April 22, 2004
How To

Text-Only Email Design Pitfalls & Guidelines: More Critical Than Ever (Especially for AOL Mailers)

SUMMARY: Arrgh! Harbor Freight, the biggest tool retailer in the US, had more than 300,000 AOL names on its email house list. Not one of these eager tool customers received the Harbor Freights' weekly alerts they'd requested. Why? AOL's filters decided they didn't like the HTML format the messages were in.

Marketer Martin Vrieze switched to text-only, and voila! his messages got through, and his sales went up by 20 percentage points within 30 days.

If you suspect your HTML isn't getting through (b-to-b emailers to the corporate world also have this problem) you should test text-only to your non-opens. But, first read this article to avoid design pitfalls we've seen too many mailers fall into:
Never underestimate the power of text when trying to crack Fortress AOL:

Switching from HTML to text messages recently helped retailer Harbor Freight Tools go from zero to almost 100% delivery to 300,000 addresses practically overnight.

What happened to Harbor Freight can happen to you, too, if you send out big HTML-file messages to an AOL-heavy list without giving recipients the option to select a text-only version.

This also affects b-to-b mailers because an increasing number of corporate IT departments filter out HTML-heavy email. If previously loyal readers haven't opened a single email you've sent for 30-60 days, testing text-only sends may be one key to your problem.

We aren't trying to revive the old text-vs.-HTML fight. Each format gives you a benefit the other can't. You need both to have an effective email-marketing program that covers as many bases as possible.

"But my list clearly prefers HTML over text!" you protest. It doesn't matter. If your recipients' mail servers block you, you're out of luck.

And no, not a single so-called "sniffer" program can tell your recipient's email system stops HTML. Your multi-format mailings combining both text and HTML won't get through.

If you absolutely must boost your delivery rate, whether overall or to specific domains, start by switching problem addresses to text.

Switching alone won't solve your problem, though. The text message must be readable and compelling -- two qualities that don't always go together -- in order to get read, evade spam filters and make up for lost branding and metrics tracking.

You might not appreciate the subtle differences if you never had to toil in text-message creativity. So, get ready to enroll in Text Message Boot Camp.

Harbor Freight's story

Harbor Freight is a 36-year-old company based in Camarillo CA, and the biggest tool retailer in the United States, with more than 100 stand-alone stores across the country outside of New England, plus print catalog and Web sales divisions.

Martin Vrieze manages all the marketing for Harbor Freight and its related home-and-garden and woodworking businesses, sending roughly 1 million emails a week to his house lists. His in-house email tracking system showed him nothing was getting through AOL.

An outside delivery-improvement consultant pinpointed the problem: AOL objected to his HTML formatting.

So, Vrieze switched to a text-only message for AOL addresses. On the very next send, he found he was finally getting delivered, and to the in-box, not bulk mail.

Since then, Vrieze uses text messages exclusively for AOL and some other problem domains, such as Juno.

However, he and his team are busy testing various forms of HTML messages on AOL addresses. One test turned up another unexpected blocking factor: AOL objects to form tags in HMTL formatting, interpreting them as possible virus indicators.

A test mailing with a form got only a 70-percent delivery, with 65 percent going to the in-box and 5 percent to bulk mail. Once Vrieze dropped the form, 91.4 percent got delivered, with 86.7 going to the in-box and 4.7 percent going to bulk mail.

Plain-Text Design: Pitfalls & Guidelines

A good text email isn't just HMTL's poor cousin. It's a mailing unto itself. If you treat it like an afterthought, you won't get the response you want, even if it does get delivered.

Lots of email service providers who do the HTML creative for their clients offer to create a plain-text version at the same time. Be very, very careful about this, and inspect sample text versions your vendor has done for others before agreeing to this.

Watch for these pitfalls:

A. Do those lovely, precise tracking URLs that numbers people just adore turn into long, ugly worms of characters that usually break into two lines?
1. Can you tell right away who sent the email?

B. Can you read the message easily in a screen or two, or do you have to scroll through long blocks of type that induce MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over)?

C. Does it have weird HTML tags floating around or oddball punctuation?

Also, don't expect your text message to do the same heavy lifting that your HTML message does. You can't track open or forwarding rates, and some key features you identify with graphics in HTML won't be as obvious in text.

These six guidelines will help you craft a useful, deliverable message in plain text:

#1. DO: Use the "from" and subject lines to identify yourself clearly to the recipient.

You should be doing this no matter what format you send in, but it's doubly important with text, because you won't have your brand logo in the message body to clear up confusion.

Your "from" and subject lines will show up differently in different email clients. Test this for yourself with a handy online device that shows how your information will look in different AOL versions, plus Hotmail, Outlook and Express and several others. (See resource list below.)

#2. DON'T: Waste space at the top of the email with boilerplate (copy that never changes from one message to the next, such as who you are, why you sent the email, how to unsubscribe).

Instead, lead off with your offer, newsletter title or other compelling information. Put all standing copy at the end.

#3. DO: Use copious amounts of white space between and around copy blocks.

This sets off offers and other key details and breaks up potentially eye-numbing copy.

#4. DO: Give your copy more punch with these typographic devices:
-- Use white space between and around copy blocks to break up gray areas, set off offers and key information.
-- Limit line length to 60 characters or fewer with a hard break at each line (don't count on autowrapping.)
-- Limit paragraph length to four lines or fewer.
-- DON'T: Use punctuation marks or symbols to emphasize or set off copy. They're catnip to spam filters.
-- Use a fixed-space typeface, such as 10-point Courier or Courier New.

#5. DO: Shorten long URLs, even if you have to give up some metrics precision. Consider using a redirect link such as tinyurl.com to create short links. DON'T: Put URLs in mid-copy, even if that means you have to reword the basic message.

HTML allows you to hide long, metric-rich URLs behind shorter URLs or words, but they get long and distracting in text copy. Also, long URLs usually break, becoming virtually useless.

Example: This long URL came from an HTML email, where it hid behind "click here" in the message body. However when revealed in its text-only glory, it shows it like:


It sends the reader to an order form with a simple URL:
http://www.XXXXXXXX.com/order.asp?SKU=4272910169 That, or one that's even simpler, might have to be the one you drop into the text email.

Yes, you sacrifice the tracking data. Precision is great, but it doesn't matter if the email doesn't get delivered in the first place - or a response link is unclickable.

#6. DON'T: Pack too much into a text email.

Pick the most important concerns, such as the offer, the opt-out link and any other subscription-management data, your street address, and maybe a send-to-a-friend link. There's no good place for your entire navigation bar along with your message.

If you must include multiple offers in a single email, add a brief table of contents at the top to help your readers scan the contents more efficiently.


1. Free shipping on orders over $50
2. 50 percent off fall/winter merchandise

Useful Examples to Copy

Well, we don't have any. The boss asked us to include sample creatives for everyone to copy, but the folder marked "Good Examples of Text Emails" is forlornly empty.

Useful links related to this article:

1. "From" and "Subject Line" Rendering Tool
Developed by EmailLabs:

2. Harbor Freight Tools:

3. Delivery-management consultant Pivotal Veracity:

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