Is Your Mobile-First Strategy Putting Your Customers Last?

Two weeks ago I contributed an article here examining the pros and cons of three emerging approaches to mobile email optimization: prefab content, responsive design, and live content.  But I omitted a fourth, important approach that’s worthy of its own discussion: mobile-first email.

With mobile-first email, marketers create a single email template to send to their entire lists that are optimally designed for small screens. The template will contain fewer calls-to-action (often only one, actually); large, fat-fingers-friendly buttons to take said action(s) with; and big pretty pictures to take up the length and width of the screen in a single, neatly laid out column. 

For those who argue in favor of taking a mobile-first approach, the logic is simple: your email will look nice on a smartphone screen, and big buttons on a small screen will be even bigger on a large one, so everybody wins! Right?




The mobile-first approach to email design puts desktops -- and the majority of your customers -- last. Here’s why brands should give the strategy another look before making it their new email marketing mantra:


  • Desktops still rule. As much as smartphone adoption continues to surge, two-thirds of email opens today are still taking place on good, old-fashioned desktops and laptops. There’s a long way to go before desktops disappear from the face of the earth -- a technological extinction event that is unlikely to ever happen.


  • Larger screens allow for more selling opportunities. Dynamic wireframe templates rose to popularity over the last decade for a reason: They work. And showcasing multiple relevant products and offers can turn what would otherwise have been a losing email campaign into a winner. Case in point: a leading retailer we work with had been sending emails to its list with one large static image showcasing its “featured product of the day.” It decided to test the one-product-only email head-to-head against a multi-offer template featuring live deals taking place on its website. Over the course of ten sends, the multi-offer, live email generated 10 times the revenue of the static, single-offer mailings.


  • Mobile-first isn’t even optimal for mobile devices. Last, but not least, mobile-first design is static design: marketers create one template and let it fly. But the email is frozen in time once the marketer hits send. It can’t tell whether it’s being opened on an Android-based device, an iPhone, or an iPad -- let alone a desktop. It can’t direct you to the right app store, and it can’t tell whether your company’s mobile app has already been downloaded and is ready to be launched. Mobile-first email is just one big, clumsy image, one column, and one offer. It may be designed to fit into the small screen, but not into the consumer’s holistic mobile experience.

Mobile optimization is a critical priority, but it must take place within the context of multiplatformoptimization, and marketers shouldn’t sacrifice one platform for the sake of another. The rise of our new multiplatform world of desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets has moved our cheese, and we have no choice but to adapt and move with it.

8 comments about "Is Your Mobile-First Strategy Putting Your Customers Last? ".
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  1. Ryan Phelan from RPE Origin Digital, September 24, 2012 at 4:22 p.m.

    So, it's hard to argue when you're right.

    Clearly you've captured the fact that we have a lot of commentary on the increase in mobile adoption and behavior, but we do not have a pure mobile behavior set. Responsive design is the best way to appeal to both customers, but it takes work.

    If we have 69% of consumers (in a recent survey) that delete emails on their mobile device if it looks bad and 13% delete it, then I can only imagine what those rates would be if we designed only for mobile.

    All in all, you're right Jordan.

  2. Justine Jordan from Litmus, September 24, 2012 at 4:26 p.m.

    Hi Jordan! Great article that points out some of the potential pitfalls of blindly adopting a mobile-first email design strategy. Generally, I'm an advocate of the concept, but like any marketing-related decision, the decision to adopt a mobile first approach shouldn't be made in a vacuum.

    Even though two-thirds of emails are opened on a desktop, the other third are being opened on mobile devices. Of those that are opened on mobile devices, usually only about 3% will be viewed on a desktop a 2nd time. What that's telling me is that for any company that sees a large number of email opens on mobile, they essentially only get ONE chance to make an impression. If that ONE impression is on a mobile device, should it not be with that device's limitations in mind? Both Knotice (who you link to above) and Litmus (my company) have similar figures in this regard:

    I've seen A/B tests and performance stats that go both ways. Some companies are seeing better opens/clicks/sales/return with a mobile first approach, some aren't. It's that age old "it depends" answer when it comes to email: what works for one may not work for all. Also, mobile-first approaches (as compared to a dynamic template or responsive design) generally require less resources, which might be a better (or the only) option for smaller companies.

    Personally, I prefer receiving 'mobile first' email because I like clutter-free, relevant emails that allow me to quickly act and move on. In many respects that means blending a mobile-first approach with dynamic content and some of the other variable content strategies that you mentioned above. We've also had some luck at Litmus taking a mobile-first approach to our own program, but we're serving a pretty specific audience.

    In other words, I don't think we really know what works yet! The jury's still out :)

  3. Justine Jordan from Litmus, September 24, 2012 at 4:27 p.m.

    Sorry for the sloppy formatting, all my paragraphs were removed!

  4. Jim Ducharme from eDataSource, September 24, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.

    I love the reference to "moving cheese" Jordan! I may believe that the desktop's days are numbered, but they haven't hit single digits in that countdown yet:). How does one tell the difference between forward thinking and shiny object syndrome? There's a lot more to marketing to smartphones than just making it look pretty on one. That's going to be a leap of cheese for many marketers ;).


  5. George DiGuido from, September 24, 2012 at 4:36 p.m.

    Jordan...think the piece of your argument that is missing is the conversion piece. So what if users never make it to a desktop if they are converting via smartphone. Who needs more selling opportunities on a desktop browser if you have clear calls to action and mobile optimized landing pages. For the record...I happen to agree with Ryan that it is hard to argue because you are right with the majority of marketers out there. This will change when those marketers finally adopt the mobile web and make converting via mobile devices easier for the people out there reading their content.

  6. Jen Capstraw from Women of Email, September 25, 2012 at 5:19 p.m.

    I disagree with your definition of mobile first.

    Mobile first means prioritizing the mobile user experience (it's not a design technique), and I can't imagine any marketer advocates a disregard for desktop users (unless they know that audience is irrelevant to them). Responsive design is currently the best method for applying the mobile-first philosophy in conjunction with best practices to email.

    And while a little more than a third of email marketing in general is opening on mobile these days, that isn't necessarily the case for every audience. I've seen up to 63% of opens render on mobile on a single email deployment. Mobile-first is clearly a priority for us.

  7. Alex Williams from Trendline Interactive, September 26, 2012 at 7:09 p.m.

    Hey Jordan, I've got some Facebook stock to sell you.

  8. Gary Zimmerman from Neustar, October 1, 2012 at 11:07 a.m.

    Great piece. Multiplatform optimization should be in the limelight as much as big data. Cross-platform functionality is slowly creeping its way across the mobile industry. It’s not just a concern for marketing agencies looking to amp up mobile campaigns, but for developers who want streamlined process for app creation, consumers who want optimum usability, and CSPs that want to deliver seamless connectivity. Yes, being mobile-minded is an important step, but connected, mobile devices come in a variety of sizes and there are currently very few apps where one design fits all. Gary Zimmerman, Neustar |

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