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HTML vs. Text

Today I finally got around to examining test results of my HTML vs. Text email experiment.

For anyone that missed the earlier post – there are two basic “flavors” of email – HTML, the same language that web pages are made up from (which displays pictures and includes links), and just straight text. If you’re old like me you’ll think of this as what the paper that came out of a typewriter looks like (link for the children). In the dark ages at the dawn of time (1996), all you could do was text. Then email programs added html support and email got a lot more exciting.

Then the PPC crowd showed up (pills, porn, casinos) and emails got a little ugly, and people realized that when your email program shows you a graphic, it’s being pulled from a server and you are leaving a footprint (the sender can tell that you opened it). This is why in the latest version of Outlook and other mail programs may have you go through an extra step to see the graphics for senders that the program doesn’t recognize.

For text email the basic rule was “Put the important links at the top.” For every line you have to scroll, another reader gives up and very few make it to the bottom of the message. HTML changed that. You could have an image call attention to a link and it could outperform others.

Enter 2007, things are changing. Many people are using devices like blackberries that prefer text only email. Many email clients and spam defenders block HTML. Many of the Vertical Publications I advertise with have switched back to text email. And so the challenge was thrown – should our HTML email switch to text?

I hoped that HTML would win because the tracking data is valuable to me – who opened and who converted. Text can only tell you about conversions. My list was split – 75% sent the control (HTML) and the other 25% text. I also had a second list I was testing for additional data that was sent the HTML list.

The Result: HTML Victorious! Both messages performed well on the first links but improved layout in HTML is the critical factor. By using two columns we draw attention to attention to the lead stories in both columns. The lead story in the second column outperformed the same story down at position 4 in the text message by 7X. This begs the question – ok, so you get more bites from HTML, but did more text messages get through? The fact is, without graphics to track, I don’t know. But I do know this – at best my deliverability is 90% (number sent – bounces and unsubs I got). At worst it would only be as good as the open rate for the HTML message – 20% (otherwise there’d be no need to test). Even if text sends perfectly (90%), that’s only a 4x improvement over HTML, not enough to offset the 7x benefit of the layout. Layout beats deliverability, HTML wins.

Your results may vary.

2 replies on “HTML vs. Text”

We do multi-part MIME messages – HTML and text all in one. Smart devices like Crackberries will autodetect and display what works for them, so if someone can see HTML, all the better.

One tip we’ve found – no graphics. Do everything in local, relative CSS, and you can still have an attractive newsletter, but your layout won’t break in GMail.

ConstantContact does the same but I wanted to test it for myself (and get a better feel for their deliverability vs. sending from our servers).

That’s interesting, the CSS in the message itself doesn’t do anything freaky? Looks like Graphics/No Graphics is Round 2!