What should your emails look like?

For years, email marketers were obsessed with using HTML to produce highly stylized emails. They designed colorful banners and borders and inserted all sorts of graphics and buttons. But eventually, most marketers and salespeople have come to see the light and realize that customers and potential customers really don’t care what business emails look like—what they really care about is the substance of what it is you’re offering, and whether or not what you’re saying is relevant.

In our recent cold email study, which looked at 290 of the most successful emails sent by marketers, SDRs, and SDR managers, we found that 87% of those emails were entirely plain text. No fancy formatting. No bells and whistles.

Remember, the goal of email marketing, whether you’re sending a cold email or sending a weekly newsletter, should be to build and strengthen relationships through conversations. By avoiding heavily designed HTML templates and using plain text instead, your emails will feel less like business emails and more like emails coming from a trusted friend. And because of that difference, people will be more likely to reply.


At Drift, we ditched highly designed HTML email years ago and never looked back. More recently, we made the case for plain text email in our book This Won’t Scale, which features 41 plays the Drift Marketing Team uses to drive growth and thrill our customers. “Opt for Plain Text Emails” is play #36.

Here’s an excerpt:

People tend to sort their mail into two piles. You’ve got your A pile and your B pile.  

The B pile is where all those colorful flyers and ads end up. Basically anything that looks like it’s from a brand.

The A pile is a stack of handwritten white envelopes. The A pile is personal. You’ll know there’s a letter from your Aunt Mary because you recognize her handwriting and know that every year she sends you 20 bucks for your birthday.  

You always start from the A pile. More importantly, you read all of those letters.

You might eventually get to the B pile or you might just throw it out. You weren’t expecting any of that stuff and you definitely wouldn’t be upset if some of the mail in your B pile got lost in the mail. 

At Drift, we want all of our emails to end up in the A pile.

Using plain text email instead of HTML is a surefire way to get your marketing emails to end up in a person’s digital “A pile.” But to clarify, just because you’re using a plain text format doesn’t mean you only have to use text in your emails. Emojis and photos are still fair game and worth experimenting with. After all, this approach is all about making your emails feel personal (and we’re guessing your friends and family use emojis and include the occasional photo when exchanging emails).

Below is an example of a plain text email we recently sent at Drift that got a ton of engagement. A few reasons why it worked:

  • catchy subject line
  • sent from a real person (with a picture of that person to make it even more human)
  • short and well-organized (with links to get you where you need to go)
  • includes a P.S. with a call-to-action

Plain text email example


Divide your email list in half. Send an email to the first half (Group A) using an HTML email template. Send that same email to the second half (Group B), only with all of the formatting removed—no colorful banners and borders, just plain text. You could also test individual design elements like…

  • having a company logo vs. no logo
  • adding a photo/video to the body of your email vs. no multimedia
  • using bold and italics vs. keeping your text completely unstylized

Which approach gets more replies?


The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing

Fine tune your email marketing strategy and up your conversion rates. Get the guide now.