The E-Mail Text Vs. HTML Debate: Readers Weigh In

Thanks for your lively responses to my column on the HTML/text struggle. I wish I had space to quote everyone, but I’ll have to just hit the high points. I read and valued all your comments. It’s always great to hear what a broad selection of my peers thinks.

Although the results aren’t scientific, I find them significant. Less than 3 percent of responses were anti-HTML. So Leapfrog Services’ John Wiley was right, at least as far as this column’s readers are concerned, when he states, “Text-only purists are not a significant percentage.” I believe this can (at least for now) be extrapolated to the population as a whole, based on my experience in the industry.

In the opposing camp: Steve Kimball of Oracle Band likes having the flexibility to control the size of the fonts in his email to aid readability; with text he can increase and change the font easily, which he can’t do with HTML. He makes a good point, which I’m taking to heart: Marketers using HTML should put thought behind their font styles and sizes. If they aren’t large and clear enough to be readable by your audience (who are aging every day), they won’t be read.

The vast majority of responders are strong HTML email supporters. Below, the key reasons they mentioned.

Increased Readability and Presentation

Toby of ITZÁ’s Galerías Home Decor makes a point I agree with: “I’ve got only seconds to capture attention, and the right picture will grab quicker than the right copy…. [In many cases, with a unique product” a text email would never do it justice.” Hear, hear. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

Carolyn Gardner of cardcommunications uses an analogy I wish I had thought of: asking clients if they would use plain white paper, rather than letterhead, to send an offline message to prospects and clients. Of course, the answer was no, hence her argument for judicious use of HTML (for logos) in email.

Robert Shen of Alibaba.com sums it up best when he says, “I feel it is difficult to sacrifice HTML for the sake of good penetration but bad information delivery.”

Ask for and Deliver What Readers Prefer

This was the most frequent response, and I agree. “The choice should be left to the recipient,” says Paul Maloy from Symantec, adding, “The newsletter list that I maintain favors HTML by about 12 to 1.”

Mike Taylor agrees: “Our customers prefer HTML to text-only emails by a wide margin.” So does Paula Skaper of Kinetix Media Communications, who says, “More than 90 percent of readers choose the HTML version over text. Until that metric changes significantly, there’s simply no solid business case for dumping HTML.”

Brian Lunde from ISR raises another topic near and dear to my heart when he asks, “What about the increasing practice of reading email on mobile devices?” Absolutely, Brian. I’ve had and loved my Blackberry since 2000. He requests text versions of email so he can read them on his Blackberry. I don’t, but I do like when an email is in multipart MIME (define) and can be read in text on my Blackberry and in HTML on my desktop. For me, that’s optimal. If you’re asking text or HTML, include an additional box for multipart MIME, if you’re able to send this way.

Judicious Use of HTML Can Support the Message

Bruce Larson of RTL Systems advocates a “commonsense approach” to using HTML, as does Sharon Lux of McCain Foods Limited, who encourages marketers to “be more professional” by making sure their HTML maintains its integrity.

Jose Ruiz of PeopleSoft reminds me of the old direct marketing rule that success is “40 percent offer, 40 percent list, and 20 percent creative,” supporting the “copy is king” stance I agree with. Luis Antezana of Methodologie sums it up by stating, “Judicious use of any technology is the key to maximizing its effects.”

Test and Go With What Works

Many readers reported better results with HTML email, including Richard Chavez of ActiveForever.com, who says their HTML email has “always received better response rates than text…. Done right, the HTML message provides a more user-friendly layout and creates a much better customer experience; our numbers prove it.”

Sean Quick of Mediaplex seconds the motion, saying, “HTML consistently generates higher click and conversion rates for our clients, who are mainly in the B2C space.” And Ben Dobbs adds some quantitative support to the argument with his case study. An HTML effort generated a 6.1 percent conversion rate, while a similar text effort had a conversion rate of just 4.0 percent.

Point of order: Ben also advocates “solid, yet simple, HTML creative,” as discussed above.

Bottom line: If you wonder if text works better, test it. Mark Brownlow of Email-Marketing-Reports.com puts it well when he says:

Every half decent email marketing software or service provider gives you the tools to test, measure, and compare the two formats, so you can choose the one that works best for you. Not to mention that it’s not necessarily an either/or debate. You can offer people both…. Let the test results speak for themselves.

Summary

From the response I received, HTML is very much alive for email marketing, and the anti-HTML group is a small but vocal minority. That said, marketers must pay heed to the trends and be willing and able to deliver email in the format readers want to receive.

As a note, many readers commented on online delivery channels that are good alternatives to email. RSS (define) is an up-and-coming channel I’ve discussed in the past. I’ll look into some of the other recommended channels and report on those I feel may be significant in future columns. Watch this space…

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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