Email Newsletter Format: HTML or Text

by : Mario Sanchez

An email newsletter is probably the most effective way to communicate with your target audience. One of the main considerations before you create and deliver an email newsletter is what format to use: HTML or Text.

Until a few years ago, some email programs couldn't handle HTML. Nowadays that is not an issue, since most email programs are HTML compatible: AOL versions 6 and higher, Internet Explorer versions 4 and higher, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, Eudora, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail all support HTML. HTML email newsletters can easily be managed and sent using services like Constant Contact or Vertical Response.

Using HTML for your newsletter can be a plus from a usability perspective. Studies conducted by usability guru Jakob Nielsen show that most people prefer HTML newsletters because their enhanced layout makes articles easier to read (provided that the design of the HTML newsletter is clean and simple). The same design guidelines recommended for web pages also apply to HTML email newsletters.

However, HTML newsletters are often confused with unwanted advertising, since HTML is the format of choice for marketers trying to sell their wares and services through email messages. For this reason, text email newsletters are still popular, since their plain, no frills look helps differentiate them from advertising.

Text is also the format of choice for those who use a free service (like Topica or Yahoo! Groups) to administer their mailing lists and deliver their email newsletters, since these free services usually don't support HTML. If you use text, remember that you won't be able to use formatting tags, such as bold or underline, and that you must create hyperlinks by adding the prefix http:// before the URL (or the prefix mailto: before the email address, if you want to create an email link).

The approach I prefer is a hybrid between HTML and text. I compose my email messages in HTML, but using only text. HTML allows me to use simple formatting tags like bold, underline and italics, and a nice, screen-friendly font. I use a lot of white space to facilitate scanning, and include only a summary of each article, with a link to the full article (which is hosted on my website), since most users don't like to read long articles in the body of email messages.

My email newsletters, therefore, are similar to the table of contents of a magazine, in the sense that they give readers a broad overview of the current edition's content, and tell them where to find it if they are inclined to read further.

This hybrid format is never mistaken for advertising, is easy to read and scan, and loads fast. Furthermore, by offering links to the full articles, your users will be encouraged to visit your website, where they can have access to more information and learn about your products and services.