HTML Versus Text: The Saga Continues

Although I haven’t seen the current industry stats on result differences between HTML and plain-text email messages, I can tell you what we, as an agency, have seen with our clients’ campaigns these last few months. And that is, despite what some HTML naysayers might report, HTML is not getting weaker.

Far from it.

In fact, as it evolves into more of a mainstream direct-marketing medium — complete with multiple components, trackable responses, and even merge-purge — HTML-designed email is becoming stronger. Much stronger.

History Lesson

Let’s take a walk back in time, shall we? Way back when (what, three, four years ago?), when HTML first started getting some attention in the email marketplace, it was white-hot. Granted, since email marketing in general was still relatively new, there were far fewer companies taking advantage of it. And of those that were, not many were using HTML on a regular basis.

But when they were — if they did it right — they typically saw a huge boost in response relative to their plain-text messaging efforts. A unique presence in an email inbox was probably one of the factors at work back then.

Of course, success is contagious. As soon as word started to spread about the “arrival” of HTML, everyone but everyone was using it, natch. But with overuse comes — you got it — a suppressed response. Soon there was little difference between many plain-text and HTML promotions as far as hardcore results were concerned. What was an email marketer to do?

Well, I think that HTML has been experiencing a resurgence as of late. Meaning that it has become the silver bullet (of sorts) once again. At least that’s what we’re seeing on the front lines. As a full-service email marketing agency, we work with a variety of companies and organizations across the board — business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), and nonprofits.

HTML never truly fell out of favor, obviously. But email campaigns overall have become slicker, more complex, and more dynamic. And what better format for this type of expression in an email than HTML?

I’m not saying that deploying an email promotion in plain text is a losing proposition. There are still plenty of purists who prefer it to HTML. However, based on recent experience, I’d say that chances are very, very good that your campaign will get a lift with the use of HTML. So why not test it? Or if you already have tested it but that was more than six months ago, why not retest it?

For those who are new to HTML, you can find some general design tips in a previous article from last June and in another from this past fall.

What’s Right for You?

How do you set up a solid test so that you can accurately gauge the difference between HTML and plain text for your particular business? It seems simple enough: Just email the same quantity for each and send them at the same time, right?

Not always.

First, you need to decide if you want a true apples-to-apples test. If that’s the case, then start by creating the plain-text version first, but make sure that the copy is not so lengthy as to make it tough to design. We always start with straight text, along with a few rough mockups of the design; that way, we have a good idea of where we’re headed as far as creative direction goes.

To maintain the credibility — and accuracy — of the test (again, if you want to get an apples-to-apples read), then the copy and the subject line within the HTML promotion have to be identical to those for the plain-text promotion. However, testing accuracy often isn’t as important as the final results, and unfortunately, what may read well within a designed promo may not within a plain-text one. And vice versa.

In fact, we have one client whose very business depends on the regularly scheduled HTML emailed newsletters that we create. However, because roughly 25 percent of his audience can receive only plain-text issues, we always need to create a text backup.

For cases like that, when text is necessary but not for the sake of the test, you can make the plain-text version as strong as possible by making it more user friendly and easy on the eyes. And in an email promotion without any bells and whistles, that typically means that the text should be tighter, with fewer words, shorter paragraphs, and subheads that stand out through the use of capitalization or surrounding keyboard characters (such as the beloved asterisk).

Balance Accuracy With Utility

Bottom line? When testing the strength and viability of an HTML message against a plain-text one, make the two identical. And develop the two simultaneously, so that the strength of each can be maximized. That way you will get the most precise measure of the difference between the two formats.

However, when you just need to develop a plain-text message for a non-HTML-enabled audience, make it the best it can be, and don’t worry so much about making it exactly like its HTML counterpart. Accurate measurability is important, sure, but the most important thing here is to meet or exceed your goals.

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