Plaintext vs HTML Email

A new group called Email Standards Project was recently started to improve the state of web standards support in Email clients by working with both client developers and the designer community. I mentioned in passing that HTML Email doesn't always appear to the recipient the way its sender intended. One reason is that different clients render HTML Emails differently, so it's good to see an effort towards standardization.

That being said, however, I used to be strongly against HTML Email. I had my mail client set to display plaintext alternative when available. I had, whenever a choice is given by the mailing list or online merchant, set preference to receive plaintext rather than HTML. I felt that the sender should not dictate the font size and background color I like to read my Emails, especially on mobile devices.

But over the years, my view gradually shifted. I now consider HTML Email to be complementary to plaintext. Like a presentation or a speech, HTML Email is structured, well-prepared and unidirectional; whereas plaintext is more informal, friendly and dialog-like. Both are important forms of communication, so it would be a bit naive to write off either one. How should one choose one form over the other? Here's a guideline I recommend:

Plaintext Email

  • Good for discussions or two-way exchanges.
  • Preferred on mailing lists.
  • Not suitable where formatting of information is essential to the recipient.

HTML Email

  • Good for announcements, newsletters, press releases, status reports, e-bills, coupons and generally Emails to which you don't expect a reply.
  • Must always include a plaintext alternative.

Reason being that there are reasons for an organization to send professional-looking Emails to its clients, but it's very difficult for both humans and mail client software to respond to and properly quote formatted text, and you never know if someone in your audience may not care for visual appeal, such as an eyesight impaired person. A plaintext alternative ensures graceful degradation.

I wish there was a mail client that would auto-select between plaintext and HTML based on previous habit and context...


HTML mails are a waste of bandwidth, adding very few benefits over text and making for lots of downsides.
Have you noticed how html mails most often tie to top posting with all the problems that it brings along?
If you really need to convey a message that has to have all the bells and whistles, send me a link to it rather than forcing a load of waste my way.

Posted by Mads on December 13, 2007 at 04:50 AM PST #

@Mads Yes, I agree that sending both HTML and plaintext as multipart/alternative uses more bandwidth and storage (although cost for both are relatively insignificant in most developed countries unless you're talking about bandwidth on mobile device), and many HTML Emails are poorly designed or coded, but while a link may be good enough for you and me, it's not for the typical user. I am considering to write something about top posting vs bottom posting in the near future. What are the problems with top posting that you see?

Posted by Robert Chien on December 13, 2007 at 07:24 AM PST #

I happen to really like HTML emails. I rarely send out plain text emails. MOst of the \*cool\* email clients have fairly good HTML support. GMail, which as noted by the Email Standards Project, has the like the worst HTML support, and it's still pretty darn good.

Posted by Ben Nadel on December 13, 2007 at 11:40 PM PST #

I have my email program convert all HTML email to plain text. One of the reasons I disallow HTML email is probably the same reason you don't allow HTML in your comments: spam and security exploits.

Another reason is privacy concerns: someone could put an image in an email linked to an off-site server, and confirm receipt of the email as well as when I read it (another great tool for spammers).

One way around that could be a whitelist that is approved for HTML email, but that seems like a lot of work for very little gain (IMO).

Posted by Ryan Ginstrom on December 14, 2007 at 11:45 AM PST #

1995 called... they want their ideas back.
Seriously didn't people know this stuff already? Email advertising companies have been following this practice for a decade.

Posted by Tony Petruzzi on December 14, 2007 at 10:02 PM PST #

Maybe I'm just old but HTML email sucks for so many reasons (as does top posting)...

"HTML Syntax: NOT allowed" :)

Email desperately needs a complete overhaul. I've seen figures as high as 80%+ of all mail today is spam. That's a huge waste of bandwidth that someone, somewhere is paying for. Newsletters, and all the marketing crap people send out should be done via RSS. Of course they don't like that because then the choice to view it becomes mine.

Posted by Jim Priest on December 15, 2007 at 12:08 AM PST #

The need for a standard really evolved with the launch of Office 2007, where Microsoft scrapped support for HTML in lieue of using Microsoft Word as both it's renderer and editing engine. It was a backwards move. Here's a company that has the deep pockets and talent to revolutionize email with full support of media, etc.

Instead they chose the 'safe' route, abandoning features and functionality for security. They should have worked on both!

The Email Standards Project is a great initiative but it will fail miserably without the attention and support of the Blue Monster!

Posted by Douglas Karr on December 16, 2007 at 03:36 AM PST #


Posted by Rivet on April 28, 2008 at 11:52 PM PDT #

I've just had a very odd counter-intuitive experience. Mailing a large list for the first time, I did a 50:50 split - 50% showing pictures of the T-shirts the email was selling, and 50% just plain text with links to the website.

The pic-emails did have the txt alternative of course (I used Vertical Response), but when I analysed the results, the pic email brought no discernible increase on the sales.

I'm wondering if this is a common experience?

Posted by Paul Evans on July 13, 2009 at 09:23 PM PDT #

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  • HTML Syntax: NOT allowed

I currently live in San Francisco Bay Area. For the past seven years, I have been designing and building messaging solutions for Sun.


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