What Works Best in E-Mail Marketing: Text or HTML?

Is HTML e-mail on its way out?

Michael Della Penna, chief marketing officer of Epsilon Interactive, seems to think we may be headed that way.

In an interview with Direct magazine (10/15/06, p. 9), Penna said that retailers who still use all-HTML e-mail are in for a “horrendous” online holiday shopping season.

He cites a study by his firm showing that for 65% of Internet users, images are suppressed in the e-mail they receive, and so they can’t see the graphics.

As a marketer, what works best for you — text or HTML e-mails?

As a consumer, which would you rather receive … and why?


45 thoughts on “What Works Best in E-Mail Marketing: Text or HTML?

  • As a consumer, I prefer a middle ground…no pictures but include active links if I want to be taken to a site. Plain text email that requires one to copy and paste a URL I would think…isn’t very effective because it requires the reader to take an active, versus a passive step, to do what the marketer wants done. Also, the smarter lists ask you how you prefer the email to be sent.


  • I prefer HMTL, but during peak seasons when I know I’ll be blitzed with holiday ads, I adjust my mail setting to not open images automatically. It still allows me to click if I want to see the images.

    Plain text is like ordering water at Starbucks.

  • Just because it’s HTML, doesn’t mean it has to depend on images. Plain text looks like crap IMHO and exposed URLs are a problem. I’d look to Amazon’s email alerts as well-done HTML email that works with images suppressed.

  • Dave: do personal emails “look like crap”? They are plain text. A plain text email is effective BECAUSE it looks like personal email rather than advertising. Joel: You don’t have to cut and paste the URLs from a text email. You can make them live hyperlinks. I do this all the time, as do countless other marketers.

  • A definition of terms? A personal email or these blog responses are obviously plain text. And this is fine – people’s hearts shine through.

    Is HTML generally something like, for example, Ilise Benun’s “Quick Tips from Marketing Mentor?” If yes, then that’s fine too.

    As a consumer/reader, I like both.
    (Just as I like the Wall Street Journal a-n-d Real Simple.)

    Plus my computer always tells me when it has suppressed an image. One click and I have it, and it will then always accept from that sender.

    Bigger question – how come these tech giants always have to be making these dopey, unprove-able, ususally-end-up-not-to-be-right announcements?!

  • I prefer HTML for reading, but as a network administrator, I have to tell you part of the reason it is on the way out is because Spammers have been using pictures to hide text, en masse for about the last year.
    Spam filters don’t see the text, so the spammers can sneak in more Viagra emails. I work at a firm of about 600 people and we turn away about 200k Spam emails a day and many thousands more now make it through because of this.

    I’ve received more spam in my inbox (instead of my filter) in the last 6 months than in the previous years combined because of it.

    Keep up the good work, Bob I am reading a couple of your books on Copywriting and thinking of changing careers because of it!

  • You can send the HTML and images as MIME multipart/related instead of loading the images by HTTP. You lose tracking but get the image through.

    Thanks for posting that 65% number. Will use it as a correction factor for open rates.

  • Bob–I usually prefer text emails. Most HTML emails are too busy and hard to navigate. Just tell me what I need to know. If I want to see pretty design, I’ll go to your website!
    But I do agree with Joel that some newsletters have found a good middle ground: Clean HTML text with live links from the contents to stories.I get one daily news update that offers three flavors: HTML, Plain Text or what they call a “Print Version” formatted for easy reading. Works for me.

  • Bob, I’m not familiar with Michael Della Penna, so if he’s generally right, I would take that into consideration, of course.

    Guess I’m still reacting against one guy who told me I “had to have” a Blackberry if I wanted to run my business successfully. Just ’cause he loved his – which is fine – it wasn’t right for me. But he’d never let it go, and made it clear he thought I was a lame-o for not jumping on the bandwagon. But there are so many bandwagons … and I thought technolgy was supposed to give us more freedom of choice & action, not less! Plus these pronouncements just keep coming faster and faster. It’s hard to know where the sweet spot is between overly plugged in and overly tuned out.

  • Sponge–You’re absolutely right. Machines have become the masters instead of the servants! I won’t get a Blackberry or Palm or whatever either.
    Better watch what I say… I also swore I’d never get a cell phone. But I still don’t carry it with me! I don’t like electronic leashes. Besides, anything portable is losable!

  • Morti, Sponge: I am a total luddite. I don’t own a Blackberry, Blue Tooth, PDA, beeper, or cell phone. I didn’t own a laptop until seminar clients requiring PowerPoint for lecturs forced me to!

  • Morty, Bob – I love you guys! You’re wonderful!

    Two confessions:
    1. I really like my Motorola Razr. It’s such a beautifully-engineered little thing! I’m not married to it, but I’m glad to have it.

    2. I get totally frustrated with actual business people — and there are still lots, more than you might think — who refuse to have a separate fax line and have to be there to “switch it over.” It’s 2006, for God’s sake!

    Other than those two, I tilt toward Luddite unless I’m 1000% sure a technology is clearly going to save me time or make me money.

  • Bob, Sponge–Kinda like you guys too!

    I used to have a fax machine, with a separate phone line. But these days I hardly get any faxes. And a geek buddy of mine who was advising me on my new system asked me why do I need a fax modem? He didn’t know people still send faxes! I now use both eFax.com and Send2fax.com.

    (I remember an old cartoon with two Indians looking at smoke signals from the next hill. The caption said “It says ‘The fax machine is broken!'”)

    Remember Neil Postman? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Postman

    My favorite book title of his was “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Postman was a passionate Luddite. He refused to even get an email address. But he was invited to speak to to the German Informatics Society on computer technology (sponsored by IBM).

    His topic? “Informing Ourselves to Death”! http://tinyurl.com/m9guv

  • I am so glad to find fellow Luddites! I carry my cell phone but rarely turn it on. I use a $99 basic model Palm, but only because I have CRS (can’t remember sh*t) disease. One time I went to see a new client and forget who I was supposed to be meeting. Talk about embarrassing! So I bring the Palm (weighs 3 oz) to remind me of my meetings and to schedule meetings/appointments when I’m away from my desk.

    I have turned off IM. And I no longer pay for a fax telephone line — I use eFax. I have a laptop, but like Bob, I bought only so I could use it for giving presentations.

    I will *never* read a book from an e-reader, and in fact, recently downloaded and printed a 200+ page report so I could read it while sitting on my comfy sofa with a cup of tea and cookies.

    As to email — I don’t mind HTML emails at all. Talbots, LL Bean, Lands End — something must be working because I get their emails and end up spend money on their sites.

  • The majority of my job revolves around email marketing and I can tell you that from our standpoint HTML performs much better than text – we keep our HTML template simple, professional and low on graphics, but that seems to be enough to keep our click and transaction rates higher than most in our industry.

    I always take these wide proclamations of what email marketers must do to succeed with a grain of salt. My favorite of these is the report that seems to hit the net quarterly that tells email marketers what the best day of the week to deliver email is in order to generate the highest open rates. The catch – every quarter the report will tell you a different day of the week is the best. The first thing I do when that particular piece of info hits my inbox is to tell my team that the only day of the week we absolutely won’t be delivering email this quarter is the day suggested. My take on this is that a high percentage of email marketers read these reports and immediately adapt, thus the day of the week indicated suddlenly becomes a total wasteland for opens.

    My guess is that this decree that HTML is dead and text is the new king will probably have the same effect – and I’m looking forward to it.

  • By the way, as long as it’s invisible to the sender, it doesn’t matter how people receive faxes. I still have a fax machine, but a lot of people I know do eFax. Fine … as long as I don’t have to call ’em to switch over to their fax, I could care less! (I have to send a lot of legal docs around – most of those people have no problem with faxes. I told ’em all that faxing was a lot faster for me than scanning and emailing. And I’m certainly selfish enough to want to do what is easiest … for me!)

    That’s the great thing about today … lots of ways work. You really have your choice. Which is very nice. (And that was my original objection to Michael Della Penna’s contention!)

  • SpongeBob, spend some $$ and get the full version of Adobe Acrobat. I bought it a few years ago and don’t know how I lived without it. It adds a little button to MS Word and now I simply change Word docs into PDFs by clicking it. Easy, easy, easy. I send all my proposals this way. I only use eFax to receive docs. I still have my fax machine for those things I have to sign and fax. Also, with the full Adobe program you can copy text from PDF docs — and images, too. It saves me TONS of time (something Bob likes — I just bought his “Write More, Sell More” book).

  • Hi, Diana – Thanks for the tip! I have Acrobat and send PDFs around all the time. I also end up with a lot of signed things that have to be faxed. That’s how come I run into people’s old-fashioned set-ups. (Am I the only one who wishes Bob would convert his blog to a threaded forum for like-minded ad/mkt/writer types?! The people who post here are really terrific, and helpful, and wise!)

  • Personally I prefer text only emails. Somehow they come across as more personal. I don’t get the sense that I’m part of an email blast.

    What’s worked for me is text only email with personalised salutation. And when I have to use very long links, I use a link shortening programme.

    So far so good.

  • My suggestions:

    1. Plain text is simple and unobtrusive. It does not waste reader’s time or traffic.

    2. HTML performs better if it is simple and unobtrusive.

  • Bob (cc: Sponge): The fact that you (Bob) call a blog “conventional” shows how far and fast things have come! As for me, I like blogs. I find forums clunky to use, unlike the comments on a blog. I also find them unfocused. On your blog, you are throwing the party. You serve up the information, opinion or question and we–your guests–enjoy and perhaps respond. It’s clear who’s the host and who are the guests.

    To borrow a literary term (and to mix metaphors!), forums lack in Point Of View.

  • Bob – the main advantage would be that others could throw a question out there and see what the group has to say.

    Morty is absoloutely right – that is different from what you are doing here.

    But you never seemed to use this blog “conventionally” – i.e., as a kind of diary of your days/thoughts. As I recall, you started the blog because you were planning a book on blogging, and wanted to know what you were talking about. (And God bless you for that.)

    With the exception of your “retiring from writing books” post, tho’, it seems to me that most of your posts are asking for comments on an article of interest you came across.

    In some ways, that may lend itself more to a threaded forum.

    Or not.

    I will say that I participate in one forum on a topic close to my heart, and I just love it. This group uses a very-non-clunky-interface service that costs about $12 a month, and we’re invited to toss is a few bucks toward the annual fee (but it’s not required for us to pay).

    The moderater of that group is very much the “party host,” to quote Marty, and he does a fine job of keeping the angry forum-wrecking nuts out. (Other than that, as adults all very interested in a specific issue, we’re great at “policing” ourselves.)

    A forum absolutely does not have the POV of a blog. Nor should it – it’s a different animal. Has its place, tho.’ Kind of like an electronic version of Ben Franklin’s Junto (sp?). Those kind of groups are hard to find, in real life or on-line, and I mostly mentioned it because I often thought the people who respond to your blog have the kind of “candor, intelligence and good will” – to quote a radio guy’s line – that can really make a forum a wonderful and special thing for those participating. IMHO.

  • Always been a plain text email guy myself, and I recommend it to my readers as well (I wrote an entire article on this topic on my blog).

    As Internet marketers our little emails face enough resistance as it is to get through to their intended recipient. Then our emails face the poor attention rate that most people online seem to “suffer” from nowadays, so keeping things as simple and mass consumable is the way to go I believe.

    Yaro Starak

  • I prefer plain text email for marketing (sending and receiving) with live text links. Too many times with HTML mail, designers get overzealous and create graphics with critical text embedded in the graphics — which is totally useless when viewed on a Blackberry or in a mail client that blocks graphics in unknown sender’s emails.

    As to the side thread here on neo-Luddites: I reviewed tech gadgets for more than four years and am in the it-may-be-cool-but-not-useful camp for most of them. However, I DO have a Blackberry, simply because I travel nearly every week and it makes being on the road a lot possible — I don’t have to tell colleagues how to reach me, they just can.

  • Hi Bob,

    I’m for text both as consumer and reader! I know it doesn’t always have all the bells and whistles but I think it’s still one of the best ways with all the filtering etc. to make certain your intended recipient gets your email and is able to easily read it.


  • We have a number of clients we have set up for HTML email, and they complain that it (a) takes too long to set up each mailing, and (b) they get better response to a sinlge simple link – when they use multiple links the response isn’t as good – is there a solution to this? Bax

  • Rob: In my book “Internet Direct Mail,” I cite a research study showing that 95% of e-mail recipients click on the first two links, so having more than two does not pay off.

  • Since email marketing involves the Internet, and the Internet is a multimedia channel, isn’t this like asking television advertisers whether moving images are worthwhile? If anything, email will increasingly be linked to audio and video. We’re not about to go in reverse.

  • The Daily Reckoning is sent in text and it’s a multi-million dollar profit center. The content is king. Don’t let the format get in the way of the message. My advice is test both, and see what your audience prefers.

    Give them what they want!

  • Andrew, as usual, is right on the money. We sometimes appear on the same panels at Internet marketing conferences, which I enjoy despite the fact that he is more articulate and urbane than I.

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