There’s a good chance I’m going to get branded as a techie-luddite (a
contradiction in terms if there ever was one) for the recommendation I’m
about to make.
I believe that 90% of your outgoing email should be in plain text format. Maybe more.
Aside from a collection of technical reasons I’ll get to in a minute,
it’s simple really: you want people to focus on what you have to say, not
how it looks. Lots of formatting, backgrounds, highlighting and using
many different fonts and styles are all things that distract from your
words. They’re more about making your message “pretty” to look at, and
rarely add value to your ideas.
I’m not saying never use HTML (or Rich Text) email, but I am
saying default to using plain text and only use HTML email when you
really need to, which is actually pretty rare.
“Pretty” is not the same as “Effective”
The fact is, “pretty” is often at odds with “effective”.
I frequently get email that’s full of in-line pictures, borders, a busy
background, highlighting, font changes, bouncing smiley faces and
occasionally even music and animation. The problem is that somewhere in
all that there’s a message I’m supposed to be able to find and read.
Quite often everything that went into making the email “pretty” or “fun”
gets in the way of making the message “readable”.
That’s the usual objection to plain text email: It’s plain. It’s boring.
It’s not pretty.
And you know what? That’s all absolutely true. And it’s also all
All that has absolutely nothing to do with what you are
attempting to do with email, and that is to get your email read and to
get your message across.
Using plain text forces you and your reader to focus on the
content of the message, not the look of the message.
There are many technical issues with rich text email, which I’ll
enumerate shortly, but this whole “substance over style” issue is
something that many people seem to miss. Everything you add to an email
that isn’t about what you’re trying to say detracts from what you’re
trying to say.
Many people spend so much time worrying about the look and style of the
message that they forget (or run out of time) to work on the substance.
Ultimately it’s the words of your email, not the look, that gets your
Think about the fun and pretty things you can add to HTML email; I
mentioned some of them above: in-line pictures, backgrounds,
highlighting, font changes and even music and animation. Does using any
of these actually add value to your message? Do they somehow add
something that your words won’t convey? In my opinion, most of the time
they do exactly the opposite: the distract your reader, and they detract
from whatever it is you’re attempting to say.
EMail is, fundamentally, about writing, not drawing.
Technical Reasons to Prefer Plain Text
There are several technical issues that make plain text email preferable
HTML email is more likely to be classified as spam.
Put another way, your email is somewhat more likely to trigger a
false-positive “this is spam” analysis if it’s HTML than if it were
plain text. The “why” is easy: most spam is HTML.
HTML email is more likely to look different to different
people. You can spend hours crafting the look and
feel of your HTML email, and you know what? It’ll still look like a
mess to someone. There is almost no consistency of HTML support
across email programs. In fact, the recent release of Outlook 2007
has apparently taken HTML email a giant step backwards, as support
for many HTML constructs was removed. (Folks like myself who
send email newsletters in HTML format were seriously impacted. More
on that below.)
Some people can’t or won’t read HTML email. Some
email programs just don’t support HTML email, and some recipients
choose to turn HTML email off. What you so carefully crafted as
“John: you must see this!” might well look like
style=”font-weight:bold”>John</span>: you <span
style=”font-style: italics”>must</span> see this!” –
Rich Text /HTML email is bigger and slower. An HTML
formatted message can easily be twice as big as “just the message” it
contains. Some email programs are notorious for generating horrible
HTML email, and do even worse. Start adding fancy graphics and
backgrounds, and it suddenly balloons to tens or hundreds of times as
big. That size costs you in upload speed and disk space, of course,
but you’re also forcing that on your recipients, regardless
of whether they even want or can view your HTML email. Particularly
those folks still on dialup (something like 30% to 50%, depending on
who you believe, and where in the world you’re looking) can be
extremely sensitive to the size of incoming email.
On the other hand, plain text email is universally accepted, it’s as
small as your message, and it’s as fast as an email message can be.
HTML In Its Place
OK, so after all that, what about poor, beleaguered HTML email? I mean,
I’m sure that some of you are already saying “Hey! You said you publish
your newsletter in HTML! Are you a hypocrite, or what?”
I’ll choose “what”.
I’ll absolutely concede that HTML has its place. It’s just that your
day-to-day email is not that place.
I chose HTML for my newsletter for two reasons:
I asked my subscribers first. Not wanting to produce two newsletters,
I simply asked my subscribers at the time I started which they would
prefer: HTML or plain text, and the majority selected HTML.
My newsletter is a formal, periodic, publication. It’s not a person
to person email. As such, there is a certain expectation that it’ll
look a little more polished. Yes, a little “pretty” even. In fact,
it’s that expectation that I believe drove a lot of the preference
towards HTML when I asked.
The newsletter is also simultaneously published and archived on my
website, in HTML.
And even with my newsletter, I take care to hand code the HTML, and use
it fairly sparingly, so as to minimize the dependence on lots of
different HTML “features”, as well as to keep the size of the email from
Similarly, my expectation is that email from certain sources will be in
HTML. This applies mostly to businesses, though. When I get my order
confirmation from Amazon.com, for example, it makes sense that it look
like the web page that I just left. (Though even then Amazon’s email,
like my newsletter, uses a technique called “multi-part mime” that
provides a plain text message in addition to the HTML formatted
message for those recipients who cannot view HTML.)
So when should you use HTML mail?
First focus on your message. Focus on your writing. Focus on what you’re
saying and how it all gets your ideas and thoughts across to your reader.
That’s what’s important. That’s what truly effective email is all about.
But plain text is so boring! Email’s only as boring as
the message. Focus on writing email that’s engaging no mater how it’s
Plain Text is harder to read. Actually I get the
opposite just as often, if not more often: “HTML email is hard to read.”
The good news about plain text email is that it puts the control over
look and feel into the hands of whomever is looking. With most email
programs you, as the sender, can select how you want plain text to look
on your machine without affecting others. Similarly, every recipient can
choose how they want plain text email to look on their machine. Most
email programs will let you choose what font and what font size should be
used to display plain text email. If you don’t like the default, change
Size doesn’t matter. It sure does. Slower machines and
slower connections are much more common than you think.
I only use a little HTML for emphasis. Then why use HTML
at all? You’re paying (and possibly forcing your recipients to pay) a
high cost just to be able to bold a word or two. There are plenty of ways
to achieve the same effect in plain text emails.
HTML is the default, so that must be the preferred
format. Nope. Many email programs choose defaults that show off
their features, which is not always the same as being effective. They may
default to making email look pretty, but we know better – the message is
more important. Change the default.
I want to include a picture. Attach it to your plain
text email. It’s rare that a picture must be in-line with the
text for it to have value. On top of that many email programs disable
in-line and remote images by default as a spam-fighting technique.
Write Email for Your Recipients, Not You
One of the challenges, responsibilities even, of taming the
beast that is email is not to create a another beast for the people you
send email to. You should be writing your email in ways that make it more
effective for them. That often means ignoring your own
preferences and thinking about theirs.
Don’t distract or annoy your reader with unneeded formatting.
Use plain text to keep the message smaller, faster and less likely to
Focus on the message, not the style.