Plain Text or HTML? Let Your Users Decide

In my last column, I discussed the pros and cons of sending an email newsletter in both HTML and text format. I received a lot of feedback asking for more specific information on how to know which is the right format to send.

Let me begin by saying this is a very contentious subject. Some people will swear up and down you should never (and I mean NEVER) send HTML email. Others (such as myself) say that HTML email is a powerful tool because it allows you to develop a deeper brand idenity within the recipient’s email box and presents a more powerful presentation of your offerings.

The Cardinal Rule

That said, let me state the one cardinal rule on this subject: Allow users to choose their own preference. And, once they have chosen, honor that choice and don’t impose your own preference on them.

While it seems like common sense to honor the preferences of people who visit the web site or subscribe to an email newsletter, sometimes ambitious marketers choose to disregard the preferences of their audience. The main reason for this is because it is so technically easy to determine if someone’s computer can read HTML email. When that person opens his or her email and a graphic is served by the web server, it’s clear that that person’s computer can display HTML emails. This is a process known as ‘sniffing’ for HTML. However, and this is key, just because someone uses an HTML-capable email program doesn’t mean he or she wants to receive a particular newsletter in HTML format.

There are many people who prefer a text-only format for their emails — even if their software is capable of handling HTML mail. These people express their preference for text-only in two ways: One is by making this choice on the subscription form, selecting text over HTML, and the other is when they sign up for a newsletter that is offered only in text mode and continue their subscription after receiving a few issues.

Sometimes site managers are tempted to change newsletter subscribers’ preferences from text to HTML format because studies show that click rates are higher for HTML-formatted newsletters. It’s only natural to believe that converting subscribers’ preferences will increase response.

This, however, is not a good idea.

Don’t Force your Format

The people in the Internet industry tend to accept HTML newsletters, and newsletter publishers have generally been successful in automatically changing subscriber preferences for this group. However, when it comes to sending newsletters to people outside this industry, it’s a different story. Those subscribers send screaming emails of complaint to the publisher when their newsletter preferences are converted without permission.

While it seems like common sense to honor the preferences of people who visit the web site or subscribe to an email newsletter, sometimes ambitious marketers want to disregard the preferences of their audience.

This is never a good idea.

Listen to your Users

As a marketer, I know that it is a mistake to focus on industry averages to validate my relationships with my own customers. I should be asking, and listening, to those customers tell me how they want to receive content and offers. Rather than try to guess at customer acceptance by looking at surveys, ask customers for preferences directly.

Newsletters should have a preferences question allowing permission email subscribers to set their own format preference. After all, not everyone who can receive rich media email necessarily wants to — they may prefer plain text.

And besides, why not let your customers tell you what they want?

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