HTML or Text Emails: Which is Better?

Email Marketing


It may not seem like it, but email marketers have a nerve-wracking job. How’d you like to pour your heart and soul into email copy, send it to 500,000 people and then see that nobody opened or clicked it? Believe me, when I say this, it (pause for emphasis) hurts. You’ll lose sleep, you will find yourself knee deep in ice cream to cope, and you might feel like you won’t be able to write an email ever again.

You see, we just want people to like the emails we produce and for that very reason, we tend to send HTML-based emails. They can be visually captivating, represent the brand, and downright pretty. The question is though does the pretty email get the job done? In this blog, we’ll explore whether HTML or Text emails are more effective.

Emails Are Like Landing Pages

Yep, you read that right. Emails are just like landing pages. They share a common goal: a conversion. When we think about the elements that make up a strong landing page, we think clear copy, an obvious call-to-action, visual cues like arrows or contrasting colors, and a form. Are emails so different? There’s a simple formula that works for most landing pages.

Reduce distractions, increase conversions. Let’s look at an HTML-based Marketo email.

Screenshot of campaign email

At first glance, the email above seems to have a clear CTA, minimal distractions, and purpose-built layout for a single offer. But if we challenge ourselves to look past this visually pleasing layout, here’s what we see:

  • 5 different links (Marketo logo, 3 social network buttons, and 1 offer link on the banner, copy, and CTA)
  • A 564×355 pixel header banner (this means it takes at least 355 pixels before the recipient begins reading)
  • A 564×65 pixel footer banner
  • A 564 pixel width layout, which confines our copy to a set width, pushing it down into more lines of text

While many of these features help to accommodate key elements for visual branding and different device widths, they also can prevent the subscriber from focusing on the most important element: the main CTA or offer. So now we ask ourselves the hard question. Does including/hyperlinking elements like our company logo and social buttons hurt email performance? Are we losing out on clicks for the main offer?

What Does the Data Say?

Over the course of 5 different email drops, we have found text emails to do the following:

  • Roughly the same open rate as HTML emails
  • 11% higher click to open rates (95% statistical significance)
  • 8% higher click through rates (86% statistical significance)

Now, those stats aren’t a confidence booster! 95% statistical significance for click to open rates is at the low end of the spectrum, meaning I wouldn’t be confident calling it a better email. The click through rates definitely need more testing. But let’s dive deeper into the data.

CTR and Lead Gen Data for Marketo

If we move beyond aggregated clicks for the HTML email and look at individual link performance, we find that not every email click goes to the offer. In fact, nearly 16% of clicks went to other links like social buttons. When the purpose of our email is to promote a specific offer, we want clicks on the offer, right?

When we rerun the numbers solely looking at unique offer clicks, the data strongly favors text-based emails. Text emails show the following performance:

  • Roughly the same open rate as HTML emails
  • 21% higher unique click to open rates on the offer link (100% statistical significance)
  • 17% higher unique click through rates on the offer link (99% statistical significance)

In the end, we found that focusing a subscriber on a single-link, text based email produced higher clicks on the call-to-action. Sure, a little bit of my soul cried knowing that all this time, the pretty emails weren’t as good as a simple text email. But isn’t that what email marketing is all about? We must constantly challenge our beliefs to find the absolute best process for every campaign we run. And if we let our opinions get in the way, we miss out on easy wins just like this one.

What do you think of these results? Have you run the same test and found a different conclusion? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share below!