September 27, 2011
How To

Mobile Email Marketing: 5 tactics to engage and convert smartphone users

SUMMARY: With smartphone sales and email access showing significant growth, how should marketers change their email strategies to create a compelling mobile email experience? Is it simply a matter of reformatting what you already have for a small touchscreen, or do you have to rethink the entire strategy?

Check out these 5 tactics to help you find smartphone users, add them to your email list, and get them to convert.
by Jeri Dube, Freelance Reporter, MarketingSherpa

As of May 2011, Nielsen Company reported that 38% of US mobile phone owners use a smartphone -- up from 29.7% in October 2010. On its own, this fact isn’t reason enough to focus on a mobile email experience, yet the findings from ExactTarget’s "Subscribers, Fans and Followers May 2011" study may convince you otherwise.

Most smartphone users take advantage of its email capabilities:

o 53% check email several times per day
o 29% check email throughout the day
o 66% check at least once per day

For the 1,427 US smartphone users surveyed, email was the most effective purchase trigger as 55% take action based on emails. The survey found other communications weren’t nearly as compelling:

o 41% take action based on text
o 35% take action based on Facebook
o 32% take action based on shopping apps

Despite these compelling statistics, the experts we interviewed for this article agreed that marketers have barely begun to create a mobile experience for their email audiences. They three experts are

o RJ Taylor, Director, Product Marketing, ExactTarget
o Manny Ju, Director, Product Marketing, BlueHornet
o Chris Studabaker, Global Practice Manager, Design, ExactTarget

Most marketers do not adapt or optimize emails to accommodate the constraints imposed by a small touchscreen. Few think about how subscribers have to pinch, enlarge, or scroll to read emails on their smartphones. And, even fewer exploit the unique opportunities that come with the anytime, anywhere access of mobile users.

To help you adapt email marketing for an increasingly mobile audience, these experts share tactics that go beyond the technical differences between desktop and mobile devices. They factor in the mindset, goals and motivations of smartphone users so you can figure out how to find them, attract them and get them to respond to your call-to-action.

Tactic #1. Understand your current audience

Providing a rich, compelling mobile experience to your audience requires investment. To determine how much -- or how quickly to invest, you need to know what portion of your audience will appreciate and respond to the changes you make. You might even discover they’re not ready for mobile at all.

Manny Ju feels mobile emails are more naturally suited to some audiences and not so much to others. He said, “Don’t make the fatal mistake of a mismatch between the mobile audience and your audience.”

First, you need to discover what portion of your audience is reading your email on a mobile device., a military and veteran membership organization that informs and connects members with the benefits of service, has tracked the mobile phone usage of its subscriber base for more than a year.

In July 2010, 13% of its 10 million members regularly read emails on smartphones -- primarily the iPhone 4. A year later, smartphone users comprised 26% of the subscriber base, with more than 60% using iPhones or iPads.

In addition to accelerating plans to update its email templates, this insight helped the Monster Worldwide subsidiary create a new target demographic for its readership – mobile users. This, in turn, generated a new revenue stream for targeted advertising. A financial institution offering a mobile banking app was the first to specifically target’s smartphone-using audience.

- Don’t overlook the value of your audience

While figuring out the size of your mobile audience is an important first step, to realize ROI, you must determine the value of that portion of your audience.

Are your smartphone subscribers the repeat buyers who account for a good percentage of your revenue? If so, then the straight percentage of users may not be the only criteria. You need to consider the total value of that population to your business.

Tactic #2. Strategize your move into mobile emails

RJ Taylor has found that marketers either ignore the mobile audience, or convert everything to mobile at the expense of the desktop experience.

It’s not wise to adhere to any one extreme. Even if very few of your subscribers currently access email with smartphones, the growth trend indicates this won’t always be the case. If your audience is predominantly smartphone users, they still use a desktop for a second look at emails that interest them.

Taylor’s colleague Chris Studabaker said, “Mobile isn’t a broad initiative that we have to do everywhere simultaneously.” Marketers can start slowly, implementing mobile for specific campaigns where it makes sense, and then grow from there.

- Identify where mobility is a differentiator

Studabaker suggested looking at the content, purpose and goal of your messages. Some of them are clearly useful for people on the go, including “day of” travel confirmations and tickets, “welcome to your mobile app” introductory notes, and daily deal coupons that require no printing.

- Apply mobile design principles

In most cases, there’s no reason to generate both desktop and mobile versions of your emails. (Note: Tactic #4 reviews the design principles that will render well on smartphones without compromising the desktop experience.)

Also, there’s no reason to create distinct versions for the various types of smartphones. As you would never create separate emails for different email applications (e.g., Outlook, Gmail, etc.), it’s best to find a common denominator and deliver a solution that works across all devices.

- Challenge current practices and test

This is especially important when it comes to send times. Mobile and desktop users have very different habits.

You may learn more about your customers’ behavior through testing and segmentation of your audience between mobile and non-mobile users in your tests. For example, if you’re marketing to business professionals in cities with good public transportation, you may find sending during the commute works best.

Tactic #3. Leverage other mobile communications to build a mobile email list

According to the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, while 42% of marketers identified getting people to opt in as a significant challenge to email marketing effectiveness, only 6% use mobile capture to grow their lists.

Expanding your email strategy to mobile opens up new ways to expand your email list to a smartphone audience. Whether the brand represents a restaurant, retail store or entertainment venue, people respond to a call-to-action when they are there, interacting with the brand. Smartphones let you exploit that.

For example, P.F. Chang’s, a chain of Chinese food bistros, invites people to join their email program in the restaurant. People who opt in by texting from their phone receive an email optimized for mobile devices, along with an offer for a free appetizer.

Smartphone apps also provide marketers an opportunity. Paper Hat Press, a small company that sells personalized children’s books, built their email list of smartphone-using moms through mobile signup ad campaigns. The ads appeared in Android and iPhone apps found in the news, entertainment, health and fitness, games, music, lifestyle and travel categories.

Interested mothers opted in to email, and other social media, without having to exit the application. Within four weeks, the campaigns generated more than 13,000 email addresses, quadrupling the size of Paper Hat’s existing list.

Tactic #4. Adjust layout for a smartphone’s smaller screen

The goal of this tactic is simplifying usability. You don’t want to make your smartphone subscribers zoom in or scroll to read, or even find, your text. Nor do you want them struggling to get to your landing page because their finger can’t hit the right link. The following list makes it easier for mobile subscribers:

o Use a single column of text -- 320 pixels is often recommended, but based on his experience, Studabaker thinks this may be overkill, and recommends 450-500

o Increase font size -- Microsoft and Apple publish recommendations, usually 16-18 pixels for body text, and 21 or 22 for headlines

o Leave enough space around buttons and links for a finger to tap them without hitting the wrong object

Code-based solutions, such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or @media queries that transform emails created for the desktop into ones suitable for small touchscreens, can help you accommodate the email needs of your mobile audience.

When it comes to design, Studabaker noted that the tendency is to focus only on the inbox. He said, “We forget sometimes that our real KPIs (key performance indicators) are not how email looks in a mobile inbox, but that subscribers convert.”

The design principles for email should be applied throughout the path to conversion. If the mobile email is compelling enough to engage a reader to go to the next step, then the landing page or the point of transaction needs to be just as easy for a user to read and use.

And, don’t overlook basic quality assurance before you send. It always helps to check your test sends on as many mobile devices as possible.

Tactic #5. Adjust content for the environment

People reading email on their phones are most likely in the midst of another activity. Email is filling a gap while they are waiting for or can take a break from their main attraction. Understanding this context should drive your approach to content.

- Tighten the focus and the copy

The way to optimize the presentation of your message is to rein yourself in. Don’t try to accomplish too much in one email. For a mobile audience, pick one idea, one concept, or one offer. This not only limits the amount you have to explain, but also prevents you from obscuring or confusing the message.

While crisp writing is always an asset, it’s especially important when trying to attract a mobile audience. Only convey what’s essential.

Keeping emails short and succinct doesn’t just make sense in terms of the context, it’s also appropriate for the small screen size.

- Get the subject line and ‘from’ field right

Since mobile email apps do not have a preview capability, you have only the subject line and the ‘from’ field to capture a reader’s attention – a total of 60 characters.

For the subject line, succinctness remains important, but order and placement also factor.

Chris Studabaker said, “When you start looking at how mobile devices actually display subject lines, usually the first 35 characters are the ones that you are certain are going to show up across just about any device.”

The key to the ‘from’ field is not getting it wrong. You want it to align with your subscriber’s expectations. For example, to create a more personal feel, companies send emails from a specific person. The ‘from’ field doesn’t indicate the company, only somebody’s name. If it’s not familiar to your audience, this will work against you.

- Let the medium inspire the message

Manny Ju is very excited by the email possibilities for subscribers not tied to their desktop. He said, “Now email marketers have the opportunity to engage with the audience in ways they never could before.”

He imagines a day when marketers combine geo-fencing technology with interactive emails. When he walks within a boundary close to a store that sells his favorite hard-to-find product, he wants to receive an email with an interactive map showing where he can buy it. If he later goes somewhere else and opens the same email, the map would automatically update for the new location.

Currently, the product’s brand includes interactive maps based on IP addresses, not GPS, indicating nearby locations where it can be purchased.

But Manny’s point is, if you focus on the potential of your audience receiving email anywhere, unique opportunities appear. For example, one retailer uses mobile email to explain the value of a rewards program while customers are still in the store.

In-store signage prompts people who are interested to text their email address. They then receive an email explaining the program benefits. Customers get the information they need without waiting for a salesperson to free up, and the company’s marketers convey their message clearly, succinctly and accurately.

To receive relevant email marketing case studies and how-to articles in your inbox each week, subscribe to the free MarketingSherpa Email Marketing newsletter.

Useful links related to this article:

2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report

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

Subscribers, Fans and Followers Report #9: Mobile Dependence Day -- Research report on the growth of the mobile market -- Customer-level insight into where, when and how emails are viewed

Return Path -- Solution provider to

Paper Hat Press -- Mobile app ad campaign

Pontiflex -- Solution provider to Paper Hat Press

Geo-fencing -- Technology useful for mobile marketing

Bluehornet -- Mobile email solutions

ExactTarget -- Mobile email solutions

Moveable Ink -- Interactive email solutions

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