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


  1. The Time Diva

    8/2/2007 5:36 pm

    I do a combination of both. Our newsletter goes out in both text and html but when I do a separate broadcast/promotion I do it text.

    Never tested html/text broadcast… might be something to do on a split test if possible.

  2. Vivien

    8/2/2007 11:29 pm

    Personally, I just don’t have time to read long messages, with lots of boxed advertising or testimonials, and the same message said in several different ways. I would rather have a shorter message outlining the impact and a link to a longer version if I want to read more.

  3. Scot McKay

    8/2/2007 11:36 pm

    Thank you for this. Like much we see in the IM world in general, the "text vs. HTML" debate has always been carried on as a "black or white" issue.

    I personally was using what you would term as "Lite HTML" but stopped it due to reports that "plain text outperformed HTML", which appeared to be supported by the practices of others in my general space.

    But lately I couldn’t help but notice that it really seemed that my HTML emails must have had higher open rates (although that info isn’t objectively available on text emails, of course).

    Just today–on a whim–I decided to copy my text broadcast message (without visual modification) to the HTML editor and fire away. Sure enough, preliminary metrics are showing that "Lite HTML" was indeed outperforming.

    Your report serves to underscore my both my gut feeling and my objective test today. Back to "Lite HTML" style it is.

    Cheers…and thanks again.

  4. Justin Premick

    8/3/2007 9:20 am


    I think split-testing that would be a good idea… for that sort of use I think that either result (your HTML/text pulling better, or your text-only one doing so) is plausible. If the HTML/text one pulls better I might attribute that to people recognizing the message (since it looks like your newsletter). If the text one pulls better you can argue that plain text looks more like a personal note and that led people to respond better. It’d be interesting to see which one pulled better for you, so please let us know your results if you do test that!


    A lot of people share your feelings there. One way for email marketers to address those needs, while still catering to the people who do like to read the full message text in their inbox, is to provide an online version and link it near the top of the message. A "Table of Contents" or "In This Issue" section can also get at this by summarizing the message so that you know if you want to hold on to the message.


    You’re right on with the black & white comment – that’s always irked me. I think it’s just our desire to simplify so we can work on other aspects of our campaigns (or businesses as a whole).

    Even as frustrating as it can be to hear "you have to test for yourself" that’s really the only way to know. I’m glad to see you’re trying it out, and hope that you (and everyone else) continue to "test until you become convinced about what really works best for you

  5. jim caso

    8/3/2007 11:35 am

    I dont have a problem with people who know how to use html sending messages it is those who have no Idea what they are doing I feel for because they send out garbled messages thinking they are sending fancy emails.

  6. bdr

    8/3/2007 11:39 pm

    realy its useful topic …ithink the very interresting thing the commentment of the readers …
    thanks alot for tha

  7. Adventures in Email Marketing » Links |

    8/4/2007 3:41 pm

    […] Light HTML Lots of folks talking about going to light HTML: – AWeber Blog, via Retail Email Text Vs. Lite, Lite vs. Heavy HTML. That’s a level of detail I wish the study I’d linked to last week had gotten into- “Text vs. HTML”. – BeRelevant writes about a text vs. HTML (which actually promotes more lite HTML), by Maria Hendricks. […]

  8. Justin Premick

    8/6/2007 9:31 am


    Very true – if your HTML isn’t well-done, it can detract from the recipient’s experience (and response) rather than enhance it.

    It’s key to make sure that your HTML renders well in a wide range of email clients. Using HTML templates can help senders quickly and easily create good-looking email messages.

  9. Rick D

    8/6/2007 1:24 pm

    We send out a VERY heavy HTML newsletter about twice a month. The majority of my readers have Hotmail, Yahoo or AOL accounts.

    Our open rates average about 50% and click tracking is 15-20%. I am curious how this compares to what others are seeing?

  10. Shiva

    8/7/2007 10:54 pm

    Doesn’t anybody face the problem of images being blocked? In Gmail and Yahoo the images in the html mail are blocked by default, and the user has to explicitly click on a link like "Display images below" to see the images. Doesn’t this affect the open rates of html mails? Could you please address this? Thanks…great thread!

  11. Rian

    8/21/2007 2:44 am

    Im currently testing an ecourse, but the main ecourse is delivered via HTML pages. The email sent out simply redirects people back to the HTML page. I’m wondering how this will do in the long run because it is one more click the user must make.

    Anyone else running email campaigns like this?

  12. TJ McCue

    9/25/2007 1:11 am

    Text Vs. HTML: Is Moderation The Key?
    Email Template Design – Justin Premick – August 2nd, 2007 – Permalink

    This is a very relevant article. It seems an easy way to determine what is the best use of e-mail marketing is to think,

  13. Justin Premick

    9/28/2007 3:31 pm


    Good point about how demographics might affect your choice of format. I don’t know that plain text would necessarily be better for an older audience… but it’s plausible enough to test!

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  15. Carl V

    11/10/2007 11:52 am

    Good issue discussed here! Although I have not done any testing on this, it would seem that with video on the rise as well on the internet, one cannot underestimate the "visual" aspect when trying to get your message across.
    All autoresponder emails look so alike, that a graphic approach does help to stand out nowadays, but I think that as with most things in life, moderation is the key. Sending paintings across would not do the trick either and could get you into trouble with some spam filters.
    I think that most webmaster just cannot be bothered in putting some TLC an their emails and just want to pump out as many emails as (in)humanly possible to get that sale (that is perhaps another discussion topic: how much is enough for your clients?).
    I personally feel more inclined to open a well designed HTML email as in my opinion, if the person who sent it took his or her time to work on this one message, chances are the products or services and their support will be also well taken care of.
    I opt to send my emails out in both formats and let the client decide which format they wish to receive in their email client settings. That way you cater for the personal choice and preferences of your client and increase the likelyhood of having your email opened. No?

  16. » Learn From a Great Email Newsletter Example: Kayak - AWeber Blog

    4/2/2008 10:14 am

    […] is exactly the kind of email that comes to mind (for me) when someone asks for an example of a “Light HTML” email message. They cleverly separate each section with a header (the destination name). They […]

  17. Award-Winning Autoresponder Series: What’s Working? - Email Marketing Tips on the AWeber Blog

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    […] GMAC Mortgage had a particularly compelling design that, while simple (it looked to me like a personal letter sent by postal mail on company stationery) incorporated some nice, simple design elements such as their logo and a picture of the mortgage agent. A great example of “Light HTML.” […]