Why You Should Make Your Emails Uglier for Better Mobile Email Marketing

Have you noticed that some of the marketing emails you’re receiving lately are a bit… plain? Instead of colorful, beautifully brandedemail message in a bottle image templates, I’m seeing more and more plain vanilla, less-than-beautiful missives in my inbox.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s probably sitting on your desk right now. At the end of 2013, mobile email officially made up over half of email opens – and that number will only grow this year. Mobile email marketing is key to your marketing program efforts.

What does this mean for your email marketing efforts?

More of your audience members are viewing your emails on small phone or tablet screens. And that means your beautifully designed HTML emails may be getting squeezed and distorted into who-knows-what format.

For example, when I open this email from Disney Vacation Club, all I can see is this. I have to scroll down two screens before I can find out what the email is about.

example non-responsive email

Non-responsive email


This email from a local restaurants fits the screen, but the font is too small to read easily.

example of non-responsive email with unreadable font

Non-responsive email – font is too small

What About Mobile-Responsive Templates?

Many email services have introduced mobile-responsive templates to make emails more readable on phones and tablets. I recently tested some templates from my email service, aWeber. Here’s an example.

example of mobile responsive template from aweber

The resulting template fits the screen, but the colored bar is distracting and is taking up valuable space that could be devoted to a marketing offer and call to action.

What’s the Solution?

More and more marketers are turning to “plain HTML” emails to make sure their messages are easily readable on a mobile device.

Don’t confuse this with a “plain text” email. Bear with me while I get a bit technical. A true plain text email is exactly that – no graphics, no HTML, just good old plain text. Your email service automatically produces a behind-the-scenes plain text email every time you create a pretty HTML message. Here an example of the plain text version of an HTML email in Constant Contact. These exist in case your reader is opening the email on a computer or device that can’t read HTML (by the way, you should always check and test the plain text versions of your emails before you send them).

HTML vs plain text email

HTML on left, plain text version of same email on right


A “plain HTML email”, by contrast, is an email that is formatted with HTML but limits the use of graphics, colored backgrounds, columns and so on for better readability. Marketers have always used this email format, but it’s getting more popular for several reasons.

  • It’s easier to read on a mobile device
  • It feels less like a sales pitch and more like a personal email
  • It’s more likely to get through spam filters

Here are some examples. First, here’s an email  I received from Facebook marketing expert Amy Porterfield a year ago. It’s typical HTML template with a “content and right-sidebar” layout, which looks great on my desktop monitor.

example graphic html email template

HTML template


Contrast that email with two recent emails from Amy shown below. The one on the left includes a graphic and pretty links, but it’s much plainer than the old template. The one on the right has no graphics at all. They both use lots of strategic bolding to draw the eye to the most important parts of the email, and both are a single column of content with no sidebar, which looks much better on a mobile screen.

graphic plain HTML emails

2 examples of “Plain HTML” emails”

What Does This Mean for My Emails?

With mobile email usage growing rapidly, you don’t want to risk losing readers because your emails are hard to read. Why not start testing a simpler email layout and see what happens to your email and click-through rates? You can even try a split-test – send half of your audience a fully graphic email and half a plainer layout and see if one performs better than the other.

If you try it, let me know how it goes! 


  1. Back in 2012 I converted an image based email program to a simplified approach before settling on a mobile friendly single column table design that used images sparingly. Basic ESP email stats (opens and clicks) improved. The older campaigns were useless on smartphones and barely usable on small tablets. While the revised campaigns were in production I embarked on a project with an agency to build responsive email designed (RED) templates for me to use. Before I converted to the RED templates I implemented advanced email analytics via Litmus.com. After the conversion to the responsive emails my basic ESP stats improved. Where I had my best improvement was in the litmus “read” engagement metric. It is better than opens. Here is how they describe email engagement:

    In Email Analytics, Litmus shows you how long your subscribers were engaged with your message. This is sometimes also known as the read rate. Since we’re measuring how long the recipient had the email open, we report this back in three categories: Read, Skim Read and Glanced/Deleted.

    Read: 10 or more seconds

    Skimmed: 2 or more seconds, but less than 10 seconds

    Glanced/Deleted: less than 2 seconds

    I feel going simple is a great way to start, Make sure you back test your old designs. Going forward begin t test responsive techniques. It is a challenge. Compared to 2012, doing responsive emails today is easy. Many of the major ESPs are providing frameworks. There is the INK responsive email framework at http://zurb.com/ink/
    and today I found in my twitter stream EDM designer at http://edmdesigner.com/ — They claim “Create custom, responsive email templates without coding.”

    I found this post via the tweets from EDM – https://twitter.com/EDMdesigner

    Many people quote 50% of emails are read on mobile devices. Ignore them. You need to manage your business as if everyone will read them on a mobile device. The litmus email analytics product will help you find how many of your audience is reading your emails on a mobile device. I expect you will see between 15% – 70% of your customers using a mobile device to read your emails. It can vary. That is my experience on both B2C and B2B emails. A great place to find a lot of email stats is emailmonday: http://www.emailmonday.com/mobile-email-usage-statistics