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When communicating with customers, is it better to send emails in plain text or html formats?

Each has different strengths and weaknesses, but the question of which is better still remains. Which would you use to communicate with customers, and what makes that method better than the other?

Edit: I'm not talking about marketing emails or newsletters. More responses from customer support, or general system emails.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I say both; With most programming/email tools, you have the ability to provide an HTML version along with a text version as a backup/in place of the HTML.

So give users who have the ability to view an HTML email your best show. An if they only support text, then get the point or message across to those user without added fat/spam.

If this is for marketing purposes then I would suggest you also put the HTML version of the email on the Web, and provide a link in text version of your email.

Why limit yourself with one or the other when you can do both :)

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So rather make people think about what format they would like for communication, and send that? I don't see how that is a good UX practice. –  JohnGB Nov 7 '11 at 16:52
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I think b01 was instead suggesting sending both formats and letting the user's email client display whatever it can. Most clients default to html mail. It is not a question of user choice, but rather making both formats available to the mail client. –  Nadine Schaeffer Nov 7 '11 at 16:56

Most of the discussion on this topic is in the context of Marketing Newsletters, but Mathew Patterson's Presentation on HTML Email still seems pertinent. There are a few things that are important in every communication with customers, support/system mailings included:

Branding: With a capital B. Look at this great message from Twitter: enter image description here That email's from Twitter, no doubt, it has the distinct style and professional presentation. It doesn't just look good, it fosters trust ; a plaintext email could be written by anyone, and I might be nervous to click any links provided. With a branded email there are visual cues that suggest to me that this is authentic.

Clairity: Plain text doesn't do emphasis well. With the above message there's a whole lot of text, and in plaintext it would be hard to tell what's going on. Thanks to the large, clear heirarchy of the document I determine the important things in the email:
Who sent this? Twitter.
What happened? X person is following me.
What should I do? View X's profile.

Also note the small print, deemphasized with smaller font and lower contrast. Again something plaintext just doesn't offer.

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Do you have any data on how many people by default will download images in html emails? I for one see an ugly looking email and have to choose to download images first. –  JohnGB Nov 7 '11 at 17:34
    
@JohnGB that's the unfortunate thing, most web and mobile clients won't download the images by default, images are usually kept fairly ancillary for that reason. A common solution is "view this message as a web page" but that doesn't really work for system or support messages. –  Ben Brocka Nov 7 '11 at 17:54

You should place as few barriers as possible between the user and your message, especially if your message is a respons to something the user did (support request, thanks for registering, purchase receipt, etc). Plain text always works; HTML might not. I've seen some pretty messy results when badly-formatted HTML mail meets badly-configured mail readers; you might be tempted to say "the user should fix that" but the point is that you, not the user, look bad in the user's eyes.

You can send HTML along with plain text if you want. The main down-side here is bloat; if you send a 20k message to say "here's what you bought; here's when it'll ship", users might think the image-laden catalogue page, corporate logo, and shopping links excessive.

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