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Why email marketers must mobile-optimize their messages

Whether marketers can track it or not, they can safely assume that a significant portion of their emails are being read on mobile phones.

One in 10 consumers are triaging their primary personal email accounts on handheld devices, according to Forrester Research, and that percentage is poised for continued growth. For that reason, optimizing emails for cross-platform performance is the No. 1 challenge for email marketers -- emails have to render well on a wide spectrum of mobile devices.

"It is very important that email marketers begin to format their messages to correctly render on mobile devices and ensure that the subscriber can perform the desired call-to-action," said David Daniels, Spring Lake, NJ-based vice president/principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"That is, marketers must also consider the landing page that email links direct subscribers to, and may want to consider building WAP versions of those pages," he said. "There are many email service providers that offer this functionality.

"Additionally marketers should also work with vendors such as Pivotal Veracity, which provides tools to ensure that their messages render correctly on a variety of devices."

'Mobile email campaign' is a misnomer
"The first and foremost concept mailers need to embrace is that there is really no such thing as a ?mobile email campaign,'" said Deirdre Baird, president/CEO of Pivotal Veracity, Phoenix, AZ. "Unlike SMS/MMS, which is directed to a phone number for a particular mobile device, emails are sent to an email address and it is the customer -- not the mailer -- who decides whether to read that email on their mobile phone.

"On any given day at any given time, I can read an email sent to my Yahoo address on my laptop in Yahoo's Web email client, or I can download it into my Outlook 2007 on my desktop, or I can read it on my Blackberry, or, as I've done many times before, I can access it in a hotel room via a Set Top Box on my TV," she said. "Who decides?

"Me -- the recipient, not the mailer, and my preference can and will change based on what I'm doing and what technologies I have at my disposal at that moment in time."

The bottom line? Mobile email is happening now, whether or not marketers are aware of it, and whether or not they like it.

A second related concept is that customers are reading emails on mobile devices now, even if the mailer doesn't know it or plan for it.

Ms. Baird estimates that 98 percent of mailers have no idea whether their emails are being read on mobile devices and, as a result, are missing the unique opportunity to communicate with their customers with emails that are both content- and design-appropriate for on-the-go customers.

This month, Pivotal Veracity reviewed email-client usage statistics for more than 75 million ?regular' emails from a half dozen of its clients, including American Express, Nestle, Progressive and Oracle.

"What surprised us and our clients: iPhone usage alone ranged from 2 to 12 percent of a campaign and ranked universally in the top 15 email clients used by their customers," Ms. Baird said. "While impressive enough, these figures understate the likely mobile audience because the method of tracking favored the iPhone, which displays emails with images on.

"When you consider the iPhone ranked third, with just over 10 percent market share in the smartphone market in the first quarter of this year, you can extrapolate from there to estimate that mobile recipients could very easily have represented double this amount on any given campaign."

The implication for marketers is an easy one: Whether it can be tracked or not, it is safe to assume some portion of marketing emails are being read on mobile phones.

Hence, optimizing emails for cross-platform performance is the No. 1 challenge for email marketers. Emails have to render well on a wide spectrum of mobile devices.

"It is only in the last year or so that mailers and their ESPs have really begun embracing the realization that an email that looks good and functions correctly in Yahoo may be an unmitigated disaster in Outlook or Hotmail," Ms. Baird said.

"Now add to that the incredible proliferation of mobile phones for all socio-economic groups and their growth as a preferred method of multichannel communication and you soon realize that marketers must embrace not only the unique rendering and functionality aspects of the mobile platform but must also get a heck of a lot smarter in terms of understanding the unique platform preferences and habits of their customers in order to remain relevant," she said.

As with all media, mobile email marketers benefit from knowing the behavior patterns of their target demographics.

"The smart marketer will need to know that I'm at my desk Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., I'm using Outlook 2007 with all its many rendering idiosyncrasies and am disposed to read longer news-related emails during this period," Ms. Baird said.

"On the weekends, my husband and I have three little kids in toe and an iPhone (him) and BlackBerry (me) in hand and if you want to get my attention during this time, your email better be short, to the point and relevant to my place and time," she said.

"Giving me ways to entertain three kids under five will certainly grab my attention and as for those long trade pub newsletters?well, how fast can you say ?delete'?"

Two important take aways for mailers: Develop emails for cross-platform performance.

That is the world consumers operate in and emails need to be minimally designed to function and render properly across platforms.

Email marketers also need to track and understand the unique preferences and habits of customers as it relates to time, place and platform preferences.

By so doing, marketers dramatically improve their ability to target and engage customers with relevant information in an increasingly cluttered world.

"Mobile email is not only here to stay but will continue to grow," Ms. Baird said. "All the challenges inherent in traditional email such as spam filtering/deliverability, mailbox clutter, rendering, tracking and targeting apply.

"The only difference is that you can now multiply their complexity by a factor of 10," she said. "In other words, the challenges are the same but the strategies and solutions you'll need to apply just got a heck of a lot tougher."

The state of mobile email marketing
In the case of mobile email, marketers need to catch up to consumer behavior, especially given the hockey-stick adoption curve of smartphones.

"Email marketers are lethargic when it comes to synergizing mobile with email," said Stephanie Miller, vice president of market development at Return Path Inc., New York. "Many have added a link to the pre-header, and some have created mobile Web sites, but very little actual mobile email marketing is taking place."

In the U.S. and abroad, the smartphone audience is growing fast and starting to become interesting for email marketers.

"Now is the time to test integration and explore user-behavior patterns," Ms. Miller said. "It's unlikely that all inbox activity will shift to the third screen, but there are some activities that might benefit both subscribers and marketers such as restaurant reviews, shopping lists, recipes, local sales and news for commuters.

"Marketers can encourage, optimize and nurture these opportunities now," she said.

So what is the current state of mobile email marketing? For one, it is not just a business-to-business challenge any longer.

Consumers have smartphones in increased numbers, especially in Asia and Europe, and adoption is now growing also in North America.

So business-to-consumer email marketers have to assume that some of their subscribers are reading email sent to their personal accounts -- a Web-based service like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or Gmail -- on a mobile device.

"Unfortunately, there is no ?sniffer' that tells the marketer that a subscriber is reading an email on a mobile device," Ms. Miller said. "So marketers have to assume that their HTML version is being displayed, and this has a number of consequences."

Best Practices
Open rates will most likely go up as mobile usage goes up.

"Since opens are tracked by image downloads, and there is no image suppression, some marketers may see a small pop in opens," Ms. Miller said.

"Since images download, and the mobile browser renders to the ratios built for a PC-based client, the use of large masthead banners or logos at the top may contort the content or push the actual headline and call to action way below the fold," she said.

As all good marketers know, user experience matters. Scrolling on a smartphone is not the same as scrolling on a PC-based email client.

Making sure emails render well across a wide range of mobile devices is still a challenge.

"While the Apple iPhone and BlackBerry clients render HTML quite well, there are many mobile devices that are very poor at handling HTML email," Ms. Miller said. "Marketers can use a pre-header link to a mobile version in order to provide a better mobile experience -- for example ?Reading on a mobile device? Click here.'

"Optimizing for one or the other -- PCs versus mobile devices -- may result in a design that is sub-optimal for the other, or both," she said.

User behavior is still unclear, and most retailers find that mobile commerce is still nascent, according to Return Path.

While an Exact Target study released in July suggests that many subscribers -- 88 percent -- say they actually do go back to their PC to respond to email messages later, marketers may not be able to count on this behavior for the heavy mobile users on their file.

"We also don't know how consumers' larger Web habits will change if they move some activities from the PC to a mobile device," Ms. Miller said. "Will email become more or less important?"

"Will the inbox become a repository for saved offers?" she said. "Will complaints (clicks on the Report Spam button) go down since there is no Report Spam button on mobile clients (yet)?"

Marketers beware: The laws on emailing to a mobile device, which is different than viewing the inbox of an actual email account on a smartphone, are more stringent than the FTC's Can Spam rules.

"You must have permission to send commercial messages," Ms. Miller said. "A safe way to avoid this is to just auto-remove any mobile email addresses such as from your file (I am not a lawyer, please check with counsel)."

Return Path provided the following list of best practices for email marketers:

1. Try to quantify the impact to your business. Survey your subscribers. Provide a "Mobile Format" option at sign up, along with Text or HTML. Track clicks on the link to your mobile version in your header.

2. Know how you render in the top mobile devices. Use a rendering service to track various environments like Return Path's Campaign Preview or Email Reach for small business, or get access it from your email broadcast vendor.

3. Since there is no standard for mobile rendering, be sure the first few lines clearly display the sender/brand, offer and a link for call to action. Consider adding a phone number here, as well.

4. Be recognized. Use a consistent From: name and emphasize the brand.

5. Use the pre-header space wisely. There is a lot of competition for this space up there (e.g.: uncut, edit preferences, permission reminder, whitelisting, headline/call to action). Make sure the link to a mobile version is visible if this is important to you.

Marketers should always look beyond a single channel, no matter how tried-and-tried it may be, and embrace a multichannel approach.

"Marketers need to adjust their communication tactics to conform to changing consumer behaviors -- move beyond the silo of single-channel messaging," said Dave Lewis, chief marketing officer at Message Systems, Columbia, MD. "Think of it as a message stream that may start in one channel, such as email, but then morph into text or even IM, particularly if the consumer has the propensity to view the initial message on a hand-held device.

"Like a stream, there may be different tributaries that take you to unanticipated end points," he said. "Consumers move fluidly in and out of different messaging channels, depending on message type, time and place or personal preference.

"Marketers need to anticipate this behavior and be able to accommodate it in how they construct and deploy their initial messages as well as their response options and follow-on messages -- they're all part and parcel of the same message stream."