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The Evolving Mobile Inbox: Competing with Smartphone Distractions

  |  November 27, 2013   |  Comments

Email triage now happens on the go, as users sort and clean out inboxes while shopping, during a meeting, while at dinner or at a stop light (don't do that!). How can marketers compete with just a split second to engage?

shutterstock-105905384Email marketers have a number of new challenges in this mobile age. Email deliverability and readability are impacted by the devices consumers choose to access and read their email. Marketers have to address unique and evolving issues of screen size, design rendering, connection speed, and mobile friendly landing pages in their email programs. Apart from all the technical and communication variables that must be considered, there is also an inherently different mindset of the recipient while perusing email on a mobile device.

More and more people are opening emails on their mobile devices. According to a Litmus study, 47 percent of opens in August were in mobile and if trends continue, we are pacing to cross the halfway point toward 53 percent in December of this year.

Smart phones and tablets are now a primary device for many people across all online activities, with email usage on smart phones and tablets one of the most prevalent activities for those devices. Email triage happens on the go, as users sort and clean out inboxes while shopping, during a meeting, while at dinner or at a stop light (don't do that!).

You have just a split second to capture your recipient's attention before you get deleted. These always-on, always-available devices have become our tether to our offices, families, activities and social lives. Few people would dream of leaving home or going away for a weekend without their smart phone. Now, it's largely used not for voice communication, but for notifications, text messages, calendar management, emails, searching, browsing and various functional or entertaining apps.

DigitalBuzz recently published a comprehensive infographic on current mobile stats. If you are still not convinced, this summary makes an irrefutable case for the critical role of mobile in almost all digital marketing efforts. Check your own site stats and trend the mobile usage over time to reinforce your own needs in this area. The clear implication is that email marketers are competing for attention and opens not just against the other emails in the inbox, but with all the other reasons that a user might whip out their phone. Distractions abound.

Mobile Email Implications

Most email best practices have not changed with the rising importance of mobile email. We still need to understand our audiences, make our messages clear and concise, pay attention to subject lines and landing page content and continually test a number of variables to make an email program effective.

Mobile audiences, however, require another layer of attention to the specifics of the mobile email experience. To ensure a good overall mobile and desktop experience, take these additional measures:

  • Position the most important content near the top of the email design, with a clearly designated visual hierarchy. 
  • Make all buttons and Calls To Action (CTAs) large enough to be engaged on a mobile device (even by fat fingers). 
  • Don't rely heavily on images. They don't display by default in multiple devices, apps and clients and signal strength can vary dependent on your location and carrier, possibly hindering the load time of an email and result in a discouraged user. According to a BlueHornet survey of over 1,000 users, 80 percent of consumers deleted the email if it didn't render well on mobile.
  • Copy should communicate your key messages and should be as streamlined as possible while still meeting your needs. Long form mobile emails are an oxymoron.
  • The fluid or scalable approach to design is the best way to safeguard viewability across most devices, due to the broad support of percentage-based widths. If you take a scalable approach to your layout, it usually involves a simple design in a one-column template that can be seen at different widths within the same structure. An alternative approach would use responsive email designs and CSS3 media queries to render two different layouts, depending on the size of the screen on which the email is opened. 
  • Set up a QA lab or use a virtual service to test across mobile email environments, clients and devices before you send.
  • Consistency between the email experience and the website experience will allow for a better conversion rate and more cohesive message delivery. Many sites are still not mobile friendly. Sending a mobile user from a mobile email to a page not optimized for mobile creates a disjointed experience. Detecting email opens and delivering a mobile friendly site or landing page is critical.

Gmail Tab Implications

Another recent email sea change that is playing out on both desktop and mobile has been Gmail's adoption of a new tabbed format. Essentially, any email that appears to come from an ESP (Email Service Provider) to a Gmail account will get shunted into a Promotions or Updates tab.

We don't know yet the adoption rate of tabs among Gmail users, but it appears to be the default option now. Setup complications have continued to vex some users, who had prior hierarchies in place.

Marketers, of course, are not thrilled with being walled off from the consumers' main email window and labeled as a promotion, but very early results seem to indicate only a slight reduction in open rates. It remains to be seen if the promotions tab will become a mostly ignored, almost-but-not-quite-spam box, or if grateful shoppers will know exactly where to find their offers when they want them.

Email remains a critical communication tool for marketers and users alike. There is no one size fits all solution or approach; it remains the responsibility of marketers to adjust their email approach to fit the new needs of their audience and evolve with them as users adopt new behaviors and new devices.

Special thanks to Matt Strauss and Jim DelPizzo from Netplus who contributed key insights to this column.

Title image courtesy of Shutterstock

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robin Neifield

Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.

Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.

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