Pretty vs. Plain. Do pretty emails really perform better than plain emails?


  • Turns out emails which are heavily HTML based perform worse overall than simple emails.
  • Heavily styled HTML emails get on average 23% lower open rates than their simpler plain counterparts. (According to HubSpot)
  • They also suffered in significant decreases in click through rates as well.
  • Groundhogg sends Hybrid emails. This provides the appearance of a plain email while getting the tracking benefits of an HTML email, offering the best of both worlds.

We often get asked why our email builder is No Frills compared to our competition.

For example, the MailChimp email builder allows you to send emails which would rival most landing page builders. How can we compete with that?

Well, we don’t try to compete or even come close to their email builder. Here’s why…

Some quick background information.

There are 3 kinds of emails which you can send.

  • Plain text emails
    • No formatting
    • No HTML
    • No tracking
    • Great compatibility among email clients
    • Easy to read
  • HTML emails
    • Look good
    • Extensive design capability
    • Email tracking
    • Not always compatible with non-browser based email clients (like outlook)
  • Hybrid emails
    • Look similar to plain text
    • Can support links and images
    • Support tracking
    • Good cross-client compatibility

Groundhogg utilizes the last of the 3, Hybrid Emails. These emails provide the best of both worlds, the appearance of a plain email with the tracking abilities and some of the styling elements of a rich HTML email.

Note: We reference plain emails several times in this article, when we do we are not referring to “plain-text” but rather the appearance of an email looking like a plain-text email, for example, a Hybrid email like the ones Groundhogg sends.

Claim: pretty emails perform WORSE (in most cases) than plain ones.

Pretty big claim, but backed by pretty big data.

We did not have a big enough sample size of contacts to actually test this ourselves, so we went and looked for other email marketing companies who’ve done that for us. Fortunately, HubSpot was up to the task. You can find their article summarizing this topic in the sources at the bottom.

According to HubSpot, there are some pretty significant data that shows plain emails perform better than those you spent hours coding in HTML to look beautiful.

What did they test?

They referenced over 13 tests, but only featured 3 in the article which are highlighted below.

  • Adding a GIF to an email decreased its open rate by 37%
  • Adding a GIF to an email decreased its click-through rate by 2.3%
  • Using an HTML template with images decreased open rates by 25%
  • Using an HTML template with images decreased click-through rates by 21%
  • Increasing the overall HTML with the same amount of text decreased opens by 23%
  • Increasing the overall HTML with the same amount of text decreased clicks by 5.3%

The final conclusion was that plain emails with less HTML performed better overall than ones which were HTML rich.

But why? Doesn’t HTML look better?

While they might look better, here are several reasons why plainer emails perform better than HTML rich ones.

Deliverability is always a factor.

Even if you follow all the email deliverability best practices, if your email is over-styled and the text is too diluted with HTML it will most likely end up in either SPAM or the Gmail Promotions folder. If your customer can’t see your email in their main inbox, they can’t open it.

Expectation is everything.

HubSpot makes a great argument for why plain emails perform better.

When people visit a website they expect a well designed page that looks nice and they expect to be sold to as well.

But email is different. In emails, customers expect a 1-on-1 level of communication that can’t be achieved with pretty emails. You wouldn’t send an HTML email to talk to your mom, would you? Probably not. Same applies to your customers. They expect a more human touch that pretty emails just don’t provide.

Email client limitations.

Not everyone uses Gmail, and in many cases, the stylish email you designed may look terrible in older versions of desktop outlook because their HTML parser is not browser-based. For the best cross-client compatibility simpler is better.

So what does this mean?

This is all to say that if you are having doubts about simpler emails, don’t knock it till you try it. Their stats show that when it comes to email, “Less is more!”

The pinch of salt…

With anything, there are always exceptions. Super stylish emails may work better for your list than plain ones. We encourage you to test your own list and come up with your own numbers and let us know your results in the comments.


We used the following sources to write this article.

Picture of Adrian Tobey

Adrian Tobey

Adrian is the founder and lead developer of Groundhogg. He believes that marketing automation should be simple and accessible so any business can use it to grow.

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