By guest columnist Chad White, ExactTarget
2013 is officially the first mobile holiday season for email marketers, since the majority of emails are now opened on mobile devices, according to Litmus. As we pass this latest mobile milestone, retailers seem to be responding with a newfound urgency.
In early October, ExactTarget looked at emails from nearly 110 major online retailers and found that only 23 percent were using mobile-friendly design techniques, while the remaining 77 percent were using largely desktop-centric design. The mobile-friendly group was comprised of 13 percent using responsive design, where the email's design and content varies based on the device it's read on, and 10 percent using mobile-aware design techniques, such as employing a single-column layout, large images and text, and tap-friendly calls-to-action.
Thanksgiving Week presented a few great opportunities for retailers to improve the performance of their emails by being mobile-friendly on some high-value, high-mobility days when consumers are very likely to be away from their desktops. Thanksgiving Eve, which is the busiest travel day of the year, offered a great chance to reach the increasing number of airline passengers on Wi-Fi-enabled planes and car passengers with 4G-connected tablets. Thanksgiving is on its way to rivaling Black Friday because of "couchbuster" deals and the rise of mobile commerce. And, of course, Black Friday is a huge test for mobile emails because many folks are out shopping at stores.
Mobile Optimization Has Increased Substantially
Looking again at the mobile-friendliness of retailers' emails during this critical Nov. 27-29 time period, our research found that 32 percent were using mobile-friendly design techniques, while 68 percent were not. That means that over the course of less than two months, the percentage of retailers using mobile-friendly email design increased by more than 40 percent, from 23 percent to 32 percent. That's a substantial increase and bodes well for gains to come in the first half of 2014.
The details are even more encouraging. First, most of the gain in mobile-friendliness was from the higher use of responsive design, which is much more sophisticated than mobile-aware design. Twenty-one percent of retailers used responsive design for their emails during Thanksgiving week, up from 13 percent in early October-and increase of more than 60 percent. And 11 percent used mobile-aware design versus 10 percent in early October.
So while mobile-aware is a nice, low-tech intermediate step between desktop-centric design and responsive, the trend right now seems to be to leapfrog and go straight to responsive. Beyond marketers recognizing that responsive design is clearly the target destination where most everyone's ultimately going to end up, this jump is also likely due to the increasing number of responsive email templates being made available by digital marketing companies. As marketers are educated on how to use these, it will fuel much of the adoption of responsive email design next year.
Many Retailers Are Quasi-Mobile-Aware
And second, there were also positive developments among retailers using desktop-centric design. Our research attempted to recognize some of the variations among this group, chiefly by breaking out retailers using mobile-aware design for their primary messages while still using desktop-centric design for everything else in their emails. We refer to this mixed approached as quasi-mobile-aware design, and from early October to late November the percentage of retailers in this camp rose from 39 percent to 44 percent. Meanwhile, the retailers using purely desktop-centric design fell from 37 percent to 24 percent.
There's definitely some grey area here and sampling may have skewed the numbers, so these are soft metrics to be sure. But these figures also support the broader story that retailers are making their email programs more mobile-friendly.
The progress can't come soon enough, as we're likely to have another record-shattering day of mobile device activations on Christmas Day. Last year 17.4 million devices were activated after presents were unwrapped, up from just 6.8 million on the same day in 2011, according to Flurry Analytics. Tens of millions more devices are likely to be activated on Dec. 25 this year, making it even more critical for marketers to make the shift to sending mobile-friendly emails.
Chad White is the author of "Email Marketing Rules" and principal of marketing research at marketing cloud platform ExactTarget, a salesforce.com company.
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