HTML vs. Plain-Text Emails

The important differences between plain-text and HTML formats

Most email clients send HTML emails, complete with bold formatting, color, hyperlinks, and other text formats. For most people, it doesn't matter which kind of email they send, because most email clients (either standalone like Microsoft Outlook or macOS Mail, or web email clients like Gmail and Proton Mail) send and receive in both. HTML or hybrid mail is usually turned on by default in these clients. But there are times when a plain text email is better. Let's take a closer look.

HTML vs. Plain text

Overall Findings

HTML
  • Displays colors, fonts, images, and other formatting.

  • Makes email easier to read.

Plain Text
  • Strictly words, with no formatting.

  • Compatible with any program or client.

An HTML email contains images, colors, and other text formatting. A plain text email contains only text without any formatting.

The important difference is the lack of formatting and rendering in the text. Some email services like Gmail appear to be plain text but are HTML emails. These services use basic HTML formatting to make the emails easier to read (some call these hybrid emails).

Email Rendering: HTML Is Prettier, but Rendering Can Vary

HTML
  • Easy to create and format.

  • Can look different to the recipient than it does to the sender.

Plain Text
  • Simple to create.

  • More likely to look the same for the sender and recipient.

When you create a plain text email, you open the Compose window and start typing. What you type is what you'll send, and what your recipient will see. 

When you create an HTML email, you type the message and add formatting to it, such as bold a word or add a hyperlink to a phrase. You can use keyboard shortcuts to do this or use the mouse to choose the options in your email program. Before you click Send, your message looks exactly the way you want.

When your recipient opens the message, however, it might look different. Their email program interprets the HTML code and displays your message to them. If you used your email program to create the message, the chances are good that they see the message the way you want. If you use a template or code the HTML yourself (which you can do), it might not. A single piece of code that you don't see, and the email program didn't include when you sent the message, could affect your message. Your recipient might not see something important or may see a bunch of code instead of your message.

If your recipient has the Show HTML Emails option turned off in their email program, they won't see part or all of your message. This is especially true if they turned off images, and your message is an image within the email.

Sending HTML or hybrid emails is easier since it's the default format for most email programs. You don't have to change any settings or double-check your HTML code. 

Which Format and When? It Depends

HTML
  • When formatting (such as bold or italics) can illustrate a point.

  • When recipients read messages on a computer or phone.

  • When you want to include interactive elements such as buttons and links.

Plain Text
  • When recipients prefer plain text.

  • When messages are likely to be read on small devices such as watches.

  • When concern about viruses and other security threats is paramount.

HTML makes emails easier to read because you can change the font or add bold or italics to stress a point. You can add images to your message to illustrate something or add a GIF to make someone laugh.

Not everyone can or wants to receive an HTML message, however. The formatting and images can be hard to read. Also, some recipients worry about email viruses. Here are some reasons people prefer plain text emails:

  • They may have turned off the HTML setting in their email program, meaning they only see plain text versions of emails.
  • Some devices like Apple Watches display plain text emails better than HTML emails due to size constraints and poor HTML coding by the sender.
  • Other programs like Gmail or Apple Mail may have the Display Images in Emails option turned off by default, so you'll miss out on messages that are only images.
  • Companies often turn off HTML email functionality because of security concerns, since hackers can hide malicious code inside HTML without anyone knowing.

Send an HTML email when:

  • You want to highlight information in your message with colors or bold or italic formatting.
  • You want your content to display in a certain layout every time. For example, every email you send should be center-aligned and with extra spacing between each line.
  • You want to include options like buttons.
  • You want to include images in your message and hyperlink them to other sites or pages online.
  • You know your recipient can read HTML messages in their email client.

Send a plain-text email when:

  • You want to ensure consistent delivery of your messages and avoid spam filters. Many spam filters, including enterprise-level filters, allow plain text emails through every time because nothing malicious can be hidden. 
  • You send a short message, and it doesn't need to look fancy.
  • You send a message to someone you know will look at it on a smartwatch, since all smartwatches display plain text properly.
  • You don't need to highlight anything in your message. For example, no bolding, italics, or hyperlinking text is necessary.

The Final Verdict

One format isn't better than another. It depends on your email's recipient and their preferences. If you want your email to be visually appealing, HTML is the best choice. If the message is straightforward and your recipient prefers plain text, use it.