Text-Based vs Image-Based Emails: Which is Best For Your Business?

Imagine Times Square, New York City.

What was the first thing that popped into your mind? Was it the massive steel skyscrapers? The standstill lanes of traffic? The flocks of tourists from every part of the globe?

If you’re like me, you were thinking about the massive billboards that companies pay the big bucks for. The ones that only organizations like Coca-Cola or General Motors could afford.

For advertising, image-based ads generate millions and millions of dollars for companies because sure, they're eye-catching.

Now when it comes to email-marketing, that's where the 'rules' start to change.

Stick around and you will learn:

  • What type of email performed better four out of five times
  • How to avoid both the spam folder and Gmail's Promotions tab when using images
  • When to use both types of emails
  • The most popular industries for each type of email

Ready to jump right in?

The Golden Rule: An Email Should Deliver its Message Effectively, With or Without Images

Before proceeding, here is a piece of information you MUST know:

Certain email clients block external resources (ie. images) by default.

Let's take a deeper look.

Take for instance how this campaign from Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, looked in this email client:

The first half of the email consists of blocked images! Not good. Luckily for them the core message of the email was still readable.

We’ll soon be covering why a good text-to-image ratio is crucial. Stick around!

Do Images Affect Your Inbox Rate?

Umm, what's “inbox rate?”

Good question! It’s the rate in which your emails go to the inbox rather than the spam folder.

Imagine you send an email campaign to ten people. For five of them, it makes it to their inbox. For the other five, it goes straight to their spam folders. *sadface*

This means you have an inbox rate of 50% — Half of the people on your list successfully received your message without it going to the spambox.

Pro Tip: There's An Image Living in ALL Your Campaigns

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret.

Every marketing email contains at least one image… even the ones that don’t!

“WHAT?!”

Let me break it down.

To track open rates, you can’t slap Google Analytics onto your emails just as you would with your website. This limitation has turned marketers into pretty crafty guys.

To get around this, email marketing services place a teensy tiny 1-pixel-by-1-pixel image into your messages.

Whenever someone opens one of your campaign emails, this little image is fetched from the email marketing service’s website.

The email marketing service could then count that request as an open.

So even if you're sending an email without images, you're still sending at least one!

In addition to tracking open rates, Sendlane offers a slew of different tracking options and integrations. All of these bring clarity to your email marketing ROI.

Finding The Perfect Text-to-Image Ratio

Traditionally, people had pointed to the famous Pareto principle (ie. the 80-20 rule) to decide the proper text-to-image ratio.

But let's stick to these key takeaways from this assessment:

  • 60% text, 40% images as a general guideline.
  • Text-to-image ratio has no effect on deliverability for emails that are 500 characters or more
  • Use images with purpose. Don't just throw in a random stock photo for the sake of more content.
  • Just in case your images are blocked or don't load, make sure the email is still readable.

Test it for yourself!

The Pareto principle has been a hot idea to marketers, but your have to remember it’s a rough-cut suggestion rather than a calculated number.

You could always use 80% text, 20% images as a baseline to begin your testing. (or 60% text 40% images)

Adjust your ratios, split test, and repeat.

The One-Big-Image Approach

Common sense might tell you that instead of dealing with wild HTML and CSS formatting, you could just create a single image.

There are unfortunately many reasons that make a single-image-no-text email marketing approach a terrible idea:

  • You’re more than likely to be marked as spam
  • Large images take longer to load
  • It’s bad for user experience
  • Some email clients block images for privacy concerns (like that example above!)

Let me tell you about a pesky scam email that always hits my spambox. It's one of those “Give me a Bitcoin or I'll hack you!” messages.

There is no actual text in the body of the email. It's just a single image. What's the image of, you ask? It's a screenshot of their typed message, drafted up in good ol' Microsoft Word 2007 edition.

Ever since Paul Graham’s famous essay, spam filters began judging emails using statistical analysis algorithms.

These algorithms only operate on text and have no way of reading images (at least that's how it used to be). For that reason, email black-hats resorted to bypassing these tests by using text-filled images.

Over time, algorithms got smarter and “faux-text” emails lost their effectiveness.

You DON'T want anti-spam algorithms to think you're using the same tactics as the bad guys. Stay away from image-only emails.

What You’ve Learned So Far

The answer to whether or not images affect your inbox rate is a big fat “it depends.”

  • Have a reasonable text-to-image ratio.
  • Ensure your email gets its point across even if images are disabled.
  • Don't use massive 4k images. Keep them at a smaller size to ensure a speedy load time.
  • Make sure all of your images serve a purpose.

Follow these basic guidelines and images should never hold your efforts back!

A Modern Metric to Consider: The Gmail Promotions Tab

Like it or not, Google is taking over our lives with all of their high market-share products and services. Gmail is no exception.

For that slightly sad, slightly monopolistic reason, we have to put great care into how we craft our emails for Gmail users.

Many people thought the Promotions tab would be the death of email marketing. However, years and years later, it’s still one of the most effective marketing channels. Take that, hysterics!

What we should first mention is that the Promotions tab is not a second spam folder like many believe.

People search through their Promotions tab as there are brands they genuinely want to hear from. Not to mention all of the coupons and sales they could take advantage of!

But there's no arguing that it would be more ideal to land in the inbox. That's where users look most frequently after all!

So how do you get there?

Personalize your emails for every contact! With tools like Sendlane, it's not as hard as it sounds to create hyper-personalized content for each and every contact. Because guess what? Google tracks the engagement your users have with your emails and they decide which tab to put your email in based on your contacts past interactions with your messages. So put the effort in to personalize.

Use unique images! Don't go with the same stock photos that every dull corporation drools over. This goes back to my point of using images that serve a purpose.

Be careful with product images when possible. Google is the king of image recognition. A product image in your email could most definitely put you in the Promotions tab.

When to Send Out Graphically Gorgeous Emails

Stunning emails are a superb way to launch a product or inform your customers about new and exciting features, all while presenting your brand in a professional light.

When writing your emails, ask yourself, “Is there something the customer NEEDS to see?” This easy exercise drastically simplifies the whole process of choosing what type of email to send.

If I'm selling you an online course, you'd care more about my words than any form of graphics.

  • How will the course help you in your career?
  • When could you expect to see results?

Neither of those involve  images.

But let's say you're selling a super sleek product your contacts need to see.

Take a look at Bose's product launch email for their new audio enhanced sunglasses:

What I personally love about the email is that:

  • Although simple, the product image is eye catching and showcases the product. For this specific email, the strong imagery enhances the message.
  • The headline is simple and evokes curiosity in the reader.
  • It has a clear call-to-action — “View Details”

P.S. If you want to create beautiful campaigns just like this Bose email, check out Sendlane’s drag-and-drop email builder.

When to Send Out Simple-Text Emails

Text-focused emails are the tool to use when it's your goal to build up a cozy relationship with your audience.

Say you're a blogger who writes about travel tips and has a $500 course that's the ultimate resource for the first-time globe-trotter.

Instead of having the typical fancy email sent out when you publish a new post, hand-craft a personalized email and watch the difference in results flow in.

Or let's say...

You’re a content creator that wrote about the best cheap flight finding apps? So has 4,321 other travel blogs! You're going to need to stand out from the crowd, whether you're writing an email or a social media update.

How could you stand out?

Perhaps start out the email by talking about how you splurged on a first-class flight only to miss it due to heavy LA traffic. Now you have pledged to pay no more that $1,000 for a single flight and over the years you have become the “Cheap Flight Goddess.”

Take a look at the below emails from digital marketing gurus Amy Porterfield and Neil Patel.

What makes these emails stand out?

They feel authentic.

In the end, people love to read stories, they love to read something that feels real and relatable.

And that's exactly why text based emails work! It turns you into a real, live person rather than just a company looking to make a sale.

Wrapping It All Up

We've covered a lot of ground today!

I hope you now have a crystal-clear idea of the advantages of both kinds of emails.

Do remember that the core of email marketing is running your own experiments to see what works best for both your brand and industry.

No matter what path you take, Sendlane has got you covered. Take these tips out for a test drive yourself and sign-up for a free trial today!

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Caitlin Hutchinson
Brand Marketing Manager
Sendlane

A native of San Diego, California, Caitlin has a passion for developing creative and engaging marketing content. Primarily responsible for overseeing the development, execution and delivery of digital content across all of Sendlane’s channels while maintaining an online presence of Sendlane's team culture. Host of The Marketing Automation Hustle Podcast and Sendlane Youtube Training Channel. Works closely with the marketing team to manage creative projects and develop creative assets/solutions to enhance the brand. Collaborates at the intersection of marketing, product, content, and sales to develop powerful and memorable stories and interactive experiences that bring the Sendlane vision to life.

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