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Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue ScientistThu, Jul 21, 2016 13 min read

Plain-Text Emails Vs. HTML Emails: Which Performs Best With Inbound Marketing?

Five Mistakes You're Making With Plain-Text Emails And How To Fix Them Today

Inbound Marketing Improves Email Marketing PerformanceEveryone has seen these. There’s been an explosion of them over the past six months. What looks like like a personal email arrives in your inbox, you open it, and even though it sounds like they know you, you don’t have any idea who the sender is, who their company is or why they’re emailing you.

You’ve seen these, right? I included one I got from Uberflip yesterday down below.

Clearly someone, somewhere decided that this type of unsolicited emails are better than designed HTML unsolicited emails as an email marketing strategy.

So I started looking around, and it wasn’t hard to find data that supports this. HubSpot posted a blog article with some relevant data:

  • Adding images (GIFs) to your emails reduced open rates by 37%
  • Using an HTML template in your emails reduced open rates by 25%
  • Increasing the amount of HTML in your emails reduced open rates by 23%

But the open rate is just part of the story. The goals for every email marketing campaign are click throughs and visitors to your website, so here’s more data on the click behavior related to HTML vs. plain-text emails:

  • For the plain-text vs. image test, the image version had a 2.3% lower click-through rate. This, combined with the lower open rate, meant the plain-text version got 42% more clicks.
  • For the plain-text vs. HTML template with images test, the HTML version had a 21% lower click-through rate. Combined with the lower open rate, the HTML email had 51% fewer clicks.
  • For the simple HTML template vs. HTML-heavy template, the simpler email had a 5.3% higher click-through rate, which, combined with the higher open rate, resulted in getting 30% more clicks.

This is significant from a performance perspective, and serves as solid justification for the proliferation of non-HTML emails we’re all seeing, but there’s something else worth considering.

PersonalEmailSample.jpgHow are these plain-text emails impacting your brand and your buyer’s journey? And are you applying inbound marketing and inbound sales best practices when you send them? My observation is that despite the change in delivery format, the content is basically the same as it’s ever been – and in many cases remarkably worse.

Here are five mistakes you're making with your plain-text emails and how to use lead-nurturing best practices to fix them right now.

Mistake 1 - Your Emails Are All About You

Most of these high performing plain-text emails are short and to the point. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re all about you and not about me at all. You have this great new product, you have this great new service, you have this webinar you want me to attend, you want 15 minutes of my time for a call, you want to stop by next week. You, you, you and more you.

I did get one of these the other day and it actually had information about my website in it. What did I do? Of course, I responded promptly. It was about me, not about you. The cookie-cutter attempt at personalization – "Hi Mike" and then using my company name or including my website – isn’t enough. Stop asking me for something and start offering me educational information. Provide value before you ask for my attention.

Mistake 2 - You're Not Making The Right Offers

People need different offers depending on where they are in the buyer journey. Since these emails typically have no idea where the prospect actually is on the buyer journey, offering me a bottom of the funnel offer like a phone call or appointment is wrong. In reality, simply using basic probability, the chances of emailing someone who is at the bottom of the funnel is low. So your conversion rate on these offers will be very low.

If you want to improve both the experience and the performance of your emails, consider offering a variety of offers.Better yet, ask your recipients where they are in the buyer journey and then tailor a workflow to them specifically, including leaving alone the people who identify themselves as not in any active buying process. What a novel thought!

Mistake 3 - You're Pretending You’re My Friend

My biggest pet peeve – and maybe yours too – is that these emails are very casual, implying that we know each other, even that we’re friends. The email above has a subject line, “Have some free time today?” That sounds like a friend is emailing me, or maybe a colleague. Even the choice of capitalization is well thought out: The use of lower case makes it look like someone I have a casual relationship with wants to talk to me today.

Of course, when you open up the email you see it’s from a salesperson, or a salesperson pretending to be an executive (another trick, using the signature of the CEO when it comes from an automated system). I’m always annoyed. Be authentic and be honest in your marketing.

Mistake 4 - You're Emailing Me Every Day

I get the email on Monday and then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I get additional emails because I deleted the first email. Each email gets progressively more aggressive with messages like "Since I never heard from you, I assume you’re busy but . . . " and then there’s more about you. Or "I know you don’t want me to keep bothering you, so all you have to do is let me know if you can spare 15 minutes so . . ." and more about you.

I know workflow emails and lead-nurturing works, but this isn’t that. This is pestering people, it's annoying people. If I didn’t respond to your first email, it's because you did a poor job messaging, offering value and/or targeting me. Don’t compound that mistake by doing the same thing three more times.

Try different offers, try different messages, try longer spacing between the emails. Try offering me something of value that actually earns my attention. Reach and frequency are dead: Stop leaning on them as concepts in marketing. If you don’t have anything interesting to say to me, if you can’t help me see in 10 seconds how you’re going to help me with my specific issue – don’t email me at all.

Mistake 5 - You're Asking Me To Do Your Job

This is my favorite. I guess a few smarty-pants people created these automatic calendar request tools. Instead of me working with you to find a time that’s convenient for both of us and you scheduling our conversation, you ask me to go onto your calendar (via one of these apps) and pick a time for you to talk to me.

No, I don’t want to do your job for you. If you value the relationship we’re going to have, if you’re going to be there to help, advise and guide me through a purchase process, I don’t want to pick a time on your calendar. Instead, offer me a few times that work for you, let me pick, and then you schedule the meeting with me. I’m your potential customer, not the other way around. This might be more convenient for you, but it’s not creating a remarkable experience for your prospects.

There are a lot of best practices being applied in HTML emails that seem to be ignored in these plain-text versions. Our best-performing emails, plain-text or HTML, are the educational ones, so don’t ask for anything: simply educate or attempt to educate your recipients. Even better, attempt to classify recipients into top, middle or bottom of the funnel, and then offer them something valuable, educational and in context to their buyer journey.

I get it, these plain-text emails are easy to create, easy to send and easy to track, and they appear, on the surface, to perform better, so everyone is sending them. But keep this in mind: The purchasing process is emotional. How do you feel, yes feel, when you get these in your in-box? Do you feel duped? Do you feel frustrated? Do you feel as though your valuable time is being wasted trying to decide if you should reply or not? I do. The result of those feeling is not positive, and I’m not feeling good about those companies or those individuals sending me those emails.

Yes, I open them (driving up the open rates) and sometimes I click on a link in one (driving up those click-through rates) but I never convert, and I go into almost every website visit feeling like this is probably going to be a waste of time. My question for the statisticians (I haven’t been able to find this data): how significantly have these email improvement stats contributed to actual close rates?

My guess is that this tactic is artificially driving up the MQL numbers and not impacting the SQL or actual new-customer numbers much at all. Actually the tactic would decrease the conversion rates at the middle and bottom of the funnel, because there are more unqualified leads at the top of the funnel. Therefore, I’m not sure this new email marketing fad is actually moving the needle in the right direction, and I’d caution you before putting too much behind the improvements indicated by the stats highlighted above.

The bottom line for marketing should always be business results, sales, new customers and new clients. Utilize these email marketing tips to make sure any changes you’re making to your marketing delivers the outcomes expected.

Square 2 Marketing – Inbound Results Start With ME!


Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist

Mike is the CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist at Square 2. He is passionate about helping people turn their ordinary businesses into businesses people talk about. For more than 25 years, Mike has been working hand-in-hand with CEOs and marketing and sales executives to help them create strategic revenue growth plans, compelling marketing strategies and remarkable sales processes that shorten the sales cycle and increase close rates.