Email As a Mobile Call to Action

With so many more interesting ways to communicate with customers, I honestly never thought I’d be excited to write a column about email. Sorry to email lovers out there, but it’s true. However, as we’ve been designing user experiences centered around mobile devices, email has reared its aging head and has become a viable, and extremely interesting call to action. To be clear, I’m not talking about outbound email from your company, but inbound email from users.

To set the stage, let’s identify the problem we were trying to solve. On a desktop or laptop, it’s a trivial idea to see a link on a website or in a PDF, click it, and put the resulting browser window or tab in the background so you can look at it later. It’s also very easy to fill out forms on the PC because of the existence of a keyboard.

On mobile devices, however, typing is always a pain, and there’s no simple way of saving a URL for later reading. On the iPhone and iPad (sorry Android folks, you’ll have to write in and let me know how things work in your world), once you click on a link, you’re escorted to a new tab in Safari. This is a disruptive user experience, especially if your intent is to keep the user doing whatever they were doing before clicking the link. If the link was on a web page, it’s fairly easy for the user to return to the original site because they’re already in the web browser and can just switch tabs. But if the link was in an iBook, a PDF, an application, or anywhere else, the user is whisked away, out of that program and into the web browser, with no simple way to get back.

Enter email. Last time I wrote about using iBooks in your business. Each link in an iBook, however, takes the user out of the iBook and into Safari. But we can use a part of the native iOS user experience to help us here.

Remember, computers know how to respond to an anchor tag that is a “mailto” instead of an “http” URL.

On a computer, if a link launches a mail message (instead of a URL), the system will open up your default mail program (Outlook, Mail, etc.) and open up a new message. If there’s no default mail program (for instance, you only use Gmail via a web browser), the behavior is undefined (it will probably try to open up Outlook and ask you to set it up).

But on mobile devices, there’s always a default mail program. When you click on a “mailto” link in iOS, a new email message “slides” over whatever you’re currently doing. Once you press “Send,” the message slides out and you’re left wherever you were when you clicked the link. This user experience is “continuous,” as it doesn’t break the user away from where she was.

Now, the interesting part. The mailto protocol allows you to prepopulate the To, Subject, and Body fields of an email. Imagine I’m reading your whitepaper. It’s a PDF and I’m reading it on a mobile device (though reading it on the PC would have a similar effect). There’s a link that says “Like this whitepaper? Subscribe to our mailing list today.” If the good folks at ClickZ have correctly created the link in the previous sentence, you should be able to click “Subscribe.” Go ahead and try it. Better yet, try it on a mobile device.

This test could easily be sent to your newsletter system, which would automatically subscribe the user. Her email is verified, so there’s no more verification needed before she can simply be added to the database. It doesn’t stop there, however. We’ve worked with one of our clients to create an email reader that will parse out parts of the email in order to let the user:

  • Subscribe to a mailing test
  • Get a coupon code emailed to her for products
  • Enter a sweepstakes
  • Send to a colleague (from within an iBook or PDF)
  • Respond to a survey
  • Get a free trial account created for her (she is emailed a temporary password and her email address is her username)

By using inbound email as a call to action, we accomplish two important things. First, we don’t remove the user from her existing user experience, as the email message pops up and then goes away, leaving her exactly where she is. Second, this is a “one-click” sign-up because we aren’t making users enter in their email addresses, enter it a second time for validation, etc. They are emailing us, so we can grab their name and validated email address from the email they are sending us.

In a world of new technologies, it’s interesting to rediscover new uses for an old technology. While users on a PC can easily multi-task and type things quickly, using pre-filled emails on mobile devices is a very interesting way to create easier “one-click” calls to action without disturbing the user.

Thoughts, comments? Please leave them below.

Until next time…

Jack is off today. This column was originally published on March 2, 2012.

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