HTML vs Plain text emails for Ecommerce (With Statistics)

If you’re reading this, you fall into a group of everyone who has ever sent a marketing email. The number 1 question we get on a weekly basis is…should my emails be HTML or Plain Text?

We spent a week testing HTML vs Plain text on every single campaign (for one client) and the numbers don’t lie.

The answer for ecommerce is definitively…

It depends.

Here are the stats:

Plain text vs HTML - Proof!

  • Does HTML vs Plain text affect short term open rate? Not really
  • Does HTML vs Plain text affect click rate? A smidge
  • Does HTML vs Plain text affect earnings? If you squint out of one eye and don’t look out of the other
  • Does HTML vs Plain text affect spam complaints? Not in the way you might think.

Yes, that’s right. I’m saying it…

There’s virtually no difference.*

So what’s the hype?

Why do we keep having the debate?

It’s because people are looking for ways to get better results.

The Myth Of The Primary Inbox

The main promise of a text based email is the promise of hitting the primary inbox.

This can backfire though, when a person sees your email in their primary inbox between their boss, their mom and their weird aunt trying to put together a family recipe book.

If you don’t have the same kind of person-to-person connection, your promotional email might be unwelcome. Plus, while they’re replying to their dear mother, boss and weird aunt, they’re not in the headspace to shop. (Proof? See the slightly elevated spam complaint rate in the table. Note that this is VERY minor.)

via GIPHY

On the other hand…you could be in the promo tab**, next to your competitors, sure, but also when your customer is looking for something. They’re scrolling through their inbox LOOKING for something new, cool or exciting. They want the distraction.

This is their down time. They could be scrolling through their IG feed instead. Or facebook if people are still doing that.

So you have to weigh the pros and cons and consider the context of the email.

If it’s a relationship building email or a Very Important Announcement, the primary tab is a great place to be.

If you’re showing off your newest collection – go HTML and take the promo tab by storm.

via GIPHY

*We know this isn’t a rigorous scientifically, valid test. There are a number of nuances at play that we just can’t get into in this post.
**We’re talking gmail here, because 80% of our opens come from that platform

Listen, you’ll never find me drawing a line in the sand and saying that one way is the best way in every situation. You have to weigh the pros and cons and consider your own priorities.

The Pros and Cons of Plain Text vs HTML Emails

Plain text pros:

  • More likely to get into the primary tab
  • You can use curiosity to get your plain text urls clicked like crazy
  • It’s great to build a personal connection

Plain text cons:

  • Harder to build a visual brand recognition
  • You have to be confident you know who you’re talking to
  • It really helps if you have something to say (lol too obvious?)

HTML pros:

  • A picture is worth a thousand words***

HTML cons:

  • More resources needed to make it look dope af
  • More likely to get into the promo tab

*** Really, that’s the only pro? Actually, that includes everything. It helps build a visual brand. It helps SHOW what they get. And not only in the sense of literally what product they will get, but if you show the product in use or an “after” shot, you also show what their life could be like if they buy the product. In the physical product world, HTML makes a lot of sense.

So, Should You Use HTML or Plain text Emails for your Brand?

Our recommendation based on this test and our years of experience and $15mm revenue earned…

via GIPHY

Both

Use a strategic combination of HTML and Plain Text

You should use plain text strategically to:

  • Add emphasis to a promotion
  • Build relationships
  • Send Very Important Announcements (this includes apologies…stuff happens)
  • Ask questions and get responses

The right way to do plain text emails:

  • Use your (brand) personality
  • Use curiosity – since there are no pictures in the email, they don’t know what they’re going to see when they get to the page. This is in direct contradiction to using design when we want to show them what they’re going to see when they get there.
  • Use your words carefully. Using plain text isn’t an excuse to use a LOT of text. In fact, since there are no pretty pictures to distract, you’ll actually need to use your words really well.
  • Either go all in and commit to plain text only, person to person connection OR use it sparingly to add emphasis and gravitas to what you’re saying.

Should you rely on a 100% plain text email program?

I doubt it, but we’re up for testing it.

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