Ready to Go Mobile-First? The Experts Have Some Advice

In my previous column -- "Are You Ready for a Mobile Subscriber Base?" -- I relayed several mobile research statistics that make the case why email marketers can no longer ignore designing and optimizing their emails for a growing mobile subscriber base.

I also outlined some implications of these statistics and high-level tips, such as taking a mobile-first approach and designing for touchscreens navigated by fingers.

Now I'm tapping the know-how of my four favorite mobile email-marketing optimization experts for advice on optimizing emails for mobile devices.

1. Justine Jordan, Litmus

Content and usability play equally important roles in creating mobile-friendly email:

Streamline content. Screen real estate on a mobile device is rare and valuable, and mobile users are immersed in a constant stream of communications from work, life and family.

When creating (or modifying) content for a mobile audience, less can be more. Consider simplifying complex preheaders, navigation bars, social sharing and calls to action to keep your message clean and simple.

Use images carefully. Image blocking, a problem in desktop email for years, affects mobile devices, too. iOS was the only mobile operating system to enable images automatically until Microsoft updated Windows Phone 7.

Other devices (Android, BlackBerry) prompt users to turn images on and sometimes ask users to confirm they want to download the additional content. Be sure your message is readable without images.

Create touch targets. To borrow one of my favorite Loren-isms, "The finger is the new mouse!" People navigate smartphones and tablets with their fingers and thumbs. Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to tap a link and hitting the one nearby instead.

As a result, bigger has never been better. Increase font sizes, line spacing, button sizes and white space to give your design breathing room and allow for fat-finger errors.

2. Len Shneyder, IBM (Blog)

To give readers the best experience, an email message has to be designed for cross-channel viewing. Below are three quick tips to consider:

  • Keep your layout to 620 pixels or fewer to ensure your emails will be readable on more devices and in more email clients.
  • Give your text and email contents some breathing room. Build your template with borders to keep text away from the template edge.
  • Make the font size readable. If you have to squint to read it, so do your customers!

Note: Redesigning a traditional email often means shrinking a two-column format into one. Before you take that drastic step, test your content to see whether one column drives significantly more traffic than the other. Consider making that column your primary content in the narrower email format.

3. Alex Williams, Trendline Interactive

Readability, or scannability, is the key. You need to get the point of your message across quickly.


1. Evaluate the usefulness and importance of every link in your message. Rethink your "above the fold" content. Use that space to get readers engaged in your message.

2. Take design cues from the way apps and mobile websites look and function, instead of duplicating your website's desktop experience in an email.


3. If you have the resources, use responsive email design for desktop, tablet and smartphone screen sizes. Through one single piece of HTML, you can alter the email for each screen size.

This requires a completely different approach from traditional email design (for example, design in Photoshop, then pass to your developer to code).

Have your designer and developer work closely on a wireframe and prototype first before doing any visual design. I call this a "no-compromise" approach.

4. Anna Yeaman, The Style Campaign (blog)

Don't disregard performance. Guy Podjarny tested 347 responsive sites on mediaqueri.es and found 86% were the same page weight on mobile as on the desktop. Media queries download both the desktop and mobile assets, so strive to keep your desktop creative lightweight.

One way to prevent bloat is to design your mobile draft first, then recycle those "lite" assets for the desktop. I've done this with clients that have 50%+ mobile usage, but I imagine I'll increasingly adopt this workflow. It curtails feature creep, lazy copy and the use of "display: none."

Although we can design for mobile first, the desktop is often the baseline when coding. Spotty desktop support for media queries makes progressive enhancement a difficult sell.

No one wants to serve a 320x2000px template to Outlook users, although I'm sure more "320 and up" emails will emerge as mobile usage grows.

My (Loren) Take: These tips and commentaries present some key actions and strategies for a successful transition to a mobile-focused email program. It's not a comprehensive list, but you'll find the basics you need to get the wheels in motion and take your email program to a higher level.

Until next time, take it up a notch.

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3 comments about "Ready to Go Mobile-First? The Experts Have Some Advice".
  1. Scott Rogers from Mogreet , July 26, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.
    Or...use MMS instead. Unlike basic SMS, MMS can deliver forty seconds of video, three minutes of audio or a dozen photos plus thousands of characters. Content is already optimized for mobile devices, there is no spam filter to worry about and most people have just one mobile number. This means you're not wasting impressions on the same people again and again or hitting dead addresses. Clickable links and phone numbers, social sharing of MMS content and more. Brands report SMS is 6x-10x more effective than email and when upgrading to MMS, many see an additional 2x-3x improvement. There is no additional consumer permission or cost required for receiving MMS vs. SMS, so use the best tool for connecting with mobile consumers...MMS!
  2. mitch jensen from rent.com , July 26, 2012 at 4:42 p.m.
    Thank you Loren for all the excellent pointers - super helpful for those of us who must adapt our email programs to mobile to accommodate both desktop and mobile users.
  3. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International , July 30, 2012 at 1:52 a.m.
    Love what you are saying about Mobile accessibility Loren and Scott a great tip about MMS. It's still about the relationship you have with your customer though. If you don't have a relationship people may check out your offer or most likely delete your message before they you get a chance to pitch.