These days, the plain-text email may seem like an afterthought, a relic from days gone by. But they’re not: If you get what plain-text (non-HTML) email is all about, you can deploy it strategically, like a stealth weapon. Simplicity, minimalism, and a personal touch: Plain-text emails have it all.
When and why to use plain-text emails
There are two key areas where plain-text emails absolutely trump HTML:
The ultimate in responsiveness
Getting a traditional HTML email to look great everywhere is no mean feat. From tiny iPhone (not to mention BlackBerry!) screens, all the way to laptops and massive desktops — not to mention what happens when a random email client decides to block your images or break your CSS.
Plain-text emails cut through all of this complexity. Yes, no images — but also, you can be 100% sure your email is going to render correctly in any email app on any device.
Here’s an example from a Mimi Mimi sender who sells craft printables in steampunk, gothic, and vintage styles. Note that this sender uses personalization tags to greet each audience member by name.
Humans don’t write HTML emails
You get an email from your boss, subject: “Important, re Monday.” You open it up and find … a carefully crafted HTML newsletter, with gorgeous images and a snazzy header. That would be weird, now, wouldn’t it?
That’s because we don’t write each other HTML emails — we just open up a new message window and start typing. It’s one of the basic signals in the “body language” of email: Plain-text emails = personal.
With the right wording and the right timing (see the next point), you can leverage that power. I’ve sent out automated plain-text emails that regularly got great replies — because they felt truly personal and on-point.
Here’s an example.
The art of simplicity: plain-text email pitfalls
Plain-text emails are deceptively simple. Because you don’t get any images to break up the flow, it’s all too easy to end up with a jumbled pile of text that scares people away.
Beware of line breaks and ‘centering’
This is one of the only ways to ruin plain-text emails: Your line breaks may look nice on your email client, but as soon as someone uses a client that shows the message in a narrower pane,
lines are going to
break in the
Don’t include any manual line breaks to make your paragraphs wrap nicely.
Also, don’t try to center any text by putting a bunch of spaces in the beginning of the line. It may look centered on your screen, but it’s not going to look centered in any other width.
White space is your friend
Give your headlines some breathing room by including a blank line or two above and below each headline. Use bullet points. Plain-text doesn’t have to be dense. Note: If you’re going for a truly personal feel, you might want to avoid content that requires headlines or bullet points.
This one goes for any kind of writing, but makes a big difference when it comes to plain-text emails: Don’t write too much. We recently wrote about writer’s block, and much of that advice applies. One of the best ways to emulate great personal emails is to get to the point quickly.
Pros and cons of plain-text emails
- Emails appear as intended, across devices and email clients
- Can feel very personal
- May elicit more personal replies from readers (especially if you ask them to reply)
- Lack of branding
- Limited ability to use stats (can’t tell how many people opened or clicked)
Have you ever seen a great plain-text email?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on plain-text emails below. Did they work for you? Are you going to try one? Have you seen one that was particularly great?