Why Marketers Must Optimize Emails for HTML and Plain Text

When you send an email, a lot goes on behind the scenes. And as mere marketing mortals, most of us probably don't understand the process fully, especially when we rely on software to take care of all that technical mumbo-jumbo for us. Just take a look at the following infographic from litmus, which documents an email's journey from the click of the "send" button all the way to the subscriber's inbox. It turns out, getting an email to display properly in a recipient's email client isn't so cut and dry. There are quite a few factors that can affect an email's ability to show up the way you, the marketer, originally intended!

As you can see, it's all too easy for your swanky email design to break, looking wonky and unprofessional in your recipients' inboxes. So besides the factors that are completely beyond your control -- namely, the subscriber's browser, email client, and device -- how can you be sure to draft an email that looks great no matter what? The key is to draft two versions of each email: one that renders well in HTML, and one that is optimized for plain text.

The Difference Between HTML & Plain Text Emails

So what the heck is the difference between an HTML email and a plain text email, anyway? Let's break it down:

Plain text emails are simply emails that are void of any formatting that enables you to customize how the email looks visually, such as bolded, italicized, or underlined text; different header and font styles/sizes; colors; images; hyperlinked anchor text; etc. The idea is that, with plain text emails, no information is lost in translation if the email is viewed on different email clients or devices. HTML (HyperText Markup Language) email, on the other hand, uses formatting (often called rich-text formatting), making it possible to create email that does display those types of visual components mentioned above. The result is a much more beautiful email, but only if the email client and device can handle it.

Unfortunately, it's still not exactly that simple. Even if an email client does accept some HTML formatting, it may not support some of the richer formatting elements, such as images. If this is the case, the recipient may get an email that looks something like this:

Rather than what the Groupon marketer intended, which looks like this:

The Marketer's Conundrum

Most email service providers (ESPs) today allow marketers to easily draft visually striking HTML emails using simple WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") editing tools, making it all too-easy to dismiss traditional, plain text emails as un-important. But if you think plain text emails are a thing of the past, you might want to think again. Plain text still has its place in the email world, so before you completely discredit its importance to your future email marketing sends, keep reading. We'll discuss the importance of drafting emails that render well in both plain text and HTML, as well as our top tips for designing both HTML and plain text versions of your emails.

Why You Shouldn't Ignore Plain Text

Sure, it's tempting to create fancy HTML emails, especially considering you don't need to be a developer these days to do it. But according to email service provider MailChimp, there are five great reasons why you still need to consider plain text.

1) Some Browsers, Email Clients & Mobile Devices Can't Handle HTML

As the infographic reminded us, because of factors like bandwidth and functionality, not all email clients, browsers, and mobile devices that support email are sophisticated enough to display formatting like HTML properly. When marketers fail to optimize their email for both versions, what happens is a broken design and an undecipherable, ineffective email.

2) Some People Prefer It

Plain and simple. Some people would rather avoid all the bells and whistles and just read the message. While many email clients allow you to make HTML email the default setting, some also enable users to only view emails in plain text. Not solving for this type of email subscriber puts marketers at risk of alienating a portion of their subscriber base.

3) Some Email Types Lend Themselves to Plain Text

Creating HTML emails -- even using simple tools like WYSIWYG editors -- understandably takes more time than creating plain text emails. Because of the extra time and effort it takes a marketer to draft a good-looking HTML email, there are some times when it just isn't worth it. For example, if you send simple, daily email alerts with content such as news feeds or quick links, or if you send email very frequently, plain text is a more efficient way to go.

4) SPAM Filters Like to See Plain Text

When a SPAM filter sees an HTML email without a plain text counterpart, it's more likely to suspect the email to be SPAM, since it's an indication of a "lazy spammer." In other words, failing to include a plain text version of your email is a red flag to SPAM filters.

5) It's Safer for Transactional Messages

When HTML emails include click trackers, it's not uncommon for email clients to warn recipients against "potential privacy threats" or a potential "phishing attempt." Therefore, when sending transactional emails, stick to plain text emails, or you could put yourself at risk of a damaged reputation.

Luckily, most popular email service providers -- including HubSpot's email tool -- enable marketers to edit and customize both the HTML and plain text versions of their emails, making it unnecessary to completely give up the visually appealing benefits of HTML emails for the sake of plain text.

And even if your email service provider doesn't require you to create a plain text version when designing an HTML email, it's a best practice to create a plain text version regardless, for all of the reasons we just mentioned above. When you optimize both HTML and plain text versions of your email, you ensure that anyone can read it, regardless of their default settings, email client, browser, or mobile device's capabilities. That being said, there are still a few things you should keep in mind when creating each version of your emails.