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The rise of mobile and what it means for email marketers

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 19 Aug, 2010
Essential Essential topic

In the days of Heraclitus, mobile messages involved horses. But his wise words about the constancy of change apply so well to mobile email.

Mobile long meant a senior executive armed with a BlackBerry that turned HTML email into something suited to a modern art exhibition.

Email designers scratched their heads and hoped the problem would go away. Email marketers took solace in the fact that most audiences were BlackBerry-free. Then along came the iPhone and mobile email has never been the same.

Keeping your head in the sand is no longer an option: mobile email is one of the four trends driving email marketing change. This post explores the challenges and solutions for the forward-thinking marketer.

The rise of mobile email

The growth of mobile email is driven by smartphone user numbers. For example, an ExactTarget survey revealed that the typical smartphone owner was over 50% more likely to have increased their use of email.

In Q2 2010 in the USA, Nielsen found every fourth mobile phone sold was a smartphone and believe smartphones will begin outselling conventional mobile phones next year. Morgan Stanley Research even suggest they'll outsell PCs the year after.

Little wonder then that the Radicati Group predict the wireless email market will hit 1 billion mailboxes by 2013.

While social media gobbles up a growing proportion of time spent online, email is gaining popularity with mobile Internet users: Nielsen claim 41.6% of US mobile Internet time is spent with email, a rise of10% across the previous 12 months.

It's not just about a rise in numbers, either. The way people use mobile email is changing. It was once all about sorting and deleting messages before heading back to the desktop email client in the office. This "triage" behavior is still dominant, but two new trends are emerging:

1. People actually engaging with email on their mobile device:

smartFocus discovered that:

"...now 30% of users are reading and replying to emails through their mobile."

2. More consumer mobile email use:

The ExactTarget survey mentioned earlier revealed that most smartphone owners were:

"...sending and receiving more personal emails as opposed to work-related emails."

The executive and his BlackBerry is still there, but so is the busy mum browsing email on an iPhone while watching the kids play in the park.

The challenges

So does this matter? Mobile email use is growing precisely because the iPhone and similar devices do such a great job with email, particularly with displaying HTML emails (which was always the scary aspect of mobile for email marketers).

A typical email list won't yet have that many mobile email users on it. And many of them will save your emails for later anyway. So maybe we can still keep our heads in the sand.

Or perhaps not. Because the popularity of (and direct engagement with) mobile email is only going to increase.

There are two main challenges here.

First, smartphones might handle HTML well, but so does Hotmail, Outlook 2007 etc. They just don't handle HTML all the same way. Our generic email templates are carefully designed to look good (or degrade gracefully) on a range of desktop clients and webmail services. Now we need to add mobile email clients and viewing environments to that list.

Second, mobile email means email away from "traditional" email viewing times and locations. What does "mobile" mean for various email habits, such as:

  • when do mobile email users check email?
  • how often?
  • where?
  • how much time are they prepared to spend on an email?
  • do they need different content/offers?

We don't have enough experience to say for sure. But it is clear that mobile email is a different beast to traditional email.

Litmus, for example, found mobile users tend to spend more time with an email. And a study by e-Dialog revealed that mobile users tended to shy away more from high-frequency messages than their "traditional" counterparts.

And let's not forget that there isn't one kind of mobile user. As mentioned earlier, there's the busy executive checking for important messages in the taxi to a breakfast meeting. And the tired dad relaxing with a glass of wine and an iPad late at night.

Solutions - estimate the scale of use

Finding solutions to these challenges is the tricky bit, because we have little experience with doing so.

The first step is to find out just how much mobile email use is going on on your list. That gives you an idea of how fast you need to adapt. A strong option here is to use an email analytics tool like MailboxIQ or Litmus.

I did this for my own list and found only 2% using a mobile device to read my newsletter. The more tech-savvy your audience, the higher the number will be.

Solutions - three main design approaches

Experts are divided on how best to tackle the issue of mobile email design. There are three main approaches, none of which are ideal.

The first says to simply place a link to a "mobile version" of your message at the top of your usual emails. This sounds like an ideal solution, until you try and work out what form the link should take so it displays properly in those mobile email clients that don't handle HTML well.

And then try and work out exactly what this "mobile version" should look like.

Do you want iPhone users clicking through to a text-only version of your email? You can end-up with half-a-dozen "mobile" links for the various popular devices out there.

The second is to try and segment a list by viewing device and send appropriate designs. Such segmentation can be done by:

  • Including mobile options in sign-up forms (e.g. "iPhone-enabled email")
  • Ditto in the subscriber preference center
  • Recording who uses "mobile version" links in your emails
  • Subscriber surveys

The three problems with this are that:

  • Not everybody views every email on the same device each time
  • Cost of developing and managing various templates
  • You won't catch all mobile email users this way

The third is to design for ubiquity. If you assume smartphones, desktop clients, webmail services etc. share enough common ground in the way they handle HTML email, then you can find design templates that don't break drastically in most places they're likely to be seen.

The "mobile" element of such design is recognizing the smaller screen size, which means:

  • Key information needs to be at the very front of the subject line
  • Short from lines
  • Communicating the value of the email and desired action to take as early as possible in the email itself
  • ...more mobile design resources here.

You might also take a hybrid approach: design a solid email template, but have a link to an "iPhone version" specifically optimized for that device (if the iPhone users in your audience justify the effort required).

Fortunately, most design preview tools now include popular mobile display environments in their test results. So you can design, test and adjust to ensure wide compatibility between mobile, desktop and webmail clients.

If all that already sounds overwhelming, consider this: even if your email looks fine on a mobile device, what happens when those mobile email users click on through to your website? Is that site mobile-friendly, too?

Solutions - strategy?

The design challenge is simple compared to the strategic challenge of adapting your email efforts in the light of changing email habits and usage patterns.

That's because we're still at the very bottom of the learning curve here, though I wonder if there may be lessons we can apply from text/SMS marketing?

Assumptions and test results on, for example, the best time/day to send out email may need revisiting as mobile email spreads. If people check their email more frequently, then there may be more potential for time-sensitive and time-limited emails, like "6 hour-only" promotions.

Ironically, after so much media debate on whether social media is killing email use, one of email marketing's biggest challenges is likely to be the increase in email use through the mobile revolution. Interesting times...

Auhtor's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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