Mobile Email: Trends, Challenges, Solutions and Resources for 2020

It’s hard to find a clear explanation of just how the growth of mobile email changes things for email marketers.

Partly because there are no simple answers to satisfy our need for…simple answers.

For a long time you could hear experts saying you should simply add a link to a mobile-friendly version of your email at the top of your templates.

Which sounded easy until you actually tried to create a link that would work on all mobile devices.

Or tried to define exactly what a mobile-friendly version should look like.

What we do know is that the challenge is shifting. So after setting the scene last week, it’s time to explore the issues in more depth…

Previously, the big deal with mobile email was the poor way that most devices could handle HTML email: they made a mess of it. And with little common ground between different mobile devices, it was nigh on impossible to find nice design solutions.

Fortunately, the “do nothing about it” approach was not an unreasonable strategy. Why?

Mobile email was more or less limited to B2B. More importantly, people largely used mobile email to sort their email, responding to important, personal messages and saving the rest for back at the PC.

There simply weren’t enough people trying to read and interact with your emails to panic about the whole mobile email issue.

That admirable “head in the sand” approach is now looking a little tired, because the nature of mobile email has changed. For a start, there’s much more of it about than before.

For example, in their report of a survey of over 2,000 adults in the US and UK, e-Dialog noted that:

“…33 percent of consumers in the US and UK access email on their mobile devices in addition to their computers”

But there are three other important trends here that concern email marketers.

1. Smartphones

The first is the growth of smartphones. Last week I gave you this collection of stats showing how smartphone sales were gathering pace.

Two quick stats from that collection: Gartner expect 500 million smartphones to sell in 2019, by which time Morgan Stanley expect smartphone sales to have outstripped PC sales.

You can find out who’s using smartphones on your own list with the help of email analytics tools (like MailboxIQ or Litmus).

2. From Triage to Engagement

Smartphones are far better at handling HTML email and offer a much better overall email experience than traditional mobile phones. Indeed, they offer a much better online experience per se. As a result, mobile phone users can easily do things online that were largely unheard of a couple of years ago.

For example, analysts Gartner note:

“By 2011, over 85 percent of handsets shipped globally will include some form of browser. In mature markets, such as Western Europe and Japan, approximately 60 percent of handsets shipped will be smartphones with sophisticated browsing capability and the ability to render conventional HTML sites in some manner”

The same trend is impacting mobile email.

A survey conducted by smartFocus found that:

“Two years ago the mobile was almost entirely used to read, filter and delete unimportant emails, whereas now 30% of users are reading and replying to emails through their mobile.”

So we now have people owning and using devices that provide “good enough” support for them to start using email and websites in meaningful ways that were previously limited to netbooks, laptops and desktop PCs.

3. Mobile Email not Limited to B2B

This growth in mobile email (numbers and interaction) is no longer just a B2B issue. For example, the ExactTarget channel preference survey found the majority of smartphone users:

“…sending and receiving more personal emails as opposed to work-related emails”

The iPhone has turned the smartphone from a management tool to a consumer accessory.

So we have a massive growth in the number of devices able to handle mobile email in a fairly sophisticated way. And we have massive growth in the number of people willing to engage with that email.

The Challenges

Now the good news is that the need for some kind of mobile email strategy only arises because mobile devices now have decent HTML email tools and features.

Not every device is great with HTML email, of course, but we can reasonably assume that those users most likely to make use of mobile email will favor those devices best suited to it.

We already know that mobile web browsing is dominated by devices using the web-friendly iPhone and Android operating systems, even though smartphones using the Symbian OS have more market share.

The same is true of email, as demonstrated in figures released by Pivotal Veracity.

In a sense, we might think the problem has taken care of itself. If mobile email users have smartphones that are so good at displaying HTML email, we no longer need “mobile email design”.

Were it only that simple.

We still have two challenges.

First, yes, an ever-increasing proportion of the email you send out will be read on smartphones and other HTML-ready mobile devices. But while they are good at handling HTML email, they still have their own idiosyncrasies. For example, Anna Yeaman reveals how the iPhone will automatically increase the size of small fonts (and tells you how to tell it not to).

Equally, screen sizes are, obviously, a lot smaller than your typical desktop monitor.

So there’s still a design challenge there, albeit a far easier one than a couple of years ago.

Second, people are not sitting in front of their PCs looking at their mobile devices. Mobile email is not just about the email part, it’s also about being mobile.

This means the way people use email is different. So the mobile email users on your list likely differ from everyone else in terms of all sorts of key attributes, most of which we don’t yet have any idea about.

Do they check email more often? At different times? Do they spend more time on an email? Or less? Are they more or less tolerant of untargeted messages? Will they scroll? etc. etc.

Figures released by Litmus, for example, suggest people using mobile devices spend more time with an email. And the e-Dialog survey found mobile email users less tolerant of higher-frequency emails than “traditional” email users.

And to make it more complicated, you can’t lump “mobile users” into a single category. Compare the likely email behavior of the iPad owner languishing over a brandy in the late evening and the iPhone owner with five minutes to spare while waiting for the kids outside school.


Solutions – Design

So what do we do about all that? Other than putting our heads back in the online sand?

There are two schools of thought on the design issue.

The first says we should try and isolate mobile users and send them emails designed specifically for the device they use. Some possible tactics for identifying such users are:

  • An appropriate option in the sign-up form (e.g. tick here if you read your emails on a smartphone)
  • Ditto in a subscriber preference center
  • Segmenting out those who use “view on a mobile” or “view on your iPhone” links in your normal emails
  • Survey your subscribers

My problem with this approach is device loyalty: we assume people always view the email on their iPad or netbook. The reality, I suspect, is that people will chop and change. They might use their iPhone in the evening and desktop PC during the day, for example.

Designing for a specific device might then backfire when that design is viewed somewhere else. It also means much more work in terms of template creation etc.

The alternative approach is to design emails that display well everywhere.

That wasn’t a real option before, when mobile devices were frankly crap at displaying HTML email. Unless you just used a very, very dumbed down email design.

But although they are still different, there is enough common ground between most modern mobile devices and the PC environment to allow you to design an email that is flexible enough to work on the iPad, PC and iPhone.

Which is all very well, but just how do you design a cross-platform email? And if you go for the device-specific approach, how do you design for, say, the iPhone?

And if you do find a solution, what about landing pages? As Dylan Boyd asks:

“What if they actually want to click from your email and read, react, buy, comment or engage? Are your landing pages or web site optimized for a good mobile experience?”

It can help to think of mobile email as a more intense environment for many of the best practices we already apply. The preview pane, which needs to include recognition elements like a logo, but also express the value of the email and drive action, is much smaller. Subject line displays are generally shorter, placing more emphasis on the idea of frontloading.

What About Strategy?

If mobile email design is growing up and thinking about taking driving lessons, then mobile email strategy is still on bottled milk and wearing diapers.

A lot of what we know about how people use email is based on much more “static” email reading devices. We don’t have enough experience with mobile email use to properly understand how it will change, for example, the best time or day to send out email.

Does the window for B2B mails now extend into the early evening as more commuters check email on the train home?

Should you send B2C mails earlier in the day, now that dad is checking email while watching the kids’ soccer practice?

Can we perhaps transfer to email much of the insights and expertise from the broader SMS and mobile marketing world?

With mobility comes diversity. At this point, the least thing we can do is be aware that assumptions built up through observation and tests in a pre-mobile email environment may no longer hold in the future.

In particular, we may find our subscribers splintering into many more different types of email user as mobile devices give them more choice about when and how to tackle email.

I’d certainly value your thoughts on how the growth of mobile email changes what you actually send to your list and when. It’s new territory for many of us…so any experience you can offer is most welcome…