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DMNews, October 1, 2014
Marketers who considered leaving email at the altar are finding renewed passion for the channel as an ever-increasing number of customers triage, read, and click-through email on their smartphones.
The quick-flick mobile inbox has revitalized email as a relevant, vibrant customer communication channel. Mobile has radically altered the way customers triage, preview, and read email, as well as click and convert. In fact, mobile devices now account for the majority of all email opens; 80.8% of users read email on their mobile devices, according to Hubspot. Marketers need to take notice of the preferences, tastes, and whims of mobile customers to harness the relationship potential email and mobile offer when paired. But that happily ever after is only assured for marketers who rethink everything from subject lines and layout to customer behaviors and context when planning email campaigns in today's mobile-centric world.
Discussions about mobile email strategies quickly converge on visual techniques, such as responsive design, which ensures that emails render correctly and coherently on a variety of devices—from widescreen desktops to narrow smartphones. But visuals are irrelevant to the most important step in the mobile reader's decision process: whether to open the email at all. “Three key factors determine if somebody is going to open and none of them have anything to do with design: the subject, the preheader text, and the brand name,” says Aaron Pearson, responsive design expert at Listrak.
The typical mobile client displays about 40 characters of subject line and about 70 characters of preheader, which is either defined by the sender or culled from the first text in the email. Those constraints have motivated marketers to stay punchy and concise. “We've shortened our subject lines since we noticed in the last year that opens on mobile devices ticked over 50 percent,” says Peter Langenstein, founder of online wine retailer Brix26.
Because devices and design strategies change so frequently, Pearson recommends thinking not in terms of specific, trendy layouts, but the more durable notion of hierarchy. Deciding which elements should catch the eye and in which order is more important than deciding on a single- or dual-column layout. “If the call-to-action is the most important item, you want the flow to [it to be consistent] no matter what [device customers] view on or how much they scroll,” he says.
Another popular strategy guiding email design, as well as overall online experience, is to take a mobile-first approach. That's why so many brand pages have become single-column scrollers, and marketers send email with a mobile layout to desktop clients. A desktop's wider screen could accommodate more content, but marketers don't need to use the space just for the sake of using it. “The desktop user will respond to the same streamlined messaging [as they would on mobile], so we let mobile drive the email design now,” says Ron Rule, director of Internet marketing at direct marketer Infusion Brands, whose stable of brands includes As Seen on TV, Dualtools, and Ronco. Rule favors short emails with just a few images and sparse text, motivating recipients to click through to get more detail and make a purchase.
Switching to a tighter, narrower design also forces a spotlight on clear, obvious calls-to-action, which drive higher performance. For years ExactTarget customer Apartments.com had no concise focus in its welcome email. “The call-to-action was a YouTube video nobody watched that didn't even lead back to our website,” says Lisa Schuble, email and SMS marketing manager at Apartments.com. “We knew we had to talk about who we are and what we do.”
When Apartments.com introduced a new welcome email that quickly invites users back to the website to continue their search, it garnered a 24% conversion rate. Promoting a similar call-to-action in the brand's regular newsletter produced 16% conversions.
Audience, not platform, still calls the shots
Because mobile emails are so easily received and dismissed, some marketers have increased their mailing frequency. But the right mix is more a function of audience than technology. Youth-oriented activism platform DoSomething didn't realize it was over-stimulating followers until it created a wall-sized visualization chart showing all the communications a member was receiving.
The problem wasn't with the medium or the message, but the organizational controls. “Anybody could send email at any time, any day of the week, or multiple times per week,” says Marah Lidey, DoSomething director of mobile product and messaging. “So, we cleaned up the process and cut everyone out who wasn't necessary.”
Now, just two people sit at the controls of the MailChimp-powered email program and a weekly, personalized newsletter sums up all of the current charitable projects visitors have signed up for. The individual campaign emails, freed from clutter, now see open rates of between 10 and 20%, while the personalized newsletter has earned a 28% open rate. Provocative subject lines also provided a boost. “We want to get a phone call about our subject lines saying, ‘That's crazy!'” Lidey says.
Infusion Brands sets a different email campaign schedule for each product line. “We could send videos of people cutting things in half with a Dualsaw every day and get away with it. With Ronco we send weekly recipes because if it was every day, people would unsubscribe,” Rule says. “As long as the timing is in sync with what users are expecting when they get on the list, it's all right.”
Audience dictates more than just email timing and frequency. The current standard formula of strong hero images, pithy headlines, and succinct calls-to-action are not the winning strategy everywhere, every time. “There are many similarities between consumers in the West, but you can't have a single template or layout for email that's going to work in every global market,” says Clint Poole, VP of corporate marketing for marketing localization service provider Lionbridge. “For example, [consumers in] Japan, Singapore, and China have a preference for lots of on-page content.”
The email/app interplay
Mobile messaging can be more complicated than desktop outreach, particularly when in-app push messaging comes into play. “In a desktop world you send to the mailbox, and that's it,” says Steve Krause, group VP of product management for Oracle Marketing Cloud. “Increasingly, brand apps have their own inboxes, and the continuation of an experience from an email may make more sense in an app rather than on a [mobile] website.”
Apps give brands greater control over the experience and can make executing a call-to-action more seamless and natural. However, the user experience can be quickly disrupted when a mobile email launches an app if the app hasn't been recently updated and can't support the email's call-to-action. There are several real-world examples. Skype recently discontinued support for several generations of its mobile clients, and Facebook split its messaging tool, Messenger, into a separate app—and they're not the only moving targets.
Many Android devices are configured to automatically update apps, but iPhone users must manually launch some updates. Launching an app only to greet the customer with an error message will leave a nasty aftertaste. Targeting can help resolve this. “You can target certain pushes only to people who you know are Android users,” Krause cites as an example.
Furthermore, brands often miss a glaring opportunity to personalize mobile email by blanketing the footer with download links for every mobile platform. Instead compose emails that detect the opening device and show only the relevant button (App Store for iPhone, Google Play for Android), an easy way to speak with precision and relevance.
The effort is worth it because mobile devices lend themselves so well to sharing and engagement. When Apartments.com ran a promotional contest to share images of summertime activities, 85% of the entries were submitted on mobile devices. “The majority of people were either opening the information in a text message or going through email received on mobile,” Apartments.com's Schuble says.
Being on the leading edge of mobile email means personalizing not just to the recipient, but also to the device opening the mail, the time of day, and whether the email has been opened already. Certain calls-to-action are stronger plays on different devices. For a considered purchase, the mobile version could focus on a click-to-call button to reach a sales consultant, while the desktop version pushes a long-form case study. “There's a fair amount of low-hanging fruit to do better in this ‘not-one-size-fits-all' regard,” Krause says. “Many people are still struggling on the first floor of that skyscraper.”
Highly customized, dynamic emails can provide an interactive countdown timer for an offer, offer updates on quantities available, or use location services to refer recipients to the nearest retail outlet. “These real-time inbox offers save time for customers, bringing them the most relevant content without asking them to click through,” says Alyssa Nahatis, director of delivery for Adobe Campaign.
Get ready for your definition of “mobile” to change rapidly as the Internet of Things grows. It's still too early to reach any firm conclusions about the most compelling offer to project onto a car windshield, but it's not too early to start thinking about how it will expand the concept of a mobile email. “Mobile won't just be about the phone. You have to take into consideration wearables and vehicle displays,” says Katrina Conn, VP of marketing services at marketing platform developer StrongView.
As ever, the real advantage lies not in any one technology, but in the relationship the marketer can create and nurture with customers by marrying technologies. “Hopefully,” Krause says, “marketers aren't just thinking about ‘What's in the email?' but ‘What's the customer's experience?'”