Images vs. Plain-Text Emails: What Works Better?

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Email marketers are constantly looking for ways to boost their email metrics—in particular, open rates and click-through rates. They do this by testing variables like subject lines, From Name, and calls to action, among others.

One test you may not have thought of is testing the effectiveness of a plain-text email vs. a normal HTML message with images. Can plain-text be more effective than images? Absolutely!

Let’s look at some reasons why:

1. Plain-text emails imply “intentionality.”

Plain-text emails can have the look of being a direct, purposeful email from an individual. This look can work well in driving engagement.

2. “Ugly sells.”

A boss of mine in a previous life used to say this to me all the time. Plain-text emails can be considered ugly, and draw the eye because it stands out from the “beautiful” emails that fill our inbox on any given day.

3. Plain-text emails are readable by all your subscribers.

Plain-text emails look the same for all subscribers. Therefore, you don’t generally have to stress over the formatting issues based on device.

4. Plain-text emails generally have better deliverability rates.

HTML, image-heavy emails require more bandwidth to load. Less load means fewer places that can raise red flags for spam filters.

NOTE: Well-coded HTML emails that abide by CAN-SPAM guidelines generally do not hamper your deliverability rate.

5. User preferences vary.

While some users would love the visual appeal created by HTML-based image emails, some subscribers strongly favor text emails. Studies how that plain-text emails are just as effective as HTML emails. This can be particularly true for onboarding or welcome emails that are sent to new subscribers who have just signed up.

6. Wearables are getting more popular.

Nowadays, more and more people are using wearables such as Apple watches. Plain-text emails work better than HTML emails on these devices, largely due to the limitations that wearables present in terms of rendering.

Before you jump into turning all of your emails into plain text (something I do NOT recommend), here are some best practices for your plain-text email marketing test campaigns.

  • Plain-Text and Text Version are NOT synonymous.

    Just because you’re going with a plain-text look doesn’t mean you skip formatting altogether. You can still incorporate simple HTML elements into your campaign. Use bold, underline, italics and other simple formatting options to make certain portions of your message pop off the screen—most notably your main call to action. (As an alternative, square brackets or double angle brackets can also serve this function.)

  • Use clear headings for every section.

    Break up different sections of content by using clear headings. Asterisks and dashed line can also separate each email section for easy readability.

  • Embed links or use shorter links. Also, don’t stack links together.

    Consider embedding your links much like you would in-line text links in a normal HTML message. Otherwise, if you want your links to look like a text version of a message, make sure your links are shorter.

    Make sure your links are not placed together (either next to or stacked on each other). Otherwise, you run the risk of encountering “Fat Thumb Syndrome” or having your links run together as one. These issues can ultimately damage the customer experience.

  • Space your email content evenly.

    Every section of your email needs to be easily defined. Scannability and readability are key to success for plain-text emails.


Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Test simple, plain-text emails and see for yourself if you drive more opens, clicks, and conversions.


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About Author

Scott has been living and breathing email marketing since 2007. With both agency and client-side end-user experience, Scott brings a unique perspective to email marketing that combines best practices with real-world-tested strategy and tactics.

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