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Crafting a Compelling Text Message

  |  September 27, 2006   |  Comments

Do it right: lean, clean, and obvious.

With all the attention HTML formatting commands, plain-text e-mail may seem a quaint relic, like your Commodore 64 or a 300-baud dial-up modem.

Quite the contrary. Text e-mail is more important than ever now that HTML is under attack from image-blocking, platforms that don't properly render it, and aggressive spam filtering that targets non-standard formatting or message size.

I'm not reviving the old text-vs.-HTML debate here. You need both in an effective, well-rounded e-mail program. Transactional messages in particular should be formatted in text to ensure proper rendering and delivery.

However, text in commercial messages or newsletters has been shortchanged lately. Many marketers don't even offer it as an option or include it as part of their multipart MIME (define) message format (an egregious error), which can upset readers who truly don't want HTML e-mail.

Making the Case for Text

A strong text message will help you cover the gaps, will meet a broader range of reader preferences, and can improve campaign effectiveness for those recipients who receive it as text anyway.

Text appeals to a significant subset of e-mail readers due to its simplicity. It doesn't raise the same red security flags as HTML, even if it also doesn't yield the same bounty of data from each mailing. It also renders properly across more platforms: Mac, PC, cell phone, PDA, mail station.

You can't expect good results if you just slap a text e-mail together and ship it out. Text takes careful design and planning, too. Think lean, clean, and obvious.


Normally, the more links you put in a message, the more avenues to your site you provide readers. In a text message, though, too many URLs can overwhelm the text. Show the most important links. Typically, these are:

  • Landing page of the offer or article
  • Home page

  • Opt-out link (required) and e-mail preferences page (if you have one)

  • Contact e-mail address or a link to a contact page

If you typically publish full-length articles in your newsletter, consider either running just headlines with the first couple paragraphs or a summary, then link to the article on the site.

Also, create a short table of contents near the top if you have several message elements.


Too much text crammed into a small space turns a text message into a gray blob. Try the following to help move the reader's eye efficiently through the message:

  • Use a line length of 50 to 60 characters. In a desktop or Web e-mail client, this produces a line long enough to deliver information without taxing the eye. If you use a fixed-space typeface such as Courier New to compose copy, the line will be about 4 1/2 to 5 inches wide.

  • Use lots of white space at the top, along the sides, and between text blocks. This also helps the eye to focus on the relevant information.

  • Limit the use of typographic devices (e.g., asterisks, stars, etc.) to separate text blocks or add interest. They can trigger spam filters tuned to look for oddball punctuation, a typical spammer trick. Remember, boldfaced and italicized text won't show up that way in a text message.

  • Keep paragraphs four or five lines deep.

  • Shorten long tracking URLs you'd ordinarily hide behind keywords or buttons in an HTML message. In a text message, they're ugly and distracting and can break if they run over one line.

  • Move all standing copy to the end, including the opt-out link, contact information, and link to the Web version so it doesn't interfere with the content.

  • Test the message before you send. Look for gray copy blocks, broken URLs, awkward layouts, and doubtful entries in the inbox.


Because your brand or company logo won't display in a text message, you must be absolutely clear about who you are to avoid confusion or be mistaken for a spammer. This starts in the inbox. Ensure your company or brand, not an e-mail address or department or employee name, displays prominently in the sender and subject lines.

In the message itself, use a title line to announce the offer or publication name. You don't have to worry about copy being blocked they way images are, but you must still design for a preview pane that displays only the top 2 to 4 inches of the message.

Incorporating Text and HTML

Even if you don't offer a text version of your e-mail, you should still incorporate text elements into HTML messages so your most important content appears despite blocked images. I outlined how upgraded e-mail clients are challenging marketers and publishers on this topic in a previous column.

You can also combine text and HTML in transactional messages to extend your marketing reach or initiate the customer relationship, but proceed with caution:

  • Use plain text in an HTML template to confirm new or updated registrations, subscriptions, reader data, purchases, and other announcements.

  • Add graphic links to an offer that relates to the content along the bottom or side of the text message, such as a reorder incentive for a purchase or shipping confirmation, or links to other publications for a subscription confirmation.

  • Restrain yourself. This technique can backfire if you use malformed or nonstandard HTML images or add irrelevant offers. Be sure the message's purpose is obvious, even in the preview panel.

And as always, keep on deliverin'!

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Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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