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You may be surprised to learn who comes out the winner in the plain text email vs HTML match. Whether you go plain text email or HTML can impact many things, including deliverability and engagement, which of course are the most important rates for your email campaigns. Digital marketing solutions provider Vendasta actually conducted research on which gets not just better deliverability, but better traction in terms of response when it comes to HTML vs plain text emails, and what they found may seem counter-intuitive. (In case you’re not sure whether the email you are sending is HTML email, basically if it’s not plain text, then it’s HTML. Using a template? It’s HTML. Using email stationary? It’s HTML.)

As article author Patrick Liddy explains, “I was convinced that more designy = better results. The design came out…not hot. But the open rate and CTR results weren’t bad, so I moved forward with HTML design style email. It wasn’t until I started signing up for content from marketing gurus like Neil Patel, Seth Godin, Pat Flynn, and Rick Mulready that I realized there was another way. These emails were short – they told stories and kept it simple. They looked like an email from a good friend…which I’m sure was the point.”

The Plain Text Email vs HTML Email Debate Has Been Around a Long Time

The plain text email versus HTML email debate has been around for as long as there has been HTML (email preceded HTML). And the whole ‘plain text v. HTML / graphic / “designy” email’ debate has been around since, well, since designy email became a thing. And, much like the Ginger or Mary Ann debate, or the Emacs versus Vi debate, there are purists on both sides, and really nobody is ever going to convince anyone to change their mind.

the argument ginger maryann emacs vi

But in the case of plain text versus HTML email, people should at least listen to the other side. And, according to Vendasta, especially if the other side is the plain text email side. Really, the fact that plain text versus HTML has been debated for so long should tell you something: try as they might, the proponents of pretty can’t overcome the common sense and plain facts of plain.

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We have talked before about how one of the most important metrics of all, when it come to your email marketing, is not how big your list is, or even (only) how many opens you get. It’s the magnitude of the responsiveness of your list to your mailings, or, what we call, simply, MR. It doesn’t matter if your email has great delivery to the inbox (and we can help you with that here) if nobody is taking the actions you want – or even need – them to take. In other words, how responsive your list is.

Vendasta both did their own case study, and also interviewed other orgs, using their own plain text versus HTML case studies (full disclosure: Vendasta also interviewed our CEO for their article). In one of Vendasta’s own tests, they saw a massive increase in replies to their email when they switched to plain text. They count actual conversations with customers as a big win in responsiveness (and we agree). Here’s what they say about that:

“The biggest change we saw was in replies. We’ve had 602 conversations since Oct 2016 by switching to plain text, and before that, the only replies we got were people getting angry. Therefore, it’s proven to be a great medium for answering marketing questions and connecting our prospects with their sales reps (even with no previous connection). Increases in open rate and click-through rate are great, but we’ve found replies generated to be a more valuable metric: After all, starting a dialog via email grows relationships and truly nurtures potential clients!”

Plain Text Email vs HTML in eCommerce

The whole HTML vs plain text emails question is not specific to email marketing and campaigns, it’s important for eCommerce too. eComm storefront provider CS-Cart found that not only did plain text email perform twice as well as HTML, but, at least for them, plain text email is delivered to the Primary tab in Gmail, while the same email done up all designy in HTML goes straight to the Promotions tab.

Let us repeat that again, because a lot of email marketers really don’t like going to the Gmail promotions tab. CS-Cart found that the plain text version of their email marketing goes to the Primary tab in Gmail, while the HTML version goes to the Promotions tab.

Says CS-Cart’s Yan Kulakov in the Vendasta study, “When we first launched this chain, all the emails in it were plain-text. Emails performed good – the open rate was 78%. Then we redesigned all the emails to make them look nice. The open rate quickly dropped to 42%. Then we re-made the emails again to plain text. The rate became 80% again. Most of our customers have Gmail mailboxes. And Google is more likely to put fancy emails to the Promotions tab. And plain-text emails go straight to the Primary tab of Gmail. Consequently, that’s why the open rate here is better.

(You can read our article How to Stay Out of the Gmail Promotions Tab here.)

Out of five case studies cited in the article (which includes examples of each type of email), four of them found definitively that plain text email outperformed HTML email every time, and the one organization whose HTML email outperformed the plain text version was using a “pretty minimal” HTML design.

The lesson here is test, test, test, but don’t be afraid to minimize, if not completely get rid of, the HTML in favor of plain text, and see what impact it has on your response rate.

You can read the results of the Vendasta HTML vs Plain Text Emails Study here.

Which Really is Better:  Plain Text Email vs HTML? The Answer May Surprise You

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