November 23, 2010
How To

Mobile Email Marketing: 3 tactics to improve usability (and ultimately conversions)

SUMMARY: Reading and writing email is the most popular activity on the U.S. mobile Web, according to Nielsen. So some of your subscribers are likely trying to read your messages on tiny screens while on-the-go -- but are you making it easy for them?

See advice an email deliverability and design expert offers to get you started in mobile email marketing. Find out why text-based emails are still valuable.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Emails have a lot of work to do. They have to pass through spam filters, render well across platforms, convey a message, entice a click -- and that's just on the traditional Web.

On mobile devices, emails have to accomplish even more. There are additional platforms to which they need to cater. Screen sizes are typically a few inches. And mobile subscribers might not want the same content as traditional subscribers.

Mobile devices present a limited environment. This makes optimizing emails for mobile subscribers a great way to add focus and clean designs to your overall program, says Len Shneyder, Product Marketing Director, Unica, a marketing software solutions provider.

"I think mobile email is a great place to start, because if you can optimize for mobile devices you're bound to have good rendering on desktop and Web email clients, for the most part," he says.

"Mobile is bringing a return to the single column format. And I think this works really well on desktop, Web and mobile [platforms]. A single-column layout with a single call to action focuses the message -- and I don't think that's a bad thing."

Shneyder has worked in the email industry for seven years both for and with email service providers to help companies get their messages delivered and rendered properly. We talked to him about how to optimize email for mobile subscribers. Here are the tactics he suggested:

Tactic #1. Estimate your mobile email readership

Email dominates mobile activity, comprising 41.6% of all time spent on the mobile Web in the U.S., up from 37.4% last year, according to Nielsen. If your subscribers are on the mobile Web, then they're likely reading your email on tiny screens.

The question for every email marketer is how much of your audience is reading your email via mobile devices. The answer will dictate the priority you should give to optimizing your messages for this channel. However, a mobile audience can be difficult to precisely measure.

Some vendors (Unica included) offer solutions to help marketers better understand how mobile subscribers interact with email messages and the devices they're using. Such tools can clearly show the size of your mobile constituency.

Shneyder suggests two ways to estimate your email messages’ mobile audience:

- Add a mobile option to your preference center

A preference center can reveal a lot about subscribers, such as their desired content and contact frequency. By adding a mobile option such as "check this box if you're interested in receiving email formatted for mobile devices" and pointing this option out to subscribers, you can begin to understand the size of your mobile constituency.

- Monitor website analytics

Most Web analytics solutions are able to report the browsers used to access your website, which will reveal your mobile visitors. Measuring this traffic will give you a better understanding of how much your online audience (though not your email audience) is reaching you via mobile.

Looking specifically at the traffic to your email marketing landing pages will give your team more insight into its mobile email readership -- especially if these pages are only used with emails.

Tactic #2. Format for the lowest common denominator

There are many differences between mobile operating systems, and the nuances trickle down into their browsers and email software. Some platforms will automatically scale-up small fonts to make them more legible -- while also possibly disrupting your menu bars. Others, particularly some older phones, will not render email images.

Your mobile audience is likely to have an array of devices, both new and old. It can be tempting to create a cutting edge template that looks fantastic on the latest smartphones -- but that might neglect a large portion of your audience.

The key is to set a low baseline. Create an email template that will cleanly render on as many of your audience's devices as possible and clearly communicate your message.

"Remember," Shneyder says, "it's not only across mobile devices. The same template has to work on a desktop because one thing we've found is that people open the same email on multiple devices and platforms."

- Check current rendering

Take a look at how your current emails render on mobile devices before diving into a redesign. You can use software tools to test rendering across an array of devices. Or you can gather as many phones as possible and test manually.

Your audience is likely using a range of mobile platforms. Here is the Sept. 2010 market share for the top U.S. smartphone platforms, via comScore:
RIM (BlackBerry): 37.3%
Apple (iPhone): 24.3%
Google (Droid): 21.4%
Microsoft (Windows): 10.0%
Palm: 4.2%

Your audience likely has a unique mix of these. For example, you may find more Droid users than iPhone users. Make sure to test your emails' rendering for the platforms in your audience -- not just the U.S. market in general.

"Chances are it will look good in some places and it will have issues in other places," Shneyder says.

- Text

The lowest common denominator in email is the text-only format. This bare-bones design is often neglected in today's HTML-dominated landscape, but it is the most likely to display across a wide array of platforms.

Tactic #3. Prepare landing pages

Establishing a well-formatted mobile email program only makes sense if you're prepared to drive subscribers to well-formatted webpages. Clicking a link in a beautiful email only to land on an illegible landing page is a major turnoff.

Landing pages also have to be optimized for conversions for traditional and mobile visitors. This presents a unique challenge for landing page optimization. Mobile visitors are an additional audience with completely different needs. Your team should run many tests to get your designs right.

- Possibly segment audiences

You can establish different landing pages for mobile and traditional visitors. This allows your team to meet the needs of each audience separately, on two distinct pages. Also, website servers can detect a visitor's device and present the best landing page layout for that device (talk with your resident Web designer).

You can also send different emails to mobile and traditional subscribers. This, combined with unique landing pages for each audience, offers mobile subscribers a separate experience that can be more easily tweaked to fit their needs.

Useful links related to this article

Call for Entries: MarketingSherpa's 6th Annual Email Marketing Awards

Members Library: Page Tests Cut Mobile Bounces 22%: 3 Steps to Improve Experience for Mobile Visitors

Members Library: Get Started in Mobile Marketing: 4 Insights to Guide Your Strategy

comScore: September 2010 U.S. Mobile Subscriber Market Share

comScore: July 2010 European Subscriber Market Share

Nielsen: What Americans Do Online


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