What Is a Plain-Text Email?

Melanie Balke
May 8, 2023

While most modern email marketers focus on visual elements, there are still plain-text emails out there. In fact, this old-fashioned format is one of the most misunderstood strategies in digital marketing!

So, let’s dive in!

The Different Types of Emails

A Chinese calligraphy brush resting on a decorative holder. "The Basics: Different Types of Emails."

Technically, there are two major formatting options for email clients. You can have an HTML email, or you can have a plain-text email. Thanks to MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), you can even have both formats, though only one version will be displayed at a time.

However, for the sake of clarity, I’ve included AMP emails as a category, so let’s start there.

Interactive AMP Emails

A World War II era decryption machine. "AMP Emails: A subset of HTML that uses multiple codes to make interactive content."

The acronym in this email type’s title is short for “Accelerated Mobile Pages.”

It’s a popular tech feature across the internet, and it’s particularly prevalent when users browse news pages on Google. A bit of compression and loading order allows AMP content to load faster on mobile devices, and the same tech has since been expanded to some email clients.

Technically, AMP emails are an extension of HTML. They use the same three coding languages (CSS, HTML, and JavaScript) but include unique features. Specifically, these emails can include interactive elements or real-time content.

Since the introduction of this technology, email marketing pros have used it to produce entertaining interactive content and live shipping updates.

However, it has its limitations. For all the wonders of AMP emails, the interactive portion of these campaigns is hard-coded to fail after 30 days. It’s also labor-intensive, requiring frequent testing and a full-blown registration process before you can even send your first AMP-enabled campaign.

HTML Emails

A photo of leaves, distorted by an overlaid layer comprised of a failed document scan. "HTML Emails: A widespread standard for sending formatted emails with rich content."

The most common form of modern email messaging is the humble HTML email. These campaigns can be as simple or complex as you’d like, but they all rely on the same HTML code (short for “HyperText Markup Language”). The same code powers the multifaceted features of an email, and a single HTML email campaign can include features such as:

  • Embedded HTML snippet content (e.g., photos or social media posts)
  • Font choices and styling
  • Images
  • Links
  • Multimedia
  • Non-standard characters (i.e., accented letters and non-English scripts)

An HTML email may be little more than some linked plain text, but that does not make it a plain-text email (more on that in a minute). On the more complex end, a savvy email marketer might use additional coding languages (e.g., CSS styles and JavaScript) to make rich inbox experiences.

The ubiquity of HTML code means that (nearly) every email client supports these emails. However, additional support — particularly for elements such as CSS styles (short for “Cascading Style Sheets”) — is not guaranteed.

Plain-Text Emails

A hand-drawn schematic of a damaged building. Courtesy of the National Archives, 1943. "Plain-Text Emails: A limited but universal standard."

Finally, we have the topic of today’s blog post.

A plain-text email is exactly what it says on the box. It’s an email that contains only text. This also means it cannot include the many elements associated with modern email clients, even native text linking. Instead, links in a plain-text version are often shown as follows: “text to be linked (followed by the full URL in parentheses).”

As boring as this may seem, plain-text emails are a modern standard, and most email marketing includes both an HTML email and its equivalent plain-text version. Again, this uses the MIME technology mentioned above.

Notably, including both formats increases email deliverability; many email clients block emails that do not include a text-only option.

So, What Is a Plain-Text Email?

A newspaper from 1850. "The Basics: What Are Plain-Text Emails?"

As a rule, plain-text emails are limited to ASCII characters.

True text-only emails cannot include anything outside the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. More specifically, any non-standard display character will render as a large, blank rectangle. As you may have guessed by the name of the character set, ASCII is severely limited, including only standard English letters, numbers, and punctuation. There are a few symbols within ASCII, but not many.

These characters do not include any formatting and are usually displayed as either standardized monospace font (i.e., Courier New or one of the many standard console fonts) or a Times New Roman lookalike.

What Works in Text-Only Emails?

A prepared printing press plate with lines of text. The overlaid header reads, "What Works? What can you put into a plain-text version?"

In the past few years, ASCII characters have expanded. You can now add limited accents to your plain-text email marketing. Both acute accents (i.e., á, é, í, ó, and ú) and diareses (i.e., ä, ë, ï, ö, and ü) are supported.

The extended ASCII set also includes the tilde (i.e., ñ). However, this leaves many linguistic gaps. Some of the excluded diacritics include the bolle (the circle over the Swedish letter “å”), the cidelia (the tail beneath the letter “ç”), and the circumflex (i.e., â, ê, î, ô, and û).

Outside of this limitation, a plain text message — as its name implies — is a bare-bones affair. Plain-text versions of email campaigns cannot include any of the following elements:

  • Embedded links or content (although some clients allow links)
  • Formatting, including standard headers
  • Images
  • Multimedia (e.g., videos)

A Brief History of Plain-Text Email Marketing

Assorded large-format woodblock letters. Overlaid text reads, "This History: Once upon a time, every email was a plain-text email!"

Here’s a fun fact for you: Many years ago, every email was a plain-text email. There was a time when HTML emails were a far-off dream, and the internet was little more than a connected mass of ASCII-based information.

Before web browsers were common, everyone with an email address received simple plain-text messages. Much like today’s text-only emails, these correspondences contained little more than 26 English letters, simple punctuation, and line breaks. There were no fancy fonts or flashy visual elements, although some creative individuals would sometimes create ASCII art.

An ASCII artwork by Blazej Kolowski. Overlaid text explains what ASCII art is.

As you may have guessed from the name, ASCII art was meant to overcome older technical challenges. Using the limited characters of the format, artists made it seem as if they could embed images in plain-text formats.

Many of these early messages were composed in the computer terminal with a basic text editor. Today, the rough equivalent would be writing a campaign in your phone’s notepad! When links were necessary, users would have to (cringe) paste the entire URL.

Why Would I Ever Use a Plain-Text Version?

A National Archives scan of a typewriter form. Overlaid text reads, "The Benefits: Why to Use Plain-Text Emails."

Okay, moving on from the web developers of the past, let’s get back on topic.

Why would someone ever use a text-only email?

Well, aside from the fact that these campaigns focus on the main message rather than glitz and glamor, there are plenty of reasons to use plain-text emails. There are many more reasons to include such content with your standard rich text campaigns, too!

Plain-Text Email Marketing Promotes Accessibility

An accessible entry sign in Chicago. "Accessibility: Pairing HTML and text emails offers better accessibility."

One of the first perks of text-only emails is accessibility. While HTML elements offer plenty of flexibility through alt tags and similar features, emails simply don’t support the depth of many modern web pages.

On the surface, there’s traditional accessibility. Users with a visual impairment may prefer the screenreader-friendly plain text version over a complex HTML email. Individuals using alternative controls (i.e., eye-tracking) may enjoy the simplified layout.

However, there’s also technical accessibility. Though uncommon, you still encounter programs that don’t support HTML emails. B2C brands are unlikely to encounter this issue, although B2B companies may find that legacy email providers block even light HTML formatting.

In the latter situation, email programs default to displaying the plain-text version of a message. This is also true when data-heavy elements (e.g., embedded social media posts, images, or videos) fail to load.

They’re Easy to Create

A person using a spinning wheel to make a vase. The overlad text reads, "Easy to Use: Plain-text email campaigns are easy to make and maintain."

Unlike HTML-based emails, a plain-text email campaign requires little testing. At most, you’ll need to test a message’s wording and standardized formatting.

You never have to worry about expired coding, complex conversions, or running afoul of email service providers. In fact, some clients prioritize plain-text content, placing it in the regular inbox rather than the promotions tab.

The minimal formatting of a text-only email lends itself to early marketing pushes, and they’re a great way to start if you’re just beginning your email marketing journey.

Some People Just Prefer It

Two lumps of raw clay. Overlaid text reads, "Preference: Some users prefer to receive plain-text emails."

When you’re sending plain-text emails with an HTML version, there’s also an element of choice. It may seem strange, but some users prefer plain text.

Some users are used to the old-fashioned terminal-style display of a plain-text email client. Others dislike the potential confusion of stylized fonts. Whatever their reason may be, the bottom line is that a MIME message offers a dual experience.

Notably, even newer devices are prone to corrupted characters. These symbols are not included on a user’s device and will appear as a blank rectangle. Some users cite this point as one of their reasons for preferring text-only content.

Improve Your Deliverability

A takeout bag. "Deliverability: Including a plain-text alternative can improve deliverability."

It may seem strange, but you’re ensuring consistent delivery when you include a plain-text fallback! In addition to aligning with subscriber’s preferences, these alternate formats tell email servers that your message is legitimate. This is because many modern phishing scams run on HTML emails, and those messages often lack a fallback format.

So, to protect their customers, most email clients block HTML-only emails. In some cases, a platform may even flag your campaign for failing to include a text version. Moreover, HTML email formatting often ends up looking squished on non-standard devices, such as smartwatches.

What This Means for Your Marketing Emails

This post’s getting long, so I’ll wrap things up here.

But don’t leave yet!

Be sure to check my blog regularly; I’ll be adding a post with tricks and tips for writing plain-text emails soon.

And if you’re having trouble with your email campaigns, then now might be a great time to get some professional help! The Email Marketers can help you improve your marketing and amplify your ROI. Just give me a call for a free strategy session.