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What's Best -- HTML or Text Emails?

What’s Best — HTML or Text Emails?

The CRM Advisor
You ask the questions, and our resident CRM guru shares her wisdom.

This week’s question: “We are about to launch an aggressive email marketing program. Which approach is more effective – HTML or text?”



A: This long-standing debate is one that has yet to be resolved.  As the email marketing landscape shifts dramatically, the answer to this question isn’t so “cut and dried”, and even the top industry experts have yet to agree on which one works best.

In the past, marketers felt compelled to pack their emails with slick graphics and fancy design work in order to make them stand out and get noticed among the hundreds, or even thousands of emails their target audience receives.  However, as spam filters become increasingly sophisticated, and the methods users rely on to retrieve their emails change, image-heavy campaign materials may no longer be as effective as they once were.

The Spam Filter Conundrum
Today’s spam filters are highly functional and feature-rich, and often use the presence (or absence) of graphics to determine whether or not a particular piece of communication is promotional in nature, or legitimate business correspondence.  In fact, a January, 2007 study by the Email Experience Council shows that as many as one in five emails will be invisible to viewers – and therefore rendered completely ineffective – due to blocked images by spam filters.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that HTML formats and related design work should be abandoned altogether.  It simply demonstrates the point that traditional “ad style” emails that are heavy-handed with useless images are the wrong way to go, and a more conservative approach should be taken.  Most savvy and experienced email marketers will suggest that companies stick to only those graphics that are relevant to the message, directly enhancing it in some way, and avoid using those that do little more than add “eye appeal”.

Not ALL eMail is Viewed on a PC
Studies completed by Survey Sampling, in partnership with Marketing Sherpa, show that the majority of today’s decision makers – 64 percent, in fact – view their emails on a Blackberry, a Palm, or another mobile device.  And, fewer than half of HTML emails render appropriately in these mediums, according to the Email Experience Council.  As a result, messages are not being properly delivered to their intended targets, potentially lowering response and conversion rates and negatively impacting campaign ROI.  Whether text or HTML, be sure that emails are formatted to appear properly to all possible recipients, regardless of how they are retrieving it.

Testing is Key!
Research done by shows that in test programs, “lite” HTML outperformed plain text by 55 percent, while plain text click-through rates were 34 percent higher than those received with “ad-style” HTML.  However, there have been countless other tests performed by reputable sources that have produced conflicting results.  Why?  Because experts believe that messages, and how they are displayed, will be received differently by varying audiences.

So, how do you know which format will be more effective?  Test extensively before launching each campaign to the masses.  Chose two smaller sub-groups of contacts, send an HTML version of your piece to one, and a text-only message to the other.  Whichever one produces the higher response rates should be the one you use for the remainder of your target audience list.

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[Photo courtesy of shred-it.]