Sending plain text emails vs. HTML

A lot of people have come to hate email, and not without good reason. I don’t hate using email, and I attribute this to better email habits. Unfortunately, most email clients these days lead users into bad habits that probably contribute to the sad state of email in 2016. The biggest problem with email is the widespread use of HTML email.

Compare email to snail mail. You probably throw out most of the mail you get - it’s all junk, ads. Think about the difference between snail mail you read and snail mail you throw out. Chances are, the mail you throw out is flashy flyers and spam that’s carefully laid out by a designer and full of eye candy (kind of like many HTML emails). However, if you receive a letter from a friend it’s probably going to be a lot less flashy - just text on a page. Reading letters like this is pleasant and welcome. Emails should be more like this.

— Drew DeVault, Please use text/plain for email

Regarding online communication, email is my preferred method, but email also has a few problems. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that we’ve stopped using it for communication. Instead, the typical inbox is filled with marketing material and unsolicited junk. In turn, we dread our inboxes and possibly avoid them.

More to Drew’s point, email was designed to be plain text. Just words. No images. No styling. No colors. All substance. Person A types a message and sends it to Person B. Person B reads the message and types a reply. That’s it.

Unfortunately, most emails are now HTML rather than plain text. In other words, we design emails to look like a website using website code. Here’s a recent example from my own inbox:

Screenshot of a marketing email

What do we typically do with these emails? We delete them. After we’ve seen enough of them from the same company, perhaps we search for the tiny, intentionally faint unsubscribe link at the bottom.

Worse yet, as Drew points out:

Tracking images are images that are included in HTML emails with <img /> tags. These images have URLs with unique IDs in them that hit remote servers and let them know that you opened the email, along with various details about your mail client and such. This is a form of tracking.

Many vulnerabilities in mail clients also stem from rendering HTML email. Luckily, no mail clients have JavaScript enabled on their HTML email renderers. However, security issues related to HTML emails are still found quite often in mail clients.

HTML email also makes phishing much easier. I’ve often received HTML emails with links that hide their true intent by using a different href than their text would suggest (and almost always with a tracking code added, ugh).

To be clear, not all HTML emails appear to be HTML. Marketers are well aware that we are more likely to read a plain text email because we assume it’s a real message from a real person. So, they make their HTML emails look like plain text by using only text. If you see bold or italicized words, different font sizes, or clickable words, it’s an HTML email disguised as a plain text message. Tracking images, vulnerabilities, and phishing scams are still possible.

I’ve used plain text exclusively when sending personal emails for a while now. I’ll admit, however, I haven’t done the same when sending emails to my website’s subscribers. Those (HTML) emails were designed to look like my site.

Screenshot of an email I sent to blog subscribers

All of this to say, I’m sorry, and I’ll be sending plain text emails to my subscribers going forward.

To learn more about plain text email, read Drew’s post, Please use text/plain for email.” See also Use plaintext email to learn how to set up your mail client for plain text.

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