When and How to Use Plain Text Emails: Use Cases & Best Practices

December 1, 2022 | 6 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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This post was originally published on MarketingProfs.com.

Creating effective, great-looking HTML emails can be tricky, given today’s rendering challenges and many considerations like dark mode and accessibility. So, it’s understandable that many marketers long to return to the days of plain text emails as a simpler alternative. There’s a nostalgia around these emails, as they take us back to an easier time when writing an email was just that—writing, and nothing else.

However, often this nostalgia tips over into romanticizing the effectiveness of this form of marketing email, which has been largely supplanted by HTML emails for lots of good reasons, including performance. By far, B2B marketers are the most susceptible to being seduced by the allure of plain text emails. So, let’s discuss when these emails are appropriate and some design best practices.

The Best Use Cases for Plain Text

Plain text emails are most appropriate for a fairly narrow group of email types and situations, including:

When sending or triggering emails on behalf of a sales rep. Even though these are bulk emails typically sent by marketing automation platforms, using a plain text format allows them to have the feel of a personal email. This helps maintain the illusion that these were actually 1-to-1 emails sent by a person.

When there’s a crisis. Whether it’s a public relations disaster, a natural disaster, or some other crisis, a plain text email conveys transparency and urgency. It says, “We didn’t have time to send a pretty email. We wanted to get you the facts as soon as possible.” It also says, “We’re not hiding behind fancy formatting or images. Focus on what we’re saying with our words.” Plain text is a common approach for all kinds of crisis messaging and was used heavily for emails communicating impacts stemming from COVID-19.

When communicating major news. Plain text is also effective for important corporate news announcements, such as news about acquisitions or mergers. It’s especially appropriate when the news is coming from your CEO, president, or another senior executive, as it conveys that feeling of a personal email.

When sending legally required updates and service-related customer notifications. Annual terms & conditions notifications, privacy disclosures, planned platform downtime announcements, and notifications about a delayed order would fit in this category.

When the content is text-heavy. Plain text can also be best for content that requires an unusually lengthy explanation or is editorial or instructional in nature, such as an article or interview. 

In all other instances, you’re probably much better off crafting an HTML email for your message. That said, it’s probably worth acknowledging that most all-text emails are technically just HTML emails that are coded to look like plain text emails. This approach allows for the inclusion of tracking pixels, so opens can be tracked; and the inclusion of hyperlinked text, which looks much friendlier than raw URLs, especially if tracking UTMs are included. Now, let’s look at some other…

Best Practices for Plain Text Emails

Because they’re just text, plain text emails can appear deceptively simple. However, there are a number of best practices that can help you get better results from these emails:

Don’t completely abandon your brand name as the sender name. Because plain text emails are so often sent on behalf of sales reps or senior executives, many brands make the mistake of using those people’s names as the sender name. That’s a problem because many recipients are unlikely to know the name of your executives or the name of their sales rep, especially early on in a relationship. So, using their name as your sender name risks spam complaints and ignored emails.

The solution is to use the person’s name along with your brand name, which recipients are much more likely to know. For instance, you could use “YourBrand, NameOfPerson” or “NameOfPerson at YourBrand.” The longer the person’s name, the better off you are leading with your brand’s name, since most inboxes only display the first 20 or so characters of a sender name. And, of course, you could save characters by just the person’s first name, when appropriate. 

Tighten up and break up your text. When your email is only text, there’s nowhere to hide, so the writing needs to be strong. Organizing and laying out your text clearly can also help tremendously. Consider:

  • Limiting paragraphs to no more than 80 words, beyond which they can appear imposing
  • Adding subheads to break up text and convey main topics, which aids in skimming
  • Using bulleted text for visual interest and to avoid having to use full sentences for every thought
  • Using a row of dashes, asterisks, and other characters to separate different messages or content blocks within the email

Be smart about calls-to-action. When creating a plain text email, there are also special considerations around CTAs. For instance, you’ll want to consider:

  • Placing your primary CTA above the fold, although this doesn’t mean you can’t repeat that CTA again below the fold
  • Using landing pages with shorter URLs if your plain text email is truly plain text—but never use URL shorteners for your email links, as these are often used by spammers to conceal the destination of a link and will get your email blocked

Always include an unsubscribe link. Since these are commercial emails sent via an email service provider or marketing automation platform, you are legally required to include an unsubscribe link.

“While you wouldn’t include an unsubscribe link in a personal email sent by a sales rep to a prospect or customer, once you start to automate this process then you may need to,” says Peggy Sehorn, Expert Consultant, Technical Manager, Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “You always need to give the recipient control so that you not only avoid deliverability-damaging spam complaints, but also want to stay legally compliant and provide a good user experience.”

You can also apply all of those design best practices to…

The Plain Text Email You May Not Know You’re Sending

Again, let’s acknowledge that most of the so-called “plain text emails” that are being sent are actually HTML emails. However, most email service providers automatically create a true plain text version of your HTML email for those recipients whose email clients can’t handle HTML email, as well as those subscribers who have indicated in your preference center that they want to receive plain text.

“The problem with that is… well, it’s not designed,” says Cristal Foster, Manager of Expert Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “It’s just HTML converted into text, so it tends to look pretty awful. Marketers should go in and clean up this auto-created plain text version of their email, adding line breaks and separators and breaking out CTAs. However, few do. That’s a missed opportunity, because even spending 5 minutes to apply plain text best practices can make a big difference in the customer experience.”

Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons that plain text emails stand out is because they’re quite rare today. Don’t undermine their impact by over-using them. Make the most of plain text emails by using them selectively for the purposes and messaging they’re best suited for.

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Need help designing your emails? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.

For help overcoming your challenges or seizing your opportunities, talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or email us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.


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