Is the Inbox Out for Mobile?

As consumers continue to adopt mobile in more aspects of their daily lives, marketers are close on their heels. However, even the most data-centric marketers find it challenging to analyze a key mobile touchpoint: email.

One reason is the way customers interact with mobile email. Often the mobile email experience doesn’t extend much farther than the inbox list. “A lot of people simply aren’t opening emails on their mobiles devices,” says Craig Vore, insights manager at digital marketing company Outsell. “They see the email in their notification bar and wait until they’re at a desktop computer to actually view the message.”

Take Android users, for example. According to the developer dashboards page for Google’s Android, more than 35% of Android devices run version 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean—the first version of Android to include email previews in the notification bar by default. Smartphone users don’t have to open their emails when they can triage them using a preview screen. Given Android’s substantial 80% mobile market share, according to market intelligence company IDC, more than one third of target customers on the most popular mobile operating system aren’t actually opening emails on mobile—if at all.

Even if recipients fully open an email message on their mobile device, results might be skewed. Marketers often gauge open rates by image downloads, but Android doesn’t download email images by default, potentially leading to dismal mobile email metrics.

Email analytics in a mobile world

Where does this leave marketers? They can’t afford to ignore the Android platform, given its massive market share, nor can marketers rely on iOS’s default image download feature, which can favorably skew email performance. Perhaps open rate is less than ideal for measuring mobile email performance.

“Open rate measures the quality of your subject line and the quality of past messaging,” says Christopher Lester, director of the concierge team at email marketing services provider Emma Inc. “Unless opening the email is the call-to-action, it’s a lost analytic.”

Dave Michaud, VP of product marketing at Oracle Eloqua, echoes this sentiment. “Open rates are not only an unreliable metric regarding mobile devices; they’re unreliable on other devices, as well, due to user preferences on email clients,” Michaud notes. “Today’s modern marketer needs to consider all mobile touchpoints, such as email, SMS, MMS, social, and apps.”

In fact, in terms of mobile email, marketers have precious little content real estate to engage their users. “You’ve got the subject line. That’s it. About 14 to 16 words,” says Jerry Jao, CEO and cofounder of customer retention solutions provider Retention Science. “That first paragraph is where your money is going.”

This is one reason marketers may increase their use of email to drive customers to mobile apps. “The email-to-app exchange investment needs to increase,” says Quinn Jalli, SVP of digital marketing technology at Epsilon. “Apps can store payment and other information, and can be a one-stop shop for users.”

Clearly marketers have options, but what of analyzing the performance of these mobile marketing efforts? If open rates aren’t an effective success measure, what about clickthrough rates or other engagement metrics? “Even click-through rates are less telling than they used to be,” Jalli says. “Not all clicks are equal. Where does that click come from?”

The ultimate shift, according to Emma’s Lester, lies in where marketers place their efforts. “A lot of businesses are looking for the next answer instead of learning their audience,” Lester explains. “You have to pay attention to what your audience is doing, not these averages. Stop holding yourself to open or click rates.”

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