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Why Bother With Plain-Text Emails?

Is the plain-text email dead?

In the old days of email marketing, HTML email didn't always work. You had to create a plain-text "alternative" version of your HTML email (sort of as a backup), then embed both messages into one email. If a recipient's email program couldn't view HTML email, the plain-text would show instead (the technical term for that type of message is "multipart-alternative MIME").

Back then, a lot of people chose to send only plain-text email (HTML email was buggy in some email programs). And there seemed to be a lot of debate about how HTML email was "the spawn of the devil" because it was a risk to privacy (a reference to the open trackers that HTML email allows for), wasted bandwidth, and took too long to render.

But these days, just about all email programs can render HTML email, and sooo many people have high-speed Internet connections. So we see a lot of marketers ignoring the plain-text field.
This is a mistake.

5 Reasons You Should Still Create Plain-Text Emails

  1. Some people just prefer plain-text emails.
  2. Spam filters don't like it when you send HTML-only. They want to see HTML along with a plain-text alternative, because only a "lazy spammer" would skip the plain-text step. Also, the plain-text email should be roughly the same content as the HTML email (not just a lazy, "visit this URL to see our HTML email in your browser!").
  3. In certain situations, plain-text emails can be better than HTML emails. If you send daily alerts, news feeds, and things that are sent very frequently and need to be quickly scanned, plain-text works great. You don't want to send huge, image-heavy emails every day. People will burn out fast.
  4. Mobile devices. More and more people are checking email on Blackberries and cell phones. Not all of them display HTML properly. Some of them only display the text portion of HTML (removing your images, or stacking them vertically). Some of them only display plain-text. Play it safe and make your plain-text back up message for every campaign.
  5. Banks and financial institutions should know that when they send HTML emails with open-trackers and click trackers, modern email programs warn their users about "potential privacy threats" or "this could be a phishing attempt." You don't want to jeopardize your reputation this way. Plain-text emails (at least for all your transactional messages) are safer than HTML emails.

Tips for creating Plain-text Emails:

  • Use a simple plain-text program. Microsoft Word will NOT work. Simple text editors are free, and they're already installed on your computer. If you're a Windows user, click your "Start" button, then "All Programs" and then go to "Accessories" to pick "NotePad". Mac users, open up a program called "TextEdit." When you use these programs, note that they are like working in the stone age. No formatting, no color, no frills whatsoever. That's plain-text. Hey, it works.
  • Most email programs will take a plain-text message and wrap it for you properly, so you don't have to worry about weird wrapping issues.
  • But in the old days, a lot of email programs automatically wrapped your lines at 60 or 70 characters. If you had something crucial (like a hyperlink) that started near the end of a line, it could be prematurely wrapped (and broken).
  • So the old advice was to enter a "Hard Return" at about 60 characters in your plain-text email. You can type the letter "W" 60 times near the top of your message to use as a temporary "visual ruler" for when to hard-return. Delete the ruler when you're finished composing the message. I don't even bother doing this anymore, but if you feel like being safe, go for it.
  • Bullet points are key. Plain-text emails are harder to read, so break it into chunks that are easier to skim and scan. Use little characters like (*) to make bullet points, and use ====== as line separators.
  • Speed tip: in i-Emailer, pop-up preview your HTML email. Copy the content. Paste that content into your plain-text email field, then reformat as needed.
  • When you send your campaign, both the plain-text email, and the HTML email are "embedded" into one message. The recipient's email program chooses which one to display. What few people realize is that some spam filters look at the differences between the content in both versions. If they see a big HTML email with lots of content, and a blank plain-text email, it looks lazy and sloppy (like spam) so they block the email. Plain-text emails are never exact replicas as the HTML email versions, but do spend an appropriate amount of time on them---people do read them.
  • In plain-text emails, you can't code hyperlinks like "Click here to try i-Emailer." You just enter a URL like: and the user will see it. Most of your recipients' email programs will make that URL clickable, but some won't.

Other Useful Resources:

  • Free Email Marketing Guide
  • Inbox Inspector: Generate screenshots of your email designs in all the major email programs, test all the major spam filters and email firewalls, and scan for spammy keywords in one click.

Free Email Marketing Tips/Tricks

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inbox inspector
Do you know if your email's rendering correctly in all the different email programs? i-Emailer's Inbox Inspector generates screenshots of your campaign in 16 different email programs. With one click.
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