HTML vs. Plain Text Emails: When to Use Each One

The important differences between plain text and html formats

A woman reading email at a table using a laptop.

 @jsdaniel via Twenty20

Most email clients today let you 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, as 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. 

In fact, 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.

Differences Between HTML and Plain Text Email

Put simply, an HTML email contains images, colors, and other text formatting. 

HTML email sample

A plain text email contains only text without any formatting.

An example plain text email.

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

An example of a hybrid email.

How HTML Email Is Interpreted By a Mail Client

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 particular word or add a hyperlink to an entire phrase. You can use keyboard shortcuts to do this or use your mouse to pick and choose the options in your email program. Before you click Send, your message looks exactly the way you want it to. 

When your recipient opens it, however, it might look completely different. Their email program now has to interpret all the HTML code and display your message to them. If you used your email program to create the message, chances are pretty good that they're seeing the message the way you want them to. 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 but the email program forgot to include when you sent the message could affect your message drastically. 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 have turned off images and your entire message is an image within the email). 

So, which email format should you choose? HTML or plain text? 

HTML Emails and Plain Text Emails Have Their Benefits

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

It also makes your emails easier to read since you can change the font or add bold/italics to stress a point. You can add images directly in 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 and images can be hard to read, and 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 will only see plain text versions of emails. 
  • Some devices like Apple Watches display plain text emails better than HTML ones 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 any messages that are just images. 
  • Companies often turn off HTML email functionality because of security concerns, since hackers can hide malicious code inside HTML without anyone knowing.

That said, there are times when an HTML email is better than a plain text one, so let's look at situations that suit each one best. 

You should send an HTML email when

  • You want to highlight information in your message with colors or bold/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/pages online.
  • You know your recipient can read them in their email client.

You should 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 ones, allow plain text emails through every time because nothing malicious can be hidden. 
  • You're sending a short message and it doesn't need to look fancy.
  • You're sending a message to someone you know will look at it on a smartwatch, since all of them display plain text properly. 
  • You don't need to highlight anything in your message. (e.g. no bolding, italics, or hyperlinking text necessary)