Shining on the small screen

With emails flooding peoples’ smartphone inboxes, brands need to think about the best way to cut through the distractions facing mobile users and grab their attention.

Timing talks: Expedia has found more people respond to emails on their mobile during traditional commuting hours

Brands have to do more with email communications to prevent smartphone users from reaching for the delete button. In increasing numbers, people are using their devices to screen emails to decide if they’re worth reading later on their PCs, according to a recent report.

Research by digital specialist Steel finds 36% of all consumers are already reading marketing emails on a mobile device and for the 18to 34-year-old age group, this rises to 55%. Of these consumers who read emails on their mobiles, 33% say they do so to screen them for later reading on the PC.

An in-house study by Rakuten’s shows that consumers using mobiles spend just over one minute on average on each page, so communications need to make an impact fast and be delivered at the optimum time. marketing director Adam Stewart says: “We find visuals garner the greatest engagement, and are investing in mobile optimisation tools that use creative code to improve the visual presentation of our email activity.

“We also crunch data from across our network to refine the timings of our emails and aim to tailor email marketing to times that consistently see highest engagement levels.”

It is one thing for emails to look good on mobile phones but in order for a digital strategy to work effectively, other points of the digital journey have to be in place too

The entertainment brand finds many mobile shoppers are online and active early in the morning, browsing the store before work. Responding to those peaks in interest, it has tailored its emails to hit inboxes at the prime time to achieve higher click-throughs and conversions.

The design challenges of email for mobile devices are obvious: smaller screen, lots of distractions, a slow network, a short battery life and a user who is often multi-tasking. With people increasingly reading an email on a mobile first – businesses, including rival HMV, report up to 30% of customers doing so – optimisation for the mobile handset requires new design rules.

Good mobile email practice includes a powerful subject line, a clear hierarchy of content and a simple layout.

Steel’s research cites the top area of dissatisfaction from mobile users as ‘too much scrolling’ (42%), particularly among older consumers (89%). Also, nearly 20% complain that links are not easy to use.

“Email marketing in the mobile space demands careful consideration of language and format,” says Emily Moyer, global head of marketing for Reuters Media. “A consumer is more likely to be engaged in another activity than if they were using a regular PC, so text must be short, design amenable and consistent with the physical and technical constraints of the mobile device.”

Brands need to keep in mind when and where customers are receiving emails and how they want them to react to and interact with those messages.

Andrew Warner, senior marketing director, EMEA, of online travel brand Expedia, says: “Our tests suggest that people read mobile and respond to emails on mobile devices more often in ‘downtime’ during the week – between 7am and 9am and during commuting hours of the evening. This has opened our minds to some interesting tests we could run during these periods, when perhaps people are not being overwhelmed by work emails.”

Balancing conflicting priorities and user behaviour between smartphones and laptops or PCs is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. It allows you to reach customers whenever and wherever they are, with an immediacy that is not available with emails via PC alone.

For businesses that already have a strong proposition around mobile, having a dynamic email strategy in place is arguably more important

Across Europe, Expedia finds 20-35% of its emails are typically opened on mobile devices and this number is increasing. However, not all mobile devices render email or indeed the mobile web in the same way, so it has developed different user experiences for different mobile devices.

Warner argues the importance of paying attention to the whole journey, not just the fact that the email might be opened on a mobile device. Mobile-optimised landing pages are important but you also have to give some customers the option to access the full site. In addition, they need to be able to share content via Facebook, enabling friends to revisit the offer when they have access to a bigger screen or a more secure environment to transact in.

“Building an email that reliably adapts to different displays is tricky and can have limitations – so test and learn,” advises Warner. “Email for mobile should make the recipient focus on a single, simple message and call to action.”

For businesses that already have a strong proposition around mobile, having a dynamic email strategy in place is arguably more important. The principles of attraction and seduction are followed by online dating brand Flirtomatic. It aims to get recipients past the subject line without the risk of losing them once they open the email.

Email Direct, the brand’s service provider, allows it to preview its messages on smartphone interfaces. This allows the marketing team constant access to what its users actually see. Across all mobile devices, subject lines have been reduced to three words to help focus the call to action, and care is taken to ensure images are crisp and clear and ‘call to action’ buttons are prominent.

“The bottom line is that we design initially for mobile devices, including smartphones, and then we make adjustments where necessary for [the desktop] web,” says Andrew Barrett, Flirtomatic’s head of CRM.

With the rapid rise of mobile as a channel, many businesses are taking small but determined steps towards optimising the opportunity. High-end travel brand Unique Homestays recently revamped its email newsletter with a view to capturing the attentions of both PC and mobile users with one engaging design.

Recent research by the brand revealed 5% of its customers use iPhones and 7% use iPads. “We have ensured the links are big enough to click with a finger without zooming in,” says Rhianna Morton, press and marketing officer of Unique Homestays. “We’ve also made our newsletter, which was quite text heavy, more picture heavy because huge reams of text on a smartphone is not generally very convenient.”

It is one thing for emails to look good on mobile phones but in order for a digital strategy to work effectively, other points of the digital journey have to be in place too. For Unique Homestays, the biggest challenge has been ensuring that when consumers click through from its newsletter emails to its site, it performs well and does not deter them from browsing. This has been the primary focus of its digital activity.

Email remains a critical marketing channel for acquiring, retaining, and communicating with customers, but brands need to adjust accordingly. Click, open up and read on.

Key learnings

  1. Avoid using long subject lines because they will push the main email content further down on an already-small mobile screen.
  2. Design content with a touchscreen in mind – so look to feature larger call to actions, spaced out links and so on to suit the screen.
  3. Design for the screen size so that any message is clear and easy to absorb even with just a quick glance.
  4. Think about where the user goes next – landing pages, for example, are critical and must also be optimised.
  5. Integrate communications within your social media platforms.

Q&A: Debenhams

Brandy Gillespie, online marketing manager, Debenhams

Marketing Week (MW:) What kind of activity does Debenhams use email for?

Brandy Gillespie (BG): Debenhams emails are primarily used for marketing. This covers our regular newsletters, top offers, solus eshots and sale events. These are split and tailored for each of our individual markets in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Germany, plus international versions.

MW: What sort of an effect has the widespread adoption of smartphones had on your email strategy?

BG: Optimising our emails for smartphones is an integral part of our strategy. We are evolving the way our emails look along with the volume and type of content to make sure it remains as engaging on mobile devices as it is on laptops or desktop computers. Although 28% of emails from retailers are opened exclusively on mobile devices, we still need to be mindful that most of our emails are being viewed via laptop and desktop computers, so we are working towards a middle ground that suits both types of device and ensures a seamless experience for our customers.

MW: What kind of things are you doing to optimise for mobile?

BG: We are also looking at our subject lines because this has been identified as a crucial influencing factor in why customers choose to open marketing emails on a mobile. We are testing short, powerful subject lines in combination with engaging headlines and ‘snippets’, which act as pre-headers, as a way of reaching time-poor customers who make quick judgements on relevance. This especially important when influenced by the additional factor of environment, which comes into play when viewing emails on a mobile, such has the high street.

MW: What challenges have you had to the design of the emails?

BG: The challenge we encountered when optimising emails for smartphone devices was enhancing the user experience while following Debenhams’ branding guidelines and adhering to best-practice techniques.

A smartphone user should have an experience that is unique to that device, taking into account the differences between a phone’s touch-screen navigation and desktop monitor with regards to user behaviour, such as gestures, clickable areas, text size and viewing space. We have been working with our digital agency Steel to ensure consistency between smartphones and desktop monitors.

MW: What specific elements have you altered?

BG: We didn’t want to oversimplify our emails or for them to be a distinct departure from what our customers are used to receiving, so the changes that we have made have been incremental. We test and re-test our mobile-optimised emails as we go.

Keeping in mind the context in which users read emails on a smartphone, we have reduced the number of links and added more prominent buttons. We have increased the live-text-to-image ratio, and the images we use can scale down to fit a smartphone display while maintaining the live text and click-through sizes.

Our next task is to reduce the amount of content in our emails in order to prevent unnecessary scrolling, which can cause dissatisfaction among mobile users.

Charlottle McEleny

NMA explains: mobile

Charlotte McEleny

As consumers connect in even more varied ways, it is tempting to view digital as an ever-fragmenting behemoth of a channel. The key is in understanding your customers, rather than getting hung up by the complexity of different channels.

The switch to mobile and tablets, which are becoming the norm, is just one part of this perceived fragmentation. Email is actually one of the communications channels that can easily transfer across devices but it doesn’t mean that a one-size-fits-all approach will work.

First, brands should understand how much their consumers use mobile for email and when, utilising any customer data to get a better picture before working out a strategy.

Case study: Betfair’s stake in mobilised communications


“When you get a customer onto mobile, you are effectively exploiting their time,” says Ben Carter, head of central online acquisition at Betfair. “People are placing bets on mobile at times when they couldn’t place a bet before: on a bus, in a meeting, on the toilet.”

Last year, gaming brand Betfair benefited from over a billion pounds worth of bets placed on mobile and reported a mobile revenue of around 11 million pounds. The business predicts that it will more than double that achievement on all key performance indicators.

“In certain markets, more than 50% of our customers are using mobile,” says Carter. “It isn’t really about having email for mobile, it is about servicing our mobile customer base.”

The brand uses a raft of communication tools, including email and web message, the site inbox tool. With a goal of delivering better communications to its customers and to exploit the growing number of emails read on the mobile, it has put mobile firmly into its strategy.

“There are almost two jobs,” says Carter. “First, to get a customer onto mobile and then to start thinking about them as a mobile customer.”

Betfair’s first point of departure is to implement templates, which it uses for all of its CRM communications so if a customer receives an email through a smartphone they see a mobile-optimised version. It has also just rolled out a more mobile-optimised registration process for new customers. Design and usability considerations stretch from the need for short, simply sequenced messages, incorporating a clear hierarchy and without the need to scroll, to an end destination of a mobile-friendly website.

The learning curve is steep. “Rather than having to download an email when using a mobile device, you suddenly have people receiving emails directly into their inbox,” says Carter. “It doesn’t stop with just the email, it is about the customer journey from that email and we have had to make mobile-optimised landing pages.

“If you are not building for mobile first, you are not really getting where the customer is at.”

Marketer predictions

Paul Stevens

Paul Stevens
Head of insight and e-commerce

We’re finding that mobile email opening is growing for us. Currently, the rate is around 30%, which is a pretty decent figure. People don’t often read the same email on multiple devices, so the initial impact of any communication is vital

It’s important to think about the whole ‘journey’ of the communication. Consider in particular where readers are clicking through to, and then try and make that destination as mobile-friendly as possible.

Paul Berney

Paul Berney
Chief marketing officer and managing director
Mobile Marketing Association EMEA

The evolution of email from the plain-text experience of the original BlackBerry users to the rich-text format we see today means brands need to place greater emphasis on what their customers and prospects will be able to see on the move.

This means adapting content and images for easy viewing in transit and on a smaller screen. To supplement shorter communications, emails should aim to drive users into a deeper mobile brand experience by pushing them towards the mobile web or even associated apps.

Simon Farthing

Simon Farthing
Customer marketing manager
Carphone Warehouse

Mobile marketing is really in its infancy and the future is extremely exciting. We already optimise for Android, iOS, BlackBerry and other smartphones, so a lot of our focus in the future will be keeping pace with these developments.

With all of this, the key is relevancy and in the future, we’ll have even greater capacity for understanding how and when customers want to be contacted – enabling us to deliver unique experiences directly to them.


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