This is one of six "The 2012 Inbox" columns this month, as the e-mail columnists of ClickZ examine the near future of e-mail marketing.
Let's look at how mobile is likely to affect marketing campaigns and the inbox of 2012. I'm sure many believe mobile's growth will have an enormous impact on inboxes by that time and by extension how you create your marketing programs. I, however, have a more pragmatic view. I think change will take much longer and be different to what many are predicting for four critical reasons.
1. Mobile E-mail Usage Is Smaller Than You Think
Marketing experts who write columns like this one tend to be early adopters and e-mail professionals. I've been routinely reading my e-mail on my mobile phone for years. As such, our experience of the world is somewhat skewed. It's easy to forget that currently only 11 to 17 percent of the mobile phones in the U.S. are smartphones.
Though more people are likely to get smartphones by 2012, the majority still won't be reading e-mail on mobile devices by that time - which is only 18 months away.
Today, reworking e-mail for mobile can involve substantially degrading the experience for non-mobile users. The heavy mobile users tend to be important people, company executives and the like. If they're your target audience, then you must ensure your messaging works for them. However, if they're not, it may be counterproductive to degrade the experience for the majority in order to appease a minority.
2. Progress Will Be Slower Than Expected
The first BlackBerry was introduced in 1998; the first Symbian smartphones in 2001; Windows mobile is almost 10 years old; and the iPhone has been around for three years.
Mobile e-mail essentially requires a smartphone. This means expenditure on hardware and data plans. That's why we've seen rapid adoption among high level business employees - they can afford it and often their company pays for it. To reach the mass market, though, will take longer. It will take several more years for smartphone adoption to cross the 50 percent mark.
This means that any changes to your programs oriented purely towards mobile e-mail users will, for most audiences, only be available to a minority of your users in 2012.
3. Mobile Rendering Will Match or Exceed That of Desktops
Today's most popular mobile platform for business - the BlackBerry - has quite frankly appalling e-mail rendering capabilities. However, this will change soon. Every other mobile platform of note has or will soon have a highly capable HTML e-mail client. These are typically using the WebKit (define) rendering engine. BlackBerry will follow suit and do so I believe before 2012. The result is that soon smartphones will have HTML e-mail whose capabilities far exceed that of the de facto desktop standard, Microsoft Outlook.
This means that it should not, and will not, be necessary to create mobile-specific layouts or messaging. Even mobile-friendly layouts will, in a few years, seem as archaic as AOL-specific e-mails do today. Work spent on this today is just a stopgap measure for a minority of users -potentially worthwhile but you may well have more important things to focus on.
4. The Future Is Mixed Use - Not Mobile Exclusive
This will be the biggest challenge for e-mail marketing in 2012 and beyond - how to take advantage of mobile capabilities for those who are using mobile devices without leaving out those not doing so. It will not be as simple as identifying and targeting "mobile users" because there will not be such a thing. Those who use their mobiles to read e-mail will also read those same e-mails on other devices (desktop, laptop, iPad, Xbox). Many mainstream mobile users may not adopt the slightly obsessive behavior toward e-mail seen among the early adopters as epitomized by the term "crackberry."
In 2012, e-mail marketing will still be used for non-mobile focused communications, much like it is today. With SMS and MMS used for mobile-specific, time and location sensitive communications. SMS adoption had been slow in the U.S. but it has taken off in recent years. In 2009, the U.S. became the largest producer of SMS messages worldwide. Furthermore, SMS usage does not have the same barriers to adoption as e-mail with support on virtually all existing handsets. Finally, it doesn't have the same mobile/stationary complications since it's unused on the desktop.
For 2012, we should think of evolution not revolution. We'll be supporting mobile reading of marketing e-mails by making them mobile-friendly. However, mobile will not be the dominant target platform, most e-mail will still be read on non- or less-mobile devices and the user experience will need to reflect that.
Smart marketers will combine e-mail and SMS to leverage the growth of mobile devices. By 2012, this will be the norm rather than the exception.
Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.