Email on smartphones? There's a tip for that

The rapid adoption of smart phones is exploding the boundaries that have traditionally divided email and mobile marketing. While these devices were once primarily business tools, the Nielsen Company recently reported that more consumers than ever are using smartphones, with a remarkable 72 percent increase in the number of owners between Q2 2008 and Q2 2009.

Mobile phones already outnumber personal computers by 4 to 1, according to UK.-based mobile consultancy Wireless Expertise; and with the massive popularity of Apple's iPhone (and its competitors rushing to catch up technologically), soon more people will be accessing email from their handhelds than from any other platform. This represents nothing less than a sea change -- and a major opportunity -- for marketers. 

Until now, organizations have been hamstrung in their ability to market effectively on mobile devices. SMS, which simplifies communication to a short amount of plain text, had been the only option. Mobile email marketing became a possibility once smartphones hit the market, but popular devices like the Blackberry and Palm also reduced messages to text-only. 
 
The iPhone, and competing products on the way, will create a new and exciting playground for email to assert itself on mobile devices. Web-worthy graphics and functionality will make email the mobile communication method of choice for businesses and consumers alike. Companies currently sending SMS can transition from programs that carry along per-message fees for their organization and their customers, while also providing a much richer and interactive experience.

Mobile email marketing promises to help brands build closer relationships with customers, but it needs to be executed smartly -- email marketing on the phone is much different than on the PC. Here are the top five complexities introduced by mobile email marketing, and my advice for what you can do to ensure your campaigns hit the mark with your smartphone savvy customers.

  1. How do you know if your customer is reading your email on a smart phone? Your customers -- not you -- decide when, where, and on what device they're going to read your email. Marketers should address this challenge in two ways: First, ask customers for their platform preferences when they sign up for your email, and offer them the ability to update these via a preference center on your website that they can login to any time. Second, take advantage of new technology that automatically detects when and on what the device the user is reading your email, and send tailored messages based on this insight.

  2. 1 email, 4 customers, 4 different experiences. The same email sent to four different customers using four different smartphones would result in a distinct experience at each. For example, Symbian users will only see the text part of your HTML and only fully spelled out URLs will be clickable. Windows Mobile 6 supports HTML, but defaults to images-off. BlackBerrys have been notorious for displaying a hard-to-decipher mess of HTML code to the user. The iPhone, of course, displays messages rather elegantly. Marketers should conduct pre-deployment quality assurance of their templates across popular mobile email platforms to ensure optimal rendering for each.

  3. First impressions count. A 2007 study by JupiterResearch (now Forrester) found that two-thirds of email recipients that have preview panes use them to determine whether they're going to continue reading a sender's messages. The same applies to the limited "above the fold" real estate provided on mobile devices. Marketers should make sure their call-to-action comes through as effectively as possible when the user first views the message on a handheld.

  4. Make your messages work on the small screen. Different screen sizes mean different viewable areas. As a rule of thumb, mobile email marketers should avoid multiple columns and wide graphics or tables. Make sure users also can view your entire message by scrolling down (i.e., without having to also scroll to the right). Finally, keep the "weight" of the email below 20kb.

  5. The medium is the message. Email marketing for the desktop is fundamentally different from email marketing on the handheld. As marketers begin to design and deploy more email campaigns specifically for rendering on mobile devices, they should cater to the different needs and expectations of people who read their messages on the go, which will be different than when they are reading them at their desks or on their laptops.

Jordan Cohen is senior director of marketing and public relations at Pivotal Veracity.

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