Free Assessment: How does your inbound marketing measure up?

Get Started

Free Assessment:

How does your inbound marketing measure up?
Take this free, 5-minute assessment and learn what you can start doing today to boost traffic, leads, and sales.
Get Started

Free Assessment:

Images vs. No Images in Email Marketing Newsletters: Which Gets Better Results?

By Liz Murphy

Images vs. No Images in Email Marketing Newsletters: Which Gets Better Results?

This exact question was the subject of much debate when we first launched THE LATEST -- our thrice-weekly newsletter for digital marketers and business leaders -- last September.

We all had a lot of strong opinions about it -- although they were often conflicting opinions. 

Using myself as an example, I know how important images are to creating content that is visually pleasing and engaging. Our article templates in HubSpot require images, and our internal best practice guidance encourages the use of (relevant, purposeful) imagery throughout articles.

On the other hand, I also know my eyes will glaze over when I'm confronted with emails and newsletters that feature tons of images. 

On some level, this was the struggle we were all mentally wrestling with.

And if you're asking yourself this question, you're more than likely at the same impasse as we were last fall. 

Of course, whether or not you put images in your emails is going to be entirely based on the context of what type of email you're sending, how you're sending it, and who your target audience is. 

But since I know personally how annoying an answer of, "Well, it depends," is -- no matter how warranted or factually accurate it may be -- I'm going to share with you exactly what we did to make the decision for ourselves with THE LATEST, as well as some interesting data around visual email vs. more "plain" email performance

We Decided to A/B Test Images vs. No Images in Emails Instead of "Going with Our Guts"

Our goal with images was to not only enhance the experience of THE LATEST newsletter -- i.e., make it pretty to look at 😘 -- but also increase click-through rates.

For those unfamiliar, we publish tons of articles, podcasts, and videos seven days a week, 365 days per year. THE LATEST is meant to cut through the noise by featuring the most relevant and exciting content we've been publishing, along with other goodies hand-selected by Ramona and myself. 

With that in mind, the images in THE LATEST were meant to provide visual context to the articles we were featuring in each issue (three in total), to entice people to click-through and read them. 

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 2.31.50 PM

Since we are adamant about using as few stock images as possible at IMPACT in our content, we knew the images had the potential to bring more authentic personality forward from the authors of our articles -- whether they were an IMPACT employee, or one of our amazing outside contributors.

(For example, Angela Bowman from LuckyOrange, whose article on equality in the workplace was featured in the November 13, 2018, issue of THE LATEST shown above!)

Going Into the Test, I Had a Lot of Anti-Image Feelings

I've always viewed myself as a curmudgeon in the world of inbound marketing. For instance, I've spent years dragging my feet about video. Not just as a marketer, either. When I can read or listen to something, I'll choose that over video every single time. (I have no idea why -- I was born this way, baby.) 

I've since come around with video, but I have a similar "no nonsense" preference with marketing emails.

My favorite email newsletters have little to no imagery whatsoever, aside from the occasional emojis.👻

For example, I love, love, love getting emails from GatherContent:

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 2.56.58 PM

Will you just look at how stunningly simple and beautiful this email from my buddy Rob Mills is? Swoon. 

For me, this is the ideal. My job is writing and editing and content coaching and writer's block and... ugh. Yeah, just lots and lots of words.

That means if your newsletter is basically the marketing equivalent of James Joyce's Ulysses with the modern addition of GIFs and stock photography, I regret to inform you that you and I will not be internet best friends.

However, I know there are a lot of people who love images in emails and there are other email newsletters I get that I love that are more visual in nature. 

So, I was prepared for the results of our experiments with THE LATEST to show images were the way to go.

I was wrong! 

Our A/B Testing Showed Higher Email Click-Through Rates Without Images

If you're a subscriber of THE LATEST, you knew that was coming, right? 

Thanks to HubSpot's handy A/B testing option with email, we tested...

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 3.06.04 PMAnd tested... 

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 3.08.45 PM

And tested... 

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 3.14.22 PM...three issues a week, for an entire month. 

With the exception of two close calls, virtually every single A/B test came back with a 0.5 to 1.2 percent lift in email click-throughs.

I'll admit, the day we made a full switch to emails without photos or images, I was a little sad. Even though I personally prefer get-to-the-point emails without a lot of fluff, it felt like we were losing something. 

But apparently our subscriber base didn't feel like we did something negative -- since making the switch over to no images with the entire subscriber base of THE LATEST, we've seen an overall lift of 4 to 6 percent in click-through rates.

Much like Shakira's hips, the numbers do not lie.

Now, I love it.

The emojis we use add a little visual flair and personality that still feels conversational. Also, if we do include images now -- e.g. a thumbnail for an occasional video feature, personal photos Ramona and I may opt to include, and so on -- they are more likely to grab someone's attention.

Since we so rarely use images, they stand out and send a message of, "This image is here for a reason."

Other Interesting Stats About "Plain" vs. Image- or Design-Heavy Emails

The debate of images vs. no images in email is rooted in a more broad debate of "plain text vs. HTML emails." 

Although it's worth nothing that "plain text" technically refers to emails with no HTML structure at all. So, if you were to include a link, you'd have to do so as a raw URL and not an embedded hyperlink. 

In the context of this marketing comparison, however, "plain text" is generally applied as a label to marketing emails that look plain but are, in actuality, an HTML email without all the visual bells and whistles. Like the rich-text emails you can send through Gmail

Last July, Databox asked a group of marketing leaders their thoughts on plain emails vs. more HTML (see: "design-y") emails, and there were a few recurring themes:

  • For sales emails and lead nurturing sequences, the closer you can make an email look like a one-to-one, personal communication the better. So, plain is the winner in this case.

  • Also, industry seemed to be a big factor, with many respondents to Databox saying B2B audiences, as well as finance and technology fields showed, in some cases, a 4X to 9X preference for plainer emails.

  • Of course, the feedback they received was not absolute. A few marketers responded HTML works better for marketing, and plain text emails performed better for sales. 

So, while there are broader themes that seem to indicate that more plain emails that give the impression of a more personalized email from an actual human, the data some are reporting is conflicting.

For example, Tammy Duggan-Herd of Content Creators told Databox the HTML version of their biweekly newsletter had a 6.5-percent higher open rate and a 60-percent higher click-through rate. 

Whereas HubSpot found that while people say they want more design-y emails, their behavior shows they actually prefer more stripped down emails in their inbox.

So, Should You Use Images in Marketing Emails & Newsletters?

Your answer to that question is going to depend on the following:

  • What type of email you're sending.
    If it's a more sales-focused context, you're probably want to go the more plain route, with as few visual bells and whistles as possible. If you're in marketing, well... you're going to need to do some testing.

  • Who the audience is that you're targeting. 
    As some have noted, certain audiences (B2B, technology, etc.) seem to have a preference for plainer-looking correspondence. 

  • What your goals are.
    You should never include images just for the sake of it. They should only be included if you have a specific goal for them -- again, in our case, it was to enhance the appeal of feature articles.

Still, just making guesses as to what you should do based on the three criteria above isn't exactly smart. So, I highly recommend you do what we did -- run an images vs. no images A/B test for at least a month.

By the end of that period, your audience will show you exactly what they really want from you. (Even if they're saying the opposite.)

Free Assessment:

How does your inbound marketing measure up?
Take this free, 5-minute assessment and learn what you can start doing today to boost traffic, leads, and sales.


Email Marketing
Inbound Sales
Published on March 15, 2019

Recent Articles

How To Grow Your Email List: 13 Savvy Tips To Try in 2023
November 22, 2022 • 9 min read
How To Create Email Marketing Templates
June 25, 2022 • 6 min read
Apple Mail privacy news spooks email marketers, newsletter creators
June 16, 2021 • 4 min read
Should You Buy An Email Marketing List In 2021?
February 9, 2021 • 8 min read
Twitter has acquired newsletter publishing platform Revue
February 2, 2021 • 2 min read
How Brandon Fong gets 90% open rates and 60% reply rates on emails (Inbound Success, Ep. 175)
December 28, 2020 • 39 min read
4 video email marketing examples you'll want to copy ASAP
December 28, 2020 • 5 min read
13 out of office message examples to steal for your next vacation
December 23, 2020 • 9 min read
18 email marketing best practices you need to know for 2021
October 14, 2020 • 14 min read
15 effective re-engagement email examples you’ll want to steal in 2021
September 11, 2020 • 6 min read
How does the rise of dark mode impact your email marketing templates? (+ examples)
August 13, 2020 • 6 min read
8 email newsletter mistakes that are killing your click-through rates
July 20, 2020 • 7 min read
What does Basecamp’s privacy-focused HEY email service mean for marketers? [IMPACT Toolbox June 2020]
June 25, 2020 • 5 min read
Basecamp has a new email service called HEY — and it's a game-changer
June 17, 2020 • 3 min read
Facebook confirms it's testing email marketing for business pages
June 11, 2020 • 3 min read
How IMPACT grew its email newsletter to 40,000+ subscribers Ft. Liz Moorehead (Inbound Success, Ep. 141)
May 4, 2020 • 31 min read
New report: Best times to post on social media during coronavirus (COVID-19)
May 4, 2020 • 3 min read
Google is blocking 18 million coronavirus scam emails every day
April 27, 2020 • 2 min read
Business communications in the coronavirus (COVID-19) era: dos and don’ts
April 6, 2020 • 7 min read
"How Morning Brew grew its email subscriber base to 1.8MM Ft. Tyler Denk" (Inbound Success Ep. 134)
March 16, 2020 • 36 min read
10 email marketing tips to boost B2B sales [Infographic]
February 8, 2020 • 4 min read
Email marketing services: 9 best options for all business types
January 17, 2020 • 11 min read
According to a new report, Mailchimp owns 60% of the email market
January 13, 2020 • 3 min read
What is the average email open rate?
December 4, 2019 • 4 min read
7 best email newsletter examples for digital marketers (B2B and B2C)
November 11, 2019 • 4 min read