Plain Text vs HTML Emails – Which Is Better?

The one and only real answer to this problem is – it depends. Both types of emails are a good fit for different communication purposes. But what are their crucial pros and cons?

When humans started to communicate with each other over emails, there was nothing but text in the content. Over time, companies found a lot of space for effective commercial advertising in the email channel. That’s how plain text changed into HTML and became decorated with visuals, while links and CTA buttons started bringing real money to the business. 

50 years later, the debate about plain text vs HTML emails in the PR community is alive and well. And while constructive knowledge exchange is commendable, favoring or deprecating one email type over the other without context or considering any communication purposes is unprofessional. Both plain text and HTML emails can suit your needs. Before bringing their pros and cons to the table, let’s describe the differences between rivals of this never-ending battle.

So what’s the difference?

Plain text email has no diversification in terms of formatting. Every character looks the same and takes the same amount of space in the email body. Even if you try adjusting a font, you cannot be sure that your recipient will see the exact edit on his email client due to its default settings.

As the name suggests, no visuals or layout options are present. Links can be implemented, but in a long and unpleasant format. Using a link shortener does not change anything. Long story short: plain text email is a… text message very similar to the ones we all know from phone communication.

HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) brings formatting to the email, which means the ability to use bold, resize, underline and change the color of the text. HTML lets the sender structure the email in columns and rows and share images, videos or even gifs. This makes templates way more appealing and eye-catching.

Furthermore, you can embed links in the content and recipient engagement is trackable.  Multimedia enhances the experience, boosting your brand recognition and making your PR communication unique. Simultaneously, the preparation of an HTML email is naturally more time-consuming and difficult.

Why not send both at the same time?

Still, you don’t know if HTML encoding will display properly in the recipient’s inbox. Your meticulously arranged message can display with lots of errors in certain email clients, or not load all implemented materials, especially if you left some mistakes in the code or forgot about responsive design. That’s why you should always send an email in both versions, HTML & plain text. If the first one will lose placeholders or its layout, your addressee will always have the option to display simple text and read a clear transmission.

In order to pay respect to the science of email creation and the terminology used, we need to highlight that plain text with little formatting is technically HTML email, as bolding without coding does not exist. Nonetheless, people most often talk about HTML emails, seeing their rich multimedia, and messages without visuals but with slightly formatted text treated as plain text emails. Then, we will list the pros and cons of both types, understanding this common distinction.

Pros of plain text email

  1. Easy preparation
  2. Highest deliverability; most often land in the general inbox, if you don’t use spammy words
  3. Low size & immediate loading
  4. Accessible on all email readers without exceptions
  5. Readable on all devices, even wearables, and IoT equipment
  6. Has no distractions
  7. Feels more personal
  8. Non-compulsory unsubscribe option 

Cons of plain text email

  1. No extended text formatting options
  2. No capacity for building engagement & brand awareness with visually appealing design or multimedia
  3. Old-fashioned links displaying 
  4. No possibility of tracking user behaviors, even open rates
  5. Impeded calling to action
  6. No attention channeling option & difficult prioritization of message values in the wall-of-text format
  7. No way of personalizing the content for various recipients when sending the same email at a glance

Pros of HTML email

  1. Advanced text formatting options
  2. High capacity for building engagement & brand awareness with aesthetic design templates or multimedia
  3. User-friendly navigation through embedded links
  4. Complex tracking of user behaviors, like unique & repeated clicks of every piece of content
  5. Easier calling to action & achieving measurable goals
  6. Possible prioritization of message values through the content hierarchy & design tricks that control attention channeling
  7. Easy personalization of content with recipients’ contact properties when sending mass emails

Cons of HTML email

  1. Difficult preparation
  2. Lower deliverability when inefficiently coded or filled with too much content; can land in the Promotions tab or spam box
  3. Bigger size & longer loading, potentially decreasing an attention span
  4. Inaccessible on some email readers
  5. Unreadable on all devices; when misses RWD – even on mobiles or desktops with a wide range of possible resolution specs
  6. Can be distractive with an overwhelming design
  7. By inappropriately selected target, can be perceived with a strong aversion in advance due to the salesy look & automated execution with little direct communication 
  8. Mandatory unsubscribe button which predominantly is being checked by spam filters when analyzing your content

The number of customer touchpoints continuously rises, so the plain text is an option when being passionately focused on readability. At the same time, perfectly crafted HTML email (especially if recipient whitelisted your address) will display in its all glory only on mobiles and desktops, but strongly pushing you closer to established business goals. As the pros of one email type are usually disadvantages of the other, always consider why do you communicate at all.

If it is an intimate conversation when you close a deal with potential clients, or when you service frustrated users – go for a plain text obviously. You don’t need fancy decorates. If you regularly drop valuable educational content for your current business partners or newsletter subscribers, use HTML. Unless you don’t care about your brand identity and online presence – then, colors, images, logotypes, and other visual stuff aren’t that important.

In Prowly you can create and distribute both plain text emails in 1vs1 communication, as well as send personalized HTML emails to many recipients at once. Try to execute that right now: