses written so very long ago.

    All is good except for one thing…I am unable to find a text alignment feature (text only), and I am not happy with each text line being centered, rather than left justified.

    Can you help me with this?

    (In addition: Just recently it came to my attention that one of our employees stopped entering our online contest entries into the AWeber database! We will be manually entering those context entries to the auto responder database.

    Thanks for the GREAT service!

  7. Online Marketing News

    7/25/2007 5:10 pm

    Nice article, well written!

  8. Jens Tee

    10/5/2007 9:27 am

    Good article – thanks for the reminder

  9. Andy

    10/10/2007 8:38 am

    Great article.
    Many greetings from Germany

  10. Alice

    10/23/2007 11:14 am

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    Can anyone recommend the easiest way of converting an html newsletter to plain text? We already write our newsletter in html using a bespoke templates and are trying to work out how best to make a plain text version without it taking twice as long.

    Thanks in advance for any feedback.

  11. Marc

    12/9/2007 5:20 pm

    @Alice: just try html2text, for me it works good…

  12. Liz

    7/23/2009 2:30 pm

    Very useful tips. Thanks everyone! Will try it with my site/content one day!

  13. vakuum

    10/25/2009 8:55 am

    Great how easy it is to place the content right as you say – helpful guide.

  14. Womih

    6/29/2010 10:52 am

    It’s really easy, thanks!

  15. Laurie

    9/27/2010 9:19 am

    How does one put clickable links in a plain text document?

  16. Amanda Gagnon

    9/27/2010 9:47 am

    Laurie ~ You would paste the actual URL. When recipients open the email, it’ll be clickable.

  17. Daniel

    5/5/2011 6:06 pm

    Great how easy it is. helpful guide.