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Should you be optimising emails for mobile recipients? What are the most important factors when designing for mobile? 

Following on from my earlier post on why mobile email is important for marketers, I've rounded up the views of some industry experts on these questions...

How important is it to design emails for mobile?

Nick Fuller, e-Dialog:

The first thing is to identify where mobile makes sense for you as a brand and for your email base.

The best place to start is with statistics on current email experience. Look at how many of your recipients are opening and clicking on their emails via a mobile device. In our experience, this can range anywhere from 5% to 25% of a base.  

What you find for your business will define the importance of the channel and the resources that you need to dedicate towards it in the short term.  

There is an inexorable trend towards mobile in general but, day-to-day, marketers work across many channels and of course face competition for resources so be realistic about where mobile sits within that.

Igor Faletski, Mobify:

It's important already and getting more important. Depending on your email audience, you can expect between 35% and 65% of people are going to open their emails on a mobile device.

We've pulled those numbers from the 20,000 mobile websites Mobify powers and they're consistent with other industry statistics. 

For example, half of emails with time-based messages, like those from private sale retailers like Ideeli and Gilt Groupe are opened on mobile devices.

Gilt Groupe mobile email clients:

So it's already important to design for mobile but how important depends on your email audience. Track the opens, understand the various limitations to tracking and how the tracking works, then get cracking on a mobile-friendly email templates.

Matthew Kelleher, RedEye:

The most obvious requirement for email marketers is to know who utilises mobile to interact with you brand.

Picking this data up direct via your ESP is definitely something mailers need to load back against their database, along with engagement stats, opens and clicks.

Visitors to your mobile site should also be tracked, with data loaded back to mobile segments so you can understand not only who they are but how they behave.

What are the most important considerations when designing email for mobile? 

Matthew Kelleher, RedEye: 

My perspective is that everything has to be tailored to allow ease of use for the consumer.

Online Gaming and Gambling are leading the way in terms of usability and the development of mobile optimised journeys and website experiences, because of the immediacy of the customer experience. In play betting has made a huge difference in this space.

The first point about mobile optimisation is that you need to optimise the whole journey. Not much point in optimising email if you don’t have a mobile site as the journey will end in disappointment for the customer or prospect, earning you negative brand perception marks.

Landing pages are also critical, as they are in any journey.

Building an email which reliably adapts to different displays is a time consuming process and will involve some limitations to what you may find in a standard email. My suggestions are that you keep your message concise and have one main bold CTA (this is always a good idea anyway).

  • Simplicity. Email for mobile should make you absolutely focus on ‘what do I want the customer to do?’. Make it very clear to the consumerwhat is expected of them… very much a usability rule for email anyway, but simplicity is key to optimising the mobile journey.
  • The Fat Finger Factor… defines many requirements, such as larger CTAs, more straight forward lay out etc.
  • Divide the email in half… Emails for desk tops are 600 pixels wide, an iphone is 320. So design with this in mind.

Igor Faletski:

Keep it simple and don't try to cram too much styling into your email. Stick to a single column. If you want to do layout styling you should use tables. Yes, it's like designing for the web about a decade ago.

The standards around mobile email aren't as advanced as websites so their design has to be constrained to focus on techniques that will work in all contexts. This isn't the time to trial cutting-edge design.

We've experimented with advanced presentations like media queries and found they're not widely supported yet, so we advise customers to keep it simple and ensure their message is delivered, unless they're doing sophisticated campaigns that have a clear ROI.

Part of that 'keep it simple' approach also fits well with the mobile experience and limited screen sizes.

  • Make your messages highly readable. 
  • Make sure your From: name is recognizable. 
  • Make sure your Subject: is very strong and all essential information is in the first 30 characters. 
  • Make sure the snippet preview of body text (the first ~65 characters) promises what the message will contain or provides valuable directions (Touch here to view this message for mobile devices).
  • Lastly, make sure your website is ready for mobile traffic that clicks through. 
  • Give your audience a single URL path (yourdomain.com) no matter what device they use to visit. Don't create a mobile dead end with an m-dot (m.yourdomain.com) experience.

Your customers want to refer to pages on your website. They email links to each other. Make sure those links work no matter what device they use to visit.

Should you design for mobile and use this version for desktop as well, or should you go for a more responsive design that caters for desktop first?  

Matthew Kelleher:

I genuinely think this comes down to the size of the ‘mobile segment’ and benefit that can be gained.

My preference is to opt for separate versions of the email because this is the optimal solution. My recommendation above, to develop flexible templates, will obviously require compromise, but there is a tipping point when sensible compromise becomes lost opportunity.

And that is all to do with database size, mobile segment size and ROI.

Sean Duffy, Emailcenter:

To start with one tip the conventional wisdom at the moment is to design for mobile first, then it will still be OK for desktop anyway. 

We strongly disagree with this as desktop clients are still the vast majority of email opens and clients have spent a lot of effort crafting their designs for maximum impact.

Designing for mobile first means moving away from this and usually leads to a less effective campaign. Also with responsive design done right you can keep the email as it is for desktop, but simply change the way it is rendered on a mobile device when opened - it is the best of both worlds. 

After that the mobile friendly rendered email should take into account the fact we 'click' with a finger on a mobile so call-to-actions need to be proportionally bigger, and ideally have space between clickable items to ensure there are no mis-directed fingers. 

Mobile-optimised emails for Hungryhouse:

On a mobile you do have less space so hide items such as the pre-header or menus to make sure the focus is very much on your key parts of the message.

We would also recommend having multiple column emails turned into a single column to make it easier to read as per the hungryhouse example - but again this is something you can apply to the mobile rendered version only.

Responsive design with media queries is the closest thing to one-size fits all. It means the email will look as it always has on desktop and webmail devices, yet it is completely optimised when opened on iPhone and Android devices.

Blackberry, Nokia and other mobile devices do not yet support this but we usually see these take up less than 2% of any B2C list. In any case the normal version will render on these anyway.

Igor Faletski: 

You should design for your audience and how they access your emails.

For our own inhouse email newsletter that goes to over 40,000 developers and marketers, we see iPhone as the top email client at 44.9% of all opens, followed by Gmail at 17.1%, Outlook 2007 at 10.4%, Hotmail at 6.5%, Yahoo Classic at 4.9% and Outlook 2010 at 4.5%. 

That a huge range of contexts and demands for designing a sharp, usable, effective template. For that audience, responsive design using media queries won't work widely, so we stick with a simpler design.

As an approach we are big supporters of responsive design. But I think it's safe to say that email is the last place where it will be effective because of the diversity of email clients and the slow adoption of modern standards.

Graham Charlton

Published 29 March, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (5)


Nigel Williams, MD at Emailcenter UK

One point with some of these figures that is important to understand...

iPhone opens are artificially higher on most reporting tools. Halve the figure to give you a more accurate number of how many people are *reading* your email on the iPhone.

This is because the iPhone does not have any image blocking, therefore the open image is always downloaded, where as say Hotmail or Outlook block images by default so less people are tracked as opening. And of course how we find out what device opened the email is by looking at the open image.

So where as 30% of opens might be iPhone, it is probably 15% of people who are reading your message!

over 4 years ago


Jim Medina

Great tips, but if someone is new to this technology, is there software that will give your web pages a "split personality" so it displays appropriately on both the desktop and a mobile device?

over 4 years ago


Grant Sidwell, Mobile Director, Experian CheetahMail

Responsive design can be a solution for some clients. However we have found that the fact that you cannot robustly predict the visual result across multiple handsets causes many clients to shy away from this technique. A far better solution is ensuring a 100% mobile experience in the first instance.

We're not saying design the mobile first and then regress from there, we're saying design two separate versions (with separate tracking to monitor performance) and dynamically serve up the best version according to the device being used by the user at that very moment.

CheetahMail clients have been successfully using this technique for the past 6 months and have been pleased to find that it allows them to the isolate mobile users and target them accordingly, for example by promoting app downloads, directing them to mobile specific sites or simply tracking them in specifically to make future optimisation better.

over 4 years ago


Sean Duffy

Grant - isn't that just responsive design? Not personally had any issues predicting what the email will look like across multiple devices - that is what Inbox rendering tools are for. Plus a good coder will know what code does and doesn't work.

over 4 years ago


Grant Sidwell, Mobile Director, Experian CheetahMail

@Sean I take your point, whilst rendering tools are very useful, we tend not to rely on them too heavily as no tool will ever be 100% accurate, and yet this is what our clients demand from us.

By separating out the mobile experience, our clients are able to apply mobile marketing concepts without the constraints of the creative being tethered to a traditional email. For maximum effectiveness brands should be sending 'mobile emails' not 'emails to mobiles'.

over 4 years ago

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