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Creating effective, great-looking HTML emails can be tricky when you consider today's rendering challenges and concerns such as dark mode and accessibility.

So, it's understandable that many marketers long to return to the days of plain text emails as a simpler alternative.

There's a nostalgia around plain text emails. They take us back to an easier time when writing an email was just that—writing, and nothing else. However, that nostalgia can often tip over into romanticizing the effectiveness of that form of email, which has been largely supplanted by HTML emails for lots of good reasons, including performance.

B2B marketers are arguably the most susceptible to being seduced by the allure of plain-text emails. So, let's discuss the times those emails are appropriate, along with some design best-practices.

Five Best Use Cases for Plain Text

Plain text emails are appropriate for a fairly narrow group of email types and situations. In all other instances, you're probably much better off crafting an HTML email for your message.

That said, it's worth acknowledging that most all-text emails are technically HTML emails coded to look like plain text emails. That allows for the inclusion of tracking pixelsl so opens can be tracked, and the use of hyperlinked text, which looks much friendlier than raw URLs, especially if UTM parameters are included.

Here are five situations when using plain-text emails can make good sense.

1. When sending or triggering emails on behalf of a sales rep

Although these are bulk emails typically sent by marketing automation platforms, using a plain text format gives them the feel of personal emails. That helps maintain the illusion that they are actually one-to-one emails sent by a person.

2. When there's a crisis

Whether it's a public relations disaster, a natural disaster, or some other kind of crisis, a plain text email conveys transparency and urgency. It says, "We didn't have time to send a pretty email. We wanted to get you the facts as soon as possible." It also says, "We're not hiding behind fancy formatting or images. Focus on what we're saying with our words."

Plain text is a common approach for all kinds of crisis messaging, which is why it has been used heavily for emails communicating the impacts of COVID-19.

3. When communicating major news

Plain text is effective for important corporate news announcements, such as news about acquisitions or mergers. It's especially appropriate when the news is coming from your CEO, president, or another senior executive, because it conveys the feeling of a personal email.

4. When sending legally required updates and service-related customer notifications

Annual terms and conditions notifications, privacy disclosures, planned platform downtime announcements, and notifications about a delayed order would fit in this category.

5. When the content is text-heavy

Plain text can be best for content that requires an unusually lengthy explanation, or text that is editorial or instructional in nature, such as an article or interview.

Four Best-Practices for Plain Text Emails

Because they're just text, plain text emails can appear simple—deceptively so. Using the following best-practices will help you get better results.

1. Don't completely abandon your brand name in the From line

Because plain text emails are so often sent on behalf of sales reps or senior executives, many brands make the mistake of using those people's names as the sender name. That's a problem because many recipients are unlikely to know the name of your executives or their sales rep, especially early in a relationship.

So, using their name as your sender name risks spam complaints and ignored emails.

The solution is to use the person's name alongside your brand name. For instance, you could use "YourBrand, NameOfPerson" or "NameOfPerson at YourBrand."

The longer the person's name, the better off you are leading with your brand's name, because most inboxes display only the first 20 or so characters of a sender name. You could also include just the person's first name, when appropriate.

2. Tighten up and break up your text

When your email is only text, there's nowhere to hide, so the writing needs to be strong.

"Writers and designers should work together to condense and visually simplify the information as much as possible," says Monica McClure, senior copywriter for creative services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. "Plain text emails confer a sense of formality and consideration that signal a customer to pay attention. They're expecting clean, clear sentences."

Simplifying your text visually can entail...

  • Limiting paragraphs to no more than 80 words, beyond which they can appear imposing
  • Adding subheads to break up text and convey main topics, which helps those who skim
  • Using bulleted text for visual interest and to avoid having to use full sentences for every thought
  • Using a row of dashes, asterisks, and other characters to separate messages or content blocks within the email

3. Be smart about calls to action

When creating a plain-text email, there are also special considerations around CTAs. Consider doing the following:

  • Placing your primary CTA above the fold. That doesn't mean you can't repeat the CTA below the fold, however.
  • Using landing pages with shorter URLs if your plain text email is truly plain text. Never use URL shorteners for your email links, however, as those are often used by spammers to conceal the destination of a link, and so they will get your email blocked.

4. Include an unsubscribe link

Because you are sending commercial emails via an email service provider or marketing automation platform, you are legally required to include an unsubscribe link.

"While you wouldn't include an unsubscribe link in a personal email sent by a sales rep to a prospect or customer, once you start to automate this process then you may need to," says Peggy Sehorn, expert consultant and technical manager at Oracle Marketing Consulting.

"You always need to give the recipient control so that you not only avoid deliverability-damaging spam complaints but also...stay legally compliant and provide a good user experience."

The Plain Text Emails You May Not Know You're Sending

Again, let's acknowledge that most so-called "plain text emails" are actually HTML emails.

However, most email service providers automatically create a true plain text version of your HTML email for recipients whose email clients can't handle HTML email, as well as for those subscribers who have indicated in your preference center that they want to receive plain text.

"The problem with that is... well, it's not designed," says Cristal Foster, manager of expert services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. "It's just HTML converted into text, so it tends to look pretty awful. Marketers should go in and clean up this auto-created plain text version of their email, adding line breaks and separators and breaking out CTAs. However, few do. That's a missed opportunity, because even spending five minutes to apply plain text best-practices can make a big difference in the customer experience."

* * *

Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons that plain-text emails stand out is because they're rare today. But don't undermine their impact by overusing them. Make the most of plain text emails by using them selectively for the purposes and messaging they're best suited for.

More Resources on Plain Text and Email Marketing

Five Simple but Often Overlooked Ways to Boost Your Email Marketing

Why Readers Prefer Text or HTML

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When and How to Use Plain-Text Email in Marketing: Use Cases, Design Best-Practices

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image of Chad S. White

Chad S. White is the head of research for Oracle Marketing Consulting and author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules, as well as nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing.

LinkedIn: Chad S. White

Twitter: @chadswhite