E-Mail Service Providers Grapple with Mobile Delivery and Standards

The growth of mobile Web adoption has widely discussed implications for advertisers and content owners, but e-mail service providers (ESP) must also consider the implications. Mainly, e-mail newsletters read on mobile devices are subject to poor rendering and overlooked communications.

E-mail marketers and infrastructure companies still face a lack of standards when it comes to mobile devices, as well as problems rendering HTML and rich media and getting readers to either click on links that open a mobile browser or revisit the newsletter from a desktop computer.

Standards are more disparate than those experienced with Internet-based e-mail. ExactTarget estimates there are over 3,780 different delivery combinations when one figures in handsets, ISPs, mobile data providers and mobile operating systems. Inbox testing is simply not possible, though at this stage it’s not an issue: Most images won’t render on mobile devices anyway.

“We’ve talked to several others in the industry and everybody is running into challenges. There is no standardization,” said Morgan Stewart, director of strategic services at ExactTarget. He compares the issue to the early days of competing browsers. “The difference is, instead of dealing with two ways things could render or appear, we are dealing with thousands of combinations.”

For the near term, ExactTarget and other ESPs deploy multi-part MIME (define) messages to reach a broad scope of e-mail recipients, including those using mobile devices. “From there you have the ability to click off to the Web site, [requiring] a page that can be optimized for viewing on the mobile Web,” said Stewart.

“The sender is never going to know how you intend to view your e-mail,” said Dave Lewis, VP market and product Strategy at StrongMail. “It is important that the marketer, as they are laying out the e-mail newsletter, keep in mind some images will not be able to be seen. It goes back to the old copywriting skills we’ve used as direct e-mail marketers, make sure what you write in your text is compelling. If the images are not there, will the copy carry the day?”

One bit of good news, according to findings from a survey conducted by ExactTarget, is that people’s expectations for e-mail rendering on mobile devices are lower, and users acknowledge there are issues. People tend see mobile devices with e-mail capabilities as a means to stay in touch with business contacts and process important messages rather than read every message delivered. This means many messages are unread until the user gets to his computer, or if opened, are flagged for perusal from a desktop e-mail client. The ExactTarget study asked whether respondents are likely to read commercial e-mail such as newsletters and promotions on a mobile device; 39 percent strongly disagreed with the statement. That’s about 2.3 out of five users.

An increase in mobile e-mail readership will also hamper proper measurement. It’s an issue ESPs also face with image rendering in traditional e-mail, since open rates can’t be counted when images are turned off. Some industry members believe a solution for better rendering and measurement lies in coordination from service providers like Microsoft and RIM, the manufacturer of the popular Blackberry.

“Until we can get Microsoft and Blackberry to help us come up with a standard, I don’t think we’re going to get to track [open rates] for a while,” said Jeff Hassemer, director of product marketing at Responsys.

Involvement of Microsoft and RIM would allow for reporting on open rates and other data, and could also potentially convert e-mail newsletters to a mobile-accessible format.

The problems of mobile e-mail are largely a concern of B2B senders. However it will likely become a broader issue touching consumer-focused newsletters and communications, as data plans and handsets capable of receiving e-mail continue to fall in price and more consumers adopt mobile e-mail for personal use.

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