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E-Mail Creative: The HTML/Text Struggle

  |  December 6, 2004   |  Comments

Seven reasons to drop HTML in e-mail messages and one really good reason to stick with it.

Have you experienced it yet? If not, it’s only a matter of time. One ClickZ columnist touched on it in not just one but two columns back in September. I thought it was a tempest in a teapot until I met an interactive agency professional at a conference who referenced it. And just when I thought it was over, an email list I’m active in had its liveliest debate of the year about it.

Let me lay out the issues, the counterpoints, and my thoughts. Then, I’m curious to hear what you think. Give me your perspective; I’ll include your responses in a future column.

Seven Reasons to Get Rid of HTML E-Mail

  • HTML takes more resources/bandwidth than text. Yes, it does. HTML tends to be more expensive to produce, and the end result will almost always be an email with a file size larger than its text equivalent.

    That said, HTML provides more flexibility in color, layout, fonts, and image inclusion. You can use HTML judiciously without going over the top. For instance, add just a graphic logo and a two-column format (which can be easier to read than text because of the shorter line lengths).

    Case in point: Rick Gardinier, VP of Interactive at Blattner Brunner Inc., relayed a case study to me. He had a business-to-business (B2B) client who was sending plain text email; performance was not that great. A simple HTML design, utilizing the company’s logo and colors, delivered a big lift in response rate.

  • HTML is prone to deliverability problems. HTML messages "can get caught in spam filters" is how one critic described it. Yes, they can. So can text email. The new technologies coming online, SPF (define), Sender ID, and Domain Keys, should help with this problem.

    Earlier this year, ClickZ reported false positives were approaching 19 percent, up from the previous two years. This is a problem. But there are many different types of filters, and most don’t equate HTML with spam, so text messages are caught as well.

    Text messages aren’t a silver bullet to get around the deliverability issue. Even if they were, you’d have to factor in response before you could declare a clear winner in the text versus HTML debate.

  • HTML doesn’t always render properly. Very true. You need to code HTML specifically for a variety of email clients (not just for Web browsers) to be sure it looks OK. Even then, the email clients can throw you a curve; some of the newer versions won’t show graphics unless the sender address is in the recipient’s address book. Be sure the message will still be understood (e.g., by making headlines text instead of graphics) even if the images don’t appear.

    Understanding all this, does it make sense to just go back to plain text? I don’t think so. I haven’t seen my clients’ open rates or response rates decline significantly since these new email clients became available.

    DoubleClick reports a decrease in open rates and click-throughs in the past year, but even that is small in context. Its open rates have gone from 38.8 percent to 36.0 percent, a loss of 2.8 opens per hundred email messages sent. Click-throughs have declined from 8.3 percent to 7.7 percent, a loss of just 0.6 per hundred clicks.

    These decreases don’t justify ditching HTML altogether right now. Further analysis shows email had similar metrics in 2002, suggesting this may be a natural up-and-down cycle.

  • People dislike HTML. This is an emotional topic for many. Comments such as, "I don’t read HTML email, and neither does anyone I know" and "I assume all HTML email is spam and delete it" are prevalent.

    I actually like HTML. As a recipient, it’s easier to read and grabs my attention. As a marketer, there are some products that just lend themselves to HTML email. One of my clients is a large toy, game, and collectibles manufacturer. It’s much easier to make a toy seem appealing by showing a photograph of it than to try to explain its cuteness in a few sentences. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

  • There are viable alternatives to HTML. Many suggest we should "send a text email with a link" to a Web page. Others chime in that "email should be enough text to arouse sufficient interest to click on the link" to the Web page.

    Been there, done that. It was the mid-1990s, before HTML email was viable. And those of us in that place at that time were so happy to suddenly have the option of columns, fonts, and other formatting (not to mention graphics). Even as a recipient, I was excited by HTML and hyperlinks. I just can’t imagine going back.

    Unless, of course, there’s a good reason to go back. This is where testing comes in. No one I encountered quoted statistics showing that text email performs better than HTML. Paul Broni, executive VP/client services director for Inbox Interactive summed up my experience when he said, "HTML is far and away the favorite [over text”; our metrics speak for themselves."

  • E-mail is about content, not design. The most concise explanation of this part of the anti-HTML platform is, "E-mail is about text, conveying information. It’s not about formatting or design. I’m not opposed to attractive design, but simple always beats pointlessly complex."

    I’ve always said content and copy are king in email, and design, formatting, layout, and so forth should support these. Copy is what gets your message across; even the best picture will probably benefit from a strong copy-based call to action.

    So why do people assume that when we talk HTML, we mean something that’s complex, something that will detract from, instead of add to, the message? The answer isn’t to get rid of HTML; it’s to teach designers and marketers to use it judiciously.

  • HTML is "dangerous." So is the bathroom. Isn’t that where most accidents occur? But I hope none of us ever decides to stop bathing. HTML opponents say, "Blocking HTML keeps viruses from getting through to your computer." So does good virus software.

    Unfortunately, viruses are a fact of life on the Internet. The danger isn’t limited to email. Certain browsers can make your computer more susceptible to attacks. The best way to protect yourself is not to go online, at least not with your own computer. Is it a risk? Yes. Does the risk outweigh the benefit of HTML email? Not for me. Not yet.

Where I Stand

I’m not ready to give up on HTML email just yet.

As a marketer, I was taught to go with what generates response, as long as it’s ethical, and complies with all regulations and you won’t be mortified if an article about what you’re doing shows up on the front page of The New York Times (or ClickZ). My clients get good response rates with HTML email, and I can’t see moving back to text-only. Not at this point.

John Verba of Adgression said it even more eloquently: "[Companies doing HTML email must be” quite happy with the return... or they’d just be cranking out text-only, all the time."

So, dear readers, I now turn the soap box over to you. What are your thoughts on HTML versus text? Have you shifted to all text efforts? Do you plan to? Considered it? Have you tested HTML against text? What were the results?

Let me know, and I’ll publish the results in a follow-up column.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a 20 year veteran of the online/email marketing industry, having started her career with CompuServe in the late 1980s. As Vice President of Global Strategic Services for Alchemy Worx, Jennings helps organizations become more effective and more profitable online. Previously Jennings ran her own email marketing consultancy with a focus on strategy; clients included AARP, Hasbro, Scholastic, Verizon and Weight Watchers International. Want to learn more? Check out her blog.

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