1emailThe increasing number of smartphone and tablet users puts email marketing constantly to the test. In fact, good email marketing on mobile devices remains a major challenge.

For a long time, experts recommended to simply integrate a link to a mobile-friendly version of the email in the header of the email. That sounded easy until it was attempted to develop links that would work perfectly on all mobile devices – a kind of mobile-friendly version.

It’s obvious that the challenges move

Previously, the major challenge in mobile email marketing has been to display an HTML email properly, often being chaotic and unstructured when displayed. And with the few similarities between the various smartphone providers, it was almost impossible to find the right design solution. But fortunately the approach, at first ignorant, was not entirely unsuccessful.

We all know that mobile email was previously more or less limited to the B2B sector. But even more important is the fact that mobile devices are more used to sort emails, to respond directly only to the most important messages while the rest gets stored in order to work on them on a PC later.

For quite some time there were simply not enough people who actively used their mobile phones to read emails, so that there was no panic about the big question of the future of mobile email. Well, such an approach no longer works today, because the world of mobile email has changed completely.

First of all, there are many more users of mobile devices. An e-Dialog report, for instance, identified that "85% of consumers indicated that their email usage on mobile devices has increased and has become more important."

But there are three other important trends affecting email marketers:

  1. The first trend is the growing usage of smartphones: You can find out yourself who in your address list is using a smartphone with the help of email analysis tools, such as MailboxIQ or Litmus.
  2. The other trend is that mobile matured from a less-than-ideal solution to a real alternative to the PC: It’s obvious that smartphones display HTML emails much better and generally offer a better email experience than traditional cell phones. Besides that they offer a better online experience per se. Smartphone or mobile phone owners can now do things online that were unthinkable a few years ago.

Fact is that the growth in mobile emails (number and interaction) is no longer a pure B2B topic as it was just a few years ago. ExactTarget for example has found in a survey that the majority of smartphone users "send and receive more personal than business emails”, and the iPhone has finally taken the smartphone from being an organizational tool to an accessory for "everyone".

Therefore, we have seen a massive growth in the number of devices that are able to handle mobile email in highly sophisticated ways. And we have also seen a massive growth in the number of people who see a need to read and write emails on the go.

The good news is that the demand for mobile email strategies has only increased due to the improved HTML email tools and features. Not every device is equally good with HTML emails but the increasing need for mobile email will accelerate with the improvement of all the devices.

We already know that mobile web browsing is dominated by web-friendly devices that use the iPhone or Android system, although smartphones that use the Symbian OS have more market power. And it’s similarly with emails - as Pivotal Veracity describes it in their whitepaper. Therefore, most marketers think that the problem will find its solution in time on its own: when mobile email users have smartphones that are so good that there are no HTML display problems anymore.

But, if it only would be that simple... 

We still have to overcome two challenges first:

It’s true that an increasing number of emails can be read perfectly and correctly on smartphones and other mobile devices, but even if they can deal with HTML emails, they still have their quirks. For example, the iPhone automatically increases the font size. Similarly, screen sizes are much smaller than a typical desktop monitor, so the design challenge still remains, even if it is far smaller than it was a few years ago.

The second point is that users of a mobile device show a different behavior than PC users. Mobile email is not just an" email task" - it is the task of "being mobile on the go." This means that the way how emails are used can be very different, and probably we do not even have the faintest idea of most of them: Do they check their emails rarely or regularly and at different times? How much time do they spend in front of an email? How receptive are they to non-personalized emails? Do they scroll through their emails or crack them just superficially?

Figures released by Litmus show that people who use mobile devices spend in general more time in front of an email. And an e-Dialog poll found out that mobile email users are less tolerant to bulk emails than "traditional" email users. And to make it even more complicated: Mobile user can’t be pegged in a single category. Just compare the online behavior of an iPad owner, who jovially enjoys his emails by sitting on his sofa with a glass of wine, with an iPad owner who checks his emails while he is waiting to pick up his children in front of the school. You know what I mean.

Recommendations for mobile email design

There are mainly two different opinions regarding the design issue:

Some experts believe that we should isolate the mobile user and send them specially tailored emails that meet the needs of the mobile device. Some possible tactics to identify these users are:

  • An appropriate option is the application form (e.g. " Click here if you read your email on a smartphone!");
  • Segment those who use the link "read on my iPhone" or "read on my smartphone" in their regular emails;
  • Consult your subscribers.

The problem with this approach is that it is based on loyalty to a device and the assumption that people read their emails only on either the iPad or the netbook. In reality, however, the user switches back and forth, using e.g. their iPhone in the evening and the PC during the day. Besides that, the design for a specific device might not fit at all if the email is displayed on any other device. It also means a lot more work regarding the design template, etc. Thus, the alternative approach is to design emails in a way that they are well represented everywhere.

This was previously not a real option, because mobile devices have then often displayed an HTML mess, if not a very simplified and simple design had been chosen. But despite the diversity of devices, there are enough similarities between the modern mobile devices and the PC world, so that it is possible to design an email at the same time for an iPad, PC, and iPhone, which is displayed optimally.

When finally a solution has been found then - what about landing pages? What if your emails are actually read, and people respond, buy, comment, or perform other actions? Are your landing pages and your website respectively optimized for a mobile experience? Just think about it.

A proper strategy is crucial

For fine grasp: As mobile email design just came to the fore, therefore it is to no one’s surprise that email marketing strategies are still in its infancy.

We already know a lot about the habits regarding the email retrieval. Unfortunately, this knowledge is based on the use of a fixed PC. We still didn’t gather enough experience about how people use their mobile email – e.g. when is the best time or the best day to send emails or is it better to send towards the early evening, because many of the recipients check their emails on the train on their way home, etc.? Should B2C emails, however rather be sent during the day when Dad can check them on the football field during the kids workout? Can we transfer knowledge and experience from the larger SMS and mobile marketing world on our mobile emails?

As you see, with mobility comes diversity, which forces us to become more aware of the fact that the experience and knowledge we have gained in the pre-mobile email era have probably no value in the future. So, never stop learning!

By Daniela La Marca