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Questions of e-mail format stir up a flurry of interest among online marketers. In addition, how marketers wish to send e-mails may vary considerably from what consumers want.

Commercial e-mails have come a long way since the days of text-only missives. Even so, plain text is the most preferred e-mail ad format globally, according to 62% of consumers in an Opt-In News survey. The more dynamic nature of HTML-based e-mail, in formats akin to web pages, is next-most preferred by 35% of respondents. And the higher bandwidth required by rich media is probably the reason that only 3% of respondents call that their preferred format.

In contrast, try on this varying Opt-In News data from last autumn, which is a virtual reversal of the consumer preferences charted above. Here, US marketers use HTML 60% of the time, with plain text coming in at 34%.

And a survey by the Association for Interactive Marketing of member companies that conduct e-mail campaigns reveals a similar choice of e-mail formats. With 30% text only and 70% some kind of HTML and/or rich media, it appears that what format companies send to consumers and what they want from companies are not in synch.

However, is the Opt-In News take on consumer desires regarding e-mail formats on target? Being more recent—just a few months ago—it might very well be. Nevertheless, an online survey from Valentine Radford (an advertising agency) points to a more positive consumer attitude about HTML and rich media e-mails. For example, 60% of US internet users preferred HTML over plain-text e-mail in 2001, a reversal of the Opt-In News consumer data above.

“As bandwidth becomes less of an issue, we see more rich media e-mail—which would include HTML and other flash-type e-mails—and that's where it's really picked up.” —Trent Ricker, principal, 23airmail (affiliate of Linhart McClain Finlon Public Relations)

The question remains why a marketer would want to employ one e-mail format over another—or even if the marketer needs to make such a choice. The virtues of text over HTML appear plain in the IMT Strategies survey results below, which show text-only e-mails having higher click-through and conversion rates and lower bounce and unsubscribe rates.

Marketers who e-mail newsletters to support branding and direct response goals appreciate how HTML formatting lets them insert images such as their company logo and product pictures. And publishers of e-newsletters also like HTML, especially when they're sending e-mails longer than a couple of pages, because they can bold headlines and sections or use varying font sizes to make the publication more readable.

However, consumers tend to dislike HTML (and its rich media offspring) because those larger e-mails tend to clog their inboxes and slow downloads. In addition, HTML e-mails more and more look like spam.

The answer to the which-way-to-go question, then, appears simple: marketers should always offer readers the choice between text-only and HTML e-mails. And even the HTML e-mails need to be carefully crafted (from a tech side), since not all e-mail software reads HTML e-mails alike. Making such distinctions means more work, but the traps avoided can mean the difference between e-mail fiasco and e-mail success.

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David Hallerman is a Senior Analyst with eMarketer. You can reach him at dhallerman@emarketer.com with comments, questions or suggestions.