Formatting Email Newsletters – Should You use Plain Text or HTML?

By Yaro Starak
8 Comments

A common question asked when you first set out to write an email newsletter is whether it should be a plain text email or HTML (web page style). This is an important consideration since your choice impacts on how many people read your newsletter and how they respond to it. Let’s look at the obvious pros and cons of each format.

HTML Emails

THE GOOD

THE BAD

Plain Text Emails

THE GOOD

THE BAD

Why Do You Have a Newsletter?

Let’s cut to the chase here. Why do you have a newsletter? If you are running an Internet business your newsletter functions as a customer retention tool, sending out periodic reminders to pull your prospects/customers back to your site. Newsletters themselves also function as a direct sales tool. It doesn’t matter if you are selling affiliate products, your own products, a service or information, your newsletter is meant to do one thing – illicit a response from its audience.

In order for your newsletter readers to feel compelled enough to take action your newsletter must clearly state it’s message AND create enough of a pull, usually via emotional tugging, to get the reader to do something. The same rules that apply to websites and copywriting apply to newsletters except you have even less time to convince your reader to do something.

Newsletters fall into the domain of email, the most popular web activity. Email is mainstream, it has penetration and people of all ages and backgrounds know how to use it. Consequently the learning curve is a little higher and your readership knows how to at least complete the basic functions with email. This means that they are quite capable of giving each email about 1 seconds worth of attention before clicking that delete button. That’s not a lot of time to convince them that your email is worth reading.

Should I use Plain Text or HTML Newsletters?

In my opinion, plain text should be your choice for email newsletter format. Why? Because of the numbers. Email newsletters are a form of direct response marketing and in direct response marketing the numbers matter.

From the point of view of a small business owner with limited time and resources you want to maximise the results you get from your newsletters. You want a lot of responses to whatever your newsletter is trying to do. You should be able to easily test different copy and see which works best so you can maximise the numbers. It’s all about the numbers…

Your newsletter must hit the reader quickly and compel them to read on. Any delays or presentation errors are going kill your chance of capturing the attention of the reader. While plain text emails are not immune to display errors (more on this later) they are a lot more likely to be digested by the reader even if things don’t format exactly how you want them to.

A plain text email is more likely to reach a larger amount of people than a HTML email simply because plain text is more compliant to standards. Plain text emails are less likely to be blocked by SPAM filters. Plain text emails will display immediately, there are no download times waiting for graphics to finish loading. Plain text emails are more likely to display properly regardless of what email client your subscribers use. All this adds up to plain text emails being read more often…better numbers…see a pattern here?

Words Sell

Bells and whistles are nice. Interactive toys and flashy lights and sounds are great. But ultimately it’s words that sell. If you write compelling newsletter copy aimed at your target audience that have been carefully selected by the methods used to acquire newsletter sign-ups, you have the perfect vehicle to illicit a response using words that sell. Why dilute your message by wrapping it within colours and images or overstimulating your readers by providing too much information when a few paragraphs can create your desired results more effectively.

Why Not Use Both Plain Text and HTML?

Good idea! If you have the resources and skills to produce a quality HTML and plain text newsletter then by all means offer both to your audience and let them nominate which they prefer, or better still have the email automatically display the appropriate format by detecting what type of email client they have. If you offer both be sure to test to make sure it’s worthwhile. Are more people responding to plain text emails? Well in that case send everyone plain text.

In my case I’m a small business owner and I’m going to be writing the newsletters myself. I do not have time nor the skills to create a new HTML webpage for every newsletter I produce. I could perhaps have a nice standard template designed which I use for newsletters but as I wrote above, I believe that is a waste of time. Words sell, so I’ll focus on creating emotionally compelling words for my newsletters rather than waste time trying to get a box to align right correctly.

Tips for Better Plain Text Newsletters

TELL A FRIEND

Remember how I talked about the numbers? Your efforts should be focused on ensuring the maximum number of people are exposed to your email so your emotionally compelling and convincing newsletter can work it’s magic. This doesn’t have to be limited to just your newsletter subscribers — your subscribers can be turned into evangelists for your newsletter. Make it easy for your subscribers to forward your newsletter on to friends and associates – suggest it to them at the end of the newsletter. Of course for this work you better be creating a damn interesting newsletter.

WORD WRAPPING

Plain text can format incorrectly and one of the most common problems is line breaks. Either lines breaking too early causing your sentences to look
disjointed and
clumsy, or no line breaks at all, causing one of those nasty horizontal scrollbars to appear and your reader to read off the page to finish a sentence. The screen resolution of your subscribers computers can also impact how your text wraps causing these problems.

You can’t control the monitor resolution of your readers or what email client they use, all you can do is try and account for as many variables as possible. To compensate for this problem you have to set a characters-per-line limitation. I’ve researched into newsletter formatting and different people give different suggestions, from 68 characters per line to 63. I’ve decided to recommend to you the round number of 60 characters per line. This will give you nice compact paragraphs made up of nice compact sentences that are likely to avoid most word wrapping (or lack thereof) problems your readers might experience. On extremely high resolutions there will be a lot of white space and your email might look like one big long tower of text but that’s still a lot better than broken sentences or horizontal scrollbars and won’t be too common a problem.

How To Set Characters Per Line Limitations

You didn’t think I would tell you what to do without giving you practical advice on how to do it would I?! Of course not.

I have a script on my site that you can use to format text that will handle email newsletter formatting to any character width you specify. Better still it can even undo the current character spacing on any text you have, so it’s definitely a tool worth book-marking.

Newsletters Are An Important Tool For Your Online Business

Many of the most successful Internet entrepreneurs are wealthy because they have massive (10,000+) lists of highly targeted subscribers that they have been building for years. One well written affiliate product email to a good list can create thousands of dollars of sales and you don’t even supply the product.

Better still once you have a solid list you can contact similar focused online marketers and carefully select the right cross promotional activities that can double your exposure with one email to their list. Of course you have to have your own list to make available for cross promotions before you can expect to work with other people – the smart/persistent/rich help each other to get richer.

Even if you are using your newsletter as a step in the conversion process to generate sales of your own products or services it’s a wise to stay up to date on good newsletter management techniques. By focusing on the numbers you can maximise direct responses that will lead to more sales as visitors become prospects and prospects become clients.

Yaro Starak

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8 Comments

  • Yaro, I agree with more or less everything you say above. We’ve always sent plain text emails for the reasons that – they’re much easier and a great deal more “personal”. However I’m beginning to wonder about HTML… It can handle a lot more “bells and whistles” and it does look pretty nice too…

    At the moment I agree that text emails are still the way to go but the case for HTML seems to be strengthening as more and more people become familiar with, or even come to expect, that format.

    In the meantime, I’ll definitely be using your text wrapping tool.

    Will

  • Hermann Klinke

    Hi Yaro, sorry, I have to disagree with you. I personally do not like plain text E-Mails, because they are so hard to read, because it’s just text and the formatting is missing. Look at this website, even very simple formattings such as headers and frames or borders make it a lot easier to digest content and to get an overview of the content. I can’t read a text only e-mail fast, because I have no orientation and hints on whether there is anything useful in that email without reading that entire e-mail. I also can’t stand inactive links, because they also make it harder to read since you usually don’t care what the url is, you just want to click on it and go there. I agree that you have to use HTML conservative though.
    But using plain text because some e-mail clients may not support it is not a good point either. Come on, where do we live, in the 80′s? That’s like saving all of your files in 8.3 format, because *some* computer out there might not understand it.

  • Yaro go the HTML emails Im currently working on this type of email for my site. I personally love HTML emails. My two cents…

  • Ahh it’s good to have some people disagree with me!

    I still stand by my call for plain text because I believe the numbers, at least for the time being, will be better AND talking about it from a solopreneur point of view, it’s a lot easier to prepare plain text. If you have the staff that can do HTML for you or you are proficient enough to do it time effectively then okay.

    Hermann, I think it’s too soon to say that there you are safe to use HTML emails without concern for client compatibility. I get emails now that my mozilla email client can’t display properly (note that it’s usually SPAM of course).

    Of course all this is moot, when it comes down to it you should try both and see which bring in a better response or wait for the experts to do all the testing for you and then adopt their best practices. Considering pretty much every newsletter I subscribe to from the so called experts in online marketing use plain text I’ll consider that a vote of confidence until things change.

  • Hmm handy article Yaro,

    I am about to start a newsletter and wasn’t too sure on which format to go with there..

    Hmm..

  • [...] If you are like me you send out email newsletters on a regular basis. I only use text based email newsletters and I always need to format the width by using character spacing restrictions. You can read why I do this in my article – Formatting Email Newsletters – Should You use Plain Text or HTML? [...]

  • Hey Yaro;

    I am about to start a newsletter and wasn’t too sure on which format to go with there and why that they weren’t like a regular email. Now I do. Thanks for the help and update.

  • Dan

    I find using HTML with ONLY TEXT, results in
    awesome results. Great for tracking as well.
    Kinda best of both worlds I guess.

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