Marketers Lag Customers’ Mobile Email Adoption

2012 was the year that mobile devices issued a rousing wake-up call to marketers who had yet to appreciate mobile’s tightening grip on consumers— or rather people’s tightening grip on their phones. In 2012 the average American adult spent 84 minutes a day engaged in non-phone activity on their mobile devices, twice as much as they did just two years ago and 50% more than in 2011, according to eMarketer. While online activity on home PCs begins to level off at nearly three hours, mobile activity continues to increase. In fact, research conducted by telecommunications provider Ericsson says mobile data traffic doubled in the third quarter of 2012, and the broadband Internet company predicts that it will increase twelvefold between now and 2018.

Not long ago only executives on their Blackberries scanned mobile inboxes every 15 minutes. Now it’s every person with an iPhone or Android, too—half the U.S. population, according to statistics from telecommunications companies compiled by consultancy Chetan Sharma last summer. And forecasts are that it won’t be long before it will be every person. In its Q3 mobile marketplace bulletin, Gartner Research reported a global smartphone sales increase of 47%.

This is the kind of development that makes direct marketers sit up and take note. Emails, after all, are their bread and butter. Fully 18% of emails in people’s inboxes come from marketers, according to email intelligence company Return Path, and for good reason. Every dollar marketers spend on email marketing returns $40.56 to them in revenue, says a Direct Marketing Association study.

“If you talked to marketers just a couple of years ago about mobile, you’d hear, “That’s not our demographic. Our consumers are older,” says Loren McDonald, VP of industry relations at marketing solutions provider Silverpop. “But right now we’re seeing average open rates of about 35% on mobile for our clients, and we forecast that to rise to 50% in 12 months.”

Matt Caldwell, who designs mobile email programs for the likes of eBay, Hewlett-Packard, and Coca-Cola as VP of creative and agency services at Yesmail, notes a similar trend. “We’re now at 33% to 36% opening [email] on a mobile device and some clients are seeing it go up one, two, three points a month. Does it get to 50%, 60%? Where does this sucker go?”

Perhaps much higher, if the experience of Publishers Clearing House (PCH) is any indication. The company, which relies on mobile email to involve people in its sweepstakes and product and service offers, was getting lower open rates on mobile than via desktop, so it acquired mobile agency Liquid Wireless and brought it in-house to solve the problem. One year later PCH’s mobile open rate was 90%, far exceeding its desktop email open rate, according to Liquid Wireless General Manager Jason Cianchette. He thinks the sweepstakes company can do better when it gets the opportunity to invoke his creative director’s mantra of “design for mobile first.”

According to Cianchette, PCH reached the 90% mobile email open rate by “tweaking” a program built for the desktop. “We worked through the whole funnel, tested many versions of creative, and tracked the flow of users going through,” Cianchette says. “We test very aggressively, trying different background colors, headers, orders of the fields, frequency, content.”

Getting started

This intensity of focus on mobile is still scarce. Estimates from a number of agencies contacted for this story are that as many as 70% of B2C companies have not yet taken the elementary step of even optimizing their websites for viewing on mobile devices. Marketers, they say, are stuck in a budget vise, not knowing which or how many resources to divert to mobile from other projects. “I never met a marketing department that had too many resources. They can’t do all they want at once,” Silverpop’s McDonald says. “And then they have to deal with CEO toy syndrome. The CEO gets an iPhone and walks into the marketer’s office and asks, ‘Where’s our app?’”

That creates the classic cart-before-the-horse scenario, according to Cianchette. “Publishers Clearing House has no app and we get 12 million mobile visitors a month,” he says. “Direct marketers look to create individual messages for each customer and channel, right? So first they need to appreciate how different mobile is and start slow. You can get a good mobile program going for as little as $5,000.”

Going slow also entails being mindful of customers’ preferences, says Epsilon SVP of Client Services Pam McAtee. She suggests that marketers just getting started in mobile allow their customers to choose their preferred email format; doing so will improve open rates. “We used to ask them if they prefer text or HTML,” she says. “Now we take it a step further.”

Does mobile add up?

Here’s the conundrum faced by most marketers looking to get buy-in from senior management for initiating mobile efforts: Show us results and we’ll show you the money. But many experts agree that useable metrics can be hard to come by in the mobile space. One reason is that consumers often read an email on their smartphones phones and then  make a note—mental or otherwise—to reopen it and explore it further at home on their desktop “We spend a lot of time digging into data files to look at initial and then secondary or tertiary opens, but attribution remains a problem. We can’t say for sure it was the mobile optimization that drove the conversion,” says Kara Trivunovic, VP of marketing services at StrongMail Systems.

Metrics, says Kevin Hickey, global manager of email and SMS marketing at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), can be more challenging to compile in the mobile channel, but are essential to collect to determine ROI and predict future activity. “When we look at initial engagement metrics against back-end revenue metrics, it helps us to make a business case for added costs, such as building mobile landing pages,” he says. “Driving higher engagement is fundamental to us, but we try to take it a step further and promote event registration or food and beverage purchases at properties.”

Metrics devised by travel and hospitality companies like IHG will be of interest to all marketers. No matter what the industry, mobile is about location, location, location. “Mobile is all about context. Where you are, what you’re doing at the time. There are so many more variables, because context is so much more important than it is with desktop,” says Ian Lurie, CEO of internet agency Portent. “Marketers are going to want to know if people are ready to board a flight in an airport or sitting on their couches. We need to track conversion, but we want to try to connect dots between mobile and desktop.” Laurie adds.

Indeed, industry category can play a role in decisions about how deeply or how soon to get email marketing up to speed with mobile. Epsilon’s McAtee identifies healthcare and financial services as early adopters of mobile optimization for emails. She acknowledges that while many companies might be looking for funding, “the justification is absolutely there” and Epsilon has seen a “dramatic rise in conversions” from mobile email opening on mobile devices.

StrongMail’s Trivunovic sees the greatest uptake in mobile email in the travel and leisure space. “Among our clients, retail has put a big emphasis on it, as has travel and hospitality, which by nature has a mobile customer base,” she says.

IHG is one such client. The hotelier has been using mobile email for some time with its loyalty program members, in part because it views mobile as a highly interactive channel with which to engage customers. “For us the most relevant experiences we have with mobile relate to email and SMS,” Hickey says. “It’s one of those momentous shifts that happen occasionally. The consumers’ attention is more divided than ever, but they’re more informed than ever, and they use mobile especially to control the purchase process. It’s always on and it’s always on their person.”

As is the case with other practitioners interviewed for this story, Hickey says that about a third of IHG’s mobile emails are opened by Priority Club members and guests alike. IHG attempts to track who is opening the emails, and then use their mobile devices as a conduit to improve their guest experiences, as well as promote the sale of hotel nights and additional services. “We’re often catching them in transit to one of our properties, so we’ll engage them with a reservation reminder, directions to the hotel, or check in and checkout dates.”

Damn the marketing budget, full speed ahead

The illusion of high costs tends to deter marketers—or at least, the guardians of the purse strings to whom marketers report—from making initial investments in mobile email optimization.

Most marketers have heard about responsive design (see sidebar), a coding method that senses pixel counts on viewing devices and can transform a desktop email into a format readable on a cell phone or tablet. But a little knowledge can be a bad thing, experts say, because marketers are delaying moving into mobile for fear of the high costs of tweaking every email. In reality, it’s not necessary.

Yesmail’s Caldwell says the first thing marketers on a budget should do is forget about special designs for tablets. “Until I see differently,” he says, “the tablet is the desktop. Desktop emails are all readable on tablets.”

Portent’s Lurie agrees, but with one exception: the “phablet.” “That’s what my 12-year-old son calls the new generation smartphones with the huge screens—a combination of ‘phone’ and ‘tablet.’ The tablets are the devices that are really generating sales, so we’re going to have to take a closer look at optimization for these hybrids,” Lurie says.

Caldwell further advises brands not to move into responsive design unless it’s absolutely necessary. He cites scalable design as an alternate option. “Go to a single column in your emails and pump up the junk—bigger words, bigger buttons,” he says. “Take your standard email layout down to half of its size. Can you still read it without interaction? If yes, then you’re scalable and that will work for you.”

And even if marketers need to use responsive design, it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Responsive design can be a one-time cost for companies that can live with one template for all their emails.

Ultimately, this technique can be instrumental in generating results from mobile emails that more than justify its cost. Trilogy Interactive Senior Strategist Brian Sisolak used a single template for the thousands of emails he sent out on behalf of several candidates in last November’s elections, among them the successful senatorial campaigns of New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren. “This is a world of long-form emails and it’s hard to change clients’ minds about email content,” Sisolak says.

What Sisolak did to convince the candidates to do was to take a six paragraph email and, through responsive design coding, “hide” three paragraphs when it was opened on a mobile device. The average mobile open rate for the campaigns was 40%. Although the mobile conversion rate was lower than desktop conversions, total cash donations were higher.

“Every six months or so you see a story about how email is dead,” Sisolak says. “Certainly in our field, email is alive and well, but maybe different than in the past. Not as many people are sitting at their desks going through their inboxes,” he adds.

Mobile email’s influence in a multichannel world

While there’s no question that marketers have to first find a way to meld the fastest-growing consumer channel with their biggest-booking moneymaker, another view is emerging that says a brave new marketing world is around the bend.

“Email is a 20-year-old channel. Marketers have been collecting lists for 15 years or more. They’re very comfortable with it,” says Brent Hieggelke, CEO of Urban Airship, an agency that creates push marketing programs for the mobile channel. “But now they’re staring at mobile, and it’s a watershed moment. It’s the channel that will usurp other channels, but also support them. The way marketers need to look at it is, ‘How can I build an integrated channel strategy that lets people buy the way they want?’”

Hieggelke is one who believes that the real battle for marketers in the mobile space is establishing their brands with apps on millions of smartphones. “Push marketing,” he says, “is the voice of your app. It’s permission-based and allows the brand to send willing consumers messages at any time, like Walgreen’s telling you your prescription is ready.”

Although push marketing through mobile apps may be effective, like mobile email it’s simply one more tool in an entire marketing arsenal. For example, as successful as mobile email is for IHG, the hotelier uses other channels to promote its various mobile and digital assets. “We find the most relevant place to promote our mobile [presence] is on the website and in online display ads,” Hickey says. “All of our hotels should have QR codes displayed for downloading [our] app, and our SMS program offers up a dedicated keyword that a customer can text to make the download.”

In fact, IHG’s mobile email, its app, and its mobile site are touchpoints designed to be used in conjunction with other touchpoints. “You have to use messaging that resonates across multiple channels, Hickey says, adding that because IHG takes that approach, “we’re not surprised about the high rate of engagement.”

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