Mobile email more common than you think: design help and the fragmentation challenge

Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 9 Comments | Licence this content

wireless emailThe mobile email challenge has got easier.

And harder.

Um, let’s try again…

Designing emails for mobile devices has got easier. But designing email campaigns for mobile use has got harder. And more confusing.

And actually, mobile email design is a little confusing, too.

Oh, and just to make matters worse, mobile email is a lot more popular than nearly everyone in email marketing assumes.

OK, let’s explore the issues and point to places and resources that can help…

True mobile email use

Tools – like Litmus, MailboxIQ or CampaignCog – are now available to give some estimates of how many people open your email on a mobile device.

The number is probably well under 10% for most senders, unless you’re serving a particularly mobile-friendly audience.

Phew…no need to panic.

But…the numbers typically quoted are a snapshot. They tell you what percentage of people open a specific single email using a mobile device.

This doesn’t account for the many people who check email from different places. Sometimes using the mobile, sometimes the PC.

If 40% of your list switches between mobile and PC for reading email, then maybe only 10% are using their mobile device to read any one single email campaign.

So the question we should actually be asking is how many people use a mobile device to read their email at least some of the time.

And that cumulative figure is much higher than stats on device opens suggest.

Look at broader Internet statistics:

1. The people at Pew tell us 79% of US adults use the Internet and that 94% send or read email.

2. The US Census suggests there are around 220 million adults in the USA. Which gives us some 163 million adult email users (plus a few children who email, too, when they’re not on Facebook).

3. In November 2010, Comscore estimated that 70.1 million US users accessed email on their mobile.

4. Even allowing for use of email by non-adults, the implication is that over a third of all US email users have read email on their mobile.

They don’t do it all the time, but that’s a big chunk of people doing so at least some of the time.

The number isn’t going to drop, either.

Comcore also note that “69.5 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones during the three months ending in February 2011″. And Gartner expect 95 million smartphones to sell in the US across 2011.

And we haven’t even mentioned iPads and other tablet devices.

If I’ve done my sums correctly, we’re heading rapidly toward a situation where potentially half our subscribers could view at least some of our emails on a mobile device.

Should you be worried?


Implications for design?

Here’s a plausible theory:

People with mobile phones that handle HTML email badly don’t email much with them. If they do, it’s to deal with urgent, person-to-person email…the rest gets saved for later.

People who do more than triage their email using a mobile device are investing in email-friendly devices with good HTML email display capabilities.

Those same phones and devices are also encouraging people to use mobile email more.

The result: most mobile email that needs to display well will be read on mobile devices that do a pretty good job of it.

Yay for us!

Designing for mobile is no longer about coping with devices that display HTML email in a myriad of dissatisfactory ways. There was never a reasonable solution to that problem anyway, as previous posts explain.

But before we get too self-congratulatory, this does not mean the design challenge is over. It’s just changed.

Disparate screen sizes, fingers not cursors

Mobile, by definition, means smaller screen sizes.

Not just smaller, but more diverse too. Compare an iPad with one of the smaller Samsung Galaxies.

And different devices have different approaches to how they (re)size (or not) content.

So the new generation of email designers are now moving to simpler, narrower layouts and/or fluid designs that allow images and other elements to collapse gracefully as the screen size shrinks.

Now throw in coding that specifies specific styles for specific viewing situations and you have the magic of mobile email design.

But we’re not finished yet.

Designing for mobile devices also involves designing for touchscreens. As Anna Yeaman puts it, this…

“…means reevaluating the placement of each element in our email creative. Making adjustments for ergonomics and user expectations that are sometimes in conflict”

For example:

  • How big do links need to be to allow touch navigation without expanding the email first?
  • How much space should be left between clickable items?
  • Where does the eye focus when using a mobile device? Is it different to classic desktop viewing habits?
  • Do navigation conventions on different mobile operating systems change what makes a good email layout?
  • What about font sizes? Sentence and headline lengths?

And as smartFocus point out:

“…seemingly innocuous instructions like ‘click here’ don’t hold much relevance when using a touchscreen.”

And there’s more…

Most webmail and desktop email software put sender names and subject lines on one line in the inbox, with a common font size. Is this the case for mobile devices?

Paul Rijnders notes that his iPhone email display was:

“…encouraging me to focus primarily (if not solely) at the sender of my emails…the subject lines were not truncated, but they were in a subordinate position…the sender literally receives top billing: Bold, double size and on top.”

Oh yes, and if your emails look great on mobile devices, do your landing pages and website look great, too?

Recommended design reading

I don’t have simple answers to many of the questions and issues raised above. My aim is simply to raise awareness of the changing mobile email design challenge.

Others with more experience have offered their thoughts and answers. Try:

Implications for tactics and strategy?

But the mobile challenge doesn’t finish with design.

The spread of mobile email also affects how people use email in the first place.

Many email marketing practices are based on the idea that users are dealing with email in a much more uniform manner, largely at desktop PCs in a study corner, library or office.

Not any more.

The fragmentation challenge

Previously, those few folk using mobile email were mainly “sorting for later”. They only interacted with those emails that were urgent or personal.

Given improvements in the mobile email and browsing experience (not to mention cheaper and faster mobile Internet plans), it seems reasonable to suggest people are more willing to interact meaningfully with all sorts of email now.

After all, at the end of 2010, mobile commerce had jumped 550% compared to the previous year.

The outcome is fragmentation

Fragmentation in timing, as new “peak times to open email” emerge through mobile email use in, for example, the early hours and late evening.

Fragmentation in location, as people use mobile email…um…when mobile.

Fragmentation in behavior, as people check mobile email in a growing range of scenarios.

The mobile challenge is to account for and exploit this fragmentation. A challenge accentuated by the lack of consistency in mobile use and behavior: people switch devices, scenarios and locations constantly.

Consider, for example, “mobile email users”.

Traditionally we’ve seen them as purely skimmers and scanners. Loren McDonald describes them so:

“Mobile readers — those on smartphones, tablets and other portables — probably are more time-pressed and purpose-driven or simply have less time to scroll down through the inbox.”

As a result, all advice on mobile email recommends trimming the content down. Adam Holden-Bache writes:

“Use the bare minimum needed to get across your offer or information. This may mean using small amounts of copy and linking to your site more often, or simply reducing the amount of textual content in your campaigns.”

All of which makes total sense. But…as smartphones move out from the harassed business user to the wider consumer world, the pattern of mobile email use diversifies.

For every executive snatching two minutes of email between her meetings, there’s a dad killing two hours on his mobile while the kids are at soccer practice.

That second example’s me, by the way.

As Jeanniey Mullen writes:

“When you wait you get bored…When you are bored you pull out your mobile device…When you pull out your device you read things you may not have read in the past, you go back and reread things you’ve enjoyed, and you click through things you haven’t had time to click through to before.”

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen says of mobile in general:

“We’ve known since our first mobile usability studies in 2000 that killing time is a killer app for mobile.”

…presenting us with two complete opposites: one mobile email user begging for something to do, the other with no time at all.

We’re just dipping our toes in what all this means for email marketing.

Three approaches come to mind.

First, back to basics. The more value you offer, the less affected you are by issues of timing, location, behavior, design etc…people will simply seek out your messages.

Second, this sounds like another vote for trigger emails. It’s getting harder to guess when, where and in what circumstances people get your emails. Trigger emails let the user determine what they get and when, through their actions or unique characteristics.

Third, is there a role for dual-purpose emails? Where the core message is short and simple, but secondary elements and links lead off to more engaging, time-killing content and online experiences?

Fun times ahead. Thoughts?

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9 comments on “Mobile email more common than you think: design help and the fragmentation challenge”

  1. However you have to get a email out to someone..then go for it and do it. Mobile marketing is alive and take advantage of it.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  2. Mark, this is a great article that sums up many of the challenges regarding mobile email – will become a go-to resource for many, I hope!

    I just wanted to note that Litmus Email Analytics Pro can account for people who check email from different places. Individual level tracking (even used on a single campaign) can reveal those subscribers that are using multiple touch points or devices to check email :)

  3. Thanks for yet another useful article. Had I not read your article, I would have never known about mobile marketing. :D

  4. Tim Watson says:

    Hi Mark, good points as always. We are seeing over 10% of emails on average being used on mobiles. As you say, this might well be more than 10% of people from time to time read email on mobile. Just within any one campaign is 10%.

    Regardless we can all know and agree mobile is on the increase, doubling in last 12 months.

    Our surveys have shown also some change in user habit, two years ago mobile was used mainly to triage, whereas now there is more engaging, acting and replying.

    We are running a webinar with the DMA about email on mobile 14th April.

  5. As always, a well researched and well laid out article. Great easy reference for any future queries. Thanks for posting.

  6. Mark Brownlow says:

    Thanks all!

    Justine – good to know, sounds like a useful package.

    Tim – interesting that you’re recording genuine changes in behavior. Good to know that it’s not just theory!

  7. Alex Fenwick says:

    Great summary of what’s going on Mark.

    I personally think that Triggers are the way it’s going. I can see campaigns being sent out over a number of days to accomodate for peoples opening habits.

    There’s also new possibilities for the cta in mobiles. Linking to a website or landing page might not be the most effective method. For example, I can see high street companies sending out quick vouchers/offers to get mobile users into their stores at the weekend.

    Interesting times are ahead

  8. Mark Brownlow says:

    I second all that Alex, especially “Interesting times ahead”. Mobile just has a momentum to it that suggests all marketers (email or otherwise) need to pay attention.

  9. We see mobile email usage having quite an impact on response rates. Mobile users generate signficant lower CTOR (Click-To-Open-Rates). Out numbers show that clearly again and again.

    We think that there are three reasons for that:
    - a smaller device has less “visual marketing power” than a larger screen.
    - on average people dedicate less time to a mobile email
    - many clickable areas are simply hard to click on