Emailing prospects: plain text or HTML?


I provide a web-based service for small & local businesses and sending emails is one method of getting new customers.

However, should the first email you send them be an introductory plain text email, or a well-designed HTML email?

Plain text

  • "Feels" personal
  • Doesn't look like newsletter
  • Implies a reply would be read
  • Opportunity to show off product immediately
  • Picture tells a thousand words
  • Can match your brand

Supposing they both took the same amount of time to send and can be equally personalized, what is a preferable method of sending that first, introductory email?

Email Prospects Email Marketing

asked Aug 24 '11 at 02:01
121 points

4 Answers



is this list people you have been in contact with before?

Assuming that yes, then what I found worked for me best is a HTML email, but with minimal markeup. Selecting the font, maybe adding a bold ir italisized item for empahsos - but staying away from most of teh bells and whistles of the HTML email templates.


answered Aug 24 '11 at 04:20
Alon Cohen
31 points
  • +1 for keeping it simple. HTML email doesn't mean it has to look like a website. – Chris Morgan 13 years ago


Steve's answer did hold some grain of truth, hidden in the sarcasm. Email has been deprecated a bit in the marketing realm because there's so much crap we all get in our inboxes these days that people are apt to ignore it, even if you provide some sort of incentive - like "$20 off first purchase at!" will probably just get deleted as spam. I definitely would consider alternative realms for a first contact, and ask all customers to opt-in to a newsletter if they desired to later on.

For a first, initial impression, especially for local and small businesses, consider doing more "personal" stuff - maybe chamber/commerce stuff or other networking opportunities. Or if possible, phone calls or actual visits (though they obviously are more time-consuming, they can obviously have a lot higher % rate of success than an email).

If you do send emails out, at any time, I think people by now are used to getting HTML emails. Most e-tailers I get stuff from use them, and places like Constant Contact give people a lot of options for making an HTML email that I would think a lot of their customers would use them. Just keep it simple and don't link in too many graphics.

answered Aug 24 '11 at 04:28
Craig Saboe
423 points


The short answer is - both!

A well designed HTML e-mail should be better at both grabbing your recipient's attention and representing your brand. However, some people use e-mail software (or devices) which can't display HTML content. If you use the right software, you can send e-mails which 'package' both HTML and a plain text version of your content in the same e-mail. The recipient's software can then decide which version to display.

A few other things to note:

  • You should, of course, only send e-mails to people you are allowed to send to. Nobody wants unsolicited e-mail!
  • Do some research on what makes a truly effective HTML e-mail design. Remember that users may choose not to download the images so it still needs to look good if they don't.
  • Make sure you follow the rules! You need to make sure you include a mechanism for users to unsubscribe, for example. You should also include a postal address in your footer.
  • Deliverability of bulk e-mails is not an easy thing to get right. Spam filters are getting more and more strict. If you're not careful you may send hundreds of e-mails which don't end up getting through.
  • Writing HTML for e-mails is a different game to writing HTML for the web. Make sure you test your HTML in as many e-mail clients as possible before you send out your mails. There are some excellent guides over at Campaign Monitor. There are also a number of tools available which will show you how your HTML looks in a number of different e-mail clients.

I would highly recommend using a professional e-mail marketing tool to manage your campaign, such as Campaign Monitor or Mail Chimp (there are lots of others!). These tools will help with the deliverability, making sure you are compliant with the law and will include both HTML and plain text content in your mailing.

Most importantly, they'll handle your un-subscribes and give you reporting about the number of e-mails received and how many click-throughs you've achieved.

Good luck!

answered Aug 24 '11 at 05:04
Chris Roberts
1,352 points


1995 called. They want their marketing "strategy" back.

Seriously, unsolicited email is SPAM and nobody wants it. Plain text or HTML doesn't matter for spam, it all gets filtered or deleted, and is always a terrible way to introduce a service.

If you have something that genuinely adds value, hang out where your customers hang out and become a "thought leader". This'll build trust. Just spamming people will never work.

answered Aug 24 '11 at 02:42
Steve Jones
206 points
  • Try not to be condescending, it doesn't help anyone. There are of course legitimate reasons to email people without having first had contact. If you genuinely feel you have a product that is of use to someone, there's nothing wrong with contacting them respectfully and in a personalised way. Just because it's an email doesn't make it spam. Be helpful, don't make assumptions. – Joe 13 years ago
  • This doesn't actually answer the question, although the answer does include a good point. – Chris Roberts 13 years ago
  • @Joe: Spam is, by definition, unsolicited commercial email, which is precisely what the O/P is suggesting. – Steve Jones 13 years ago
  • I think you if you want to make initial contact via email, it has to be personal and sent one at a time. You cannot do it using an automated CMS like Campaign Monitor. People send me emails all the time with their CVs and portfolios, so it is a legitimate way of making first contact if done on a personal basis. With that said, I am engaging in my own first contact campaign right now but I am sending postcards. – Miguel Buckenmeyer 13 years ago

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