Land of Confusion: Is Mobile Really a Moving Target?

One of the top questions I'm asked from both colleagues and clients is, "Why doesn't our html email render properly on my mobile phone?"

These days, seems like most everyone is perplexed over the mobile email user experience. I recently received a year-end survey on industry trends from a leading email supplier. One question asked if companies were planning on optimizing their email programs for "handheld phones, such as for the iPhone?" Had the question been phrased "such as Windows Mobile or BlackBerry?" this ESP could have kept its expert facade intact. The simple inclusion of iPhone into the mobile email "rendering-challenged" mix illustrates the prevailing confusion our industry is in.

First, all mobile is not created equal. To start, there are currently three leading mobile platforms: iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile, and each present unique user experiences. And with the recent launch of Google's Android and the pending release of IE Mobile 6 from Microsoft, the landscape will likely change, and hopefully simplify -- although it's premature to predict how things will evolve. So with the market transforming at warp speed, defining an efficient mobile email strategy seems equivalent to chasing a moving target.



You should first consider whether the mobile email world is simply a world of email triage -- or are users really looking for optimized HTML email for full viewing/scanning purposes? In a perfect world, implementing a scalable mobile email strategy for each of the mobile platforms seems logical and straightforward. But from a practical perspective, it is cumbersome and a trade-off for some other personalization or segment exercise that could likely move the needle better than optimizing to a mobile experience where users simply scan email.

Here's the challenge: Even the traditional approach of sending multipart emails (HTML/Text) does not address the inherent limitations of both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices. For example, a Windows Mobile device will accept the HTML format, but render as gibberish! Your production team should evaluate how your emails render within the various mobile platforms to understand how it impacts your program.

The real question marketers should be asking is "What are the implications of developing (or not) an optimized mobile email experience?"

When I am consulting with clients on this topic, I always go back to the basics. Here are some points to consider when defining your mobile email strategy:

Does it make sense to target your mobile email customer from an ROI perspective?

  • Who is your target audience and what is the universe size?

  • Do you have insight into your customer's mobile behavior? (for example, what are they using? How do they use email on mobile? What are their mobile purchasing habits?)

  • Is your product / service something that would be purchased on the go -- or does it require more consideration?

    If the answers are no, then you should likely keep to what you are doing and spend the time implementing to your known audiences and experiences. If you do have some insight, it'll be a good investment to begin to segment these consumers over time.

    Does your company already have a mobile Web user strategy in place?

  • What is your linking strategy?

  • How will those landing pages address the mobile challenge?

  • Is the balance of site mobile-friendly?

    Think about it. Before you go to the time and expense to deliver an email that is optimized for the small screen, shouldn't the entire mobile experience be in alignment?

    If your company already has a robust mobile Web strategy in place, it may make sense to dovetail your email efforts to enhance the overall brand experience while leveraging every opportunity to maximize sales.

    Alternatively, the way the mobile industry is rapidly evolving, unless there is a clear benefit to implementing a program today, for now, the best mobile strategy may be to use this time to enhance your knowledge of your customer's mobile habits and preferences. By the time the market sorts itself out within the upcoming months/years, you will be ripe to release an optimized mobile email program that hits the target dead-on.

  • 3 comments about "Land of Confusion: Is Mobile Really a Moving Target? ".
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    1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, January 12, 2009 at 5:04 p.m.

      People are simply not going to take the time to read through a ton of text on their email, nor are they going to take the time to figure out why your snazzy graphics aren't rendering correctly.

      I believe the idea mobile email payload should look like a list of consumer options. Here's the message, here's the offer, here are directions, here's the ad on YouTube, etc. Very short, and to the point.

      You see, I believe that the primary use of mobile will be to provide useful shortcuts that enable mobile users to perform universal consumer occasions in a way that saves time, money, or supports some sort of incentive program.

      The Burger King campaign where you "unfriend" 10 people to get a Whopper is an example of this. If you have played fantasy football at some point in your life, you will find the future terrain familiar. Purchases at Foot Locker will translate into power-ups for fantasy sports enthusiasts who want to trade their RB2s for RB1s, and department stores will give virtual Louis Vuitton leather goods as a gift-with-purchase for their Kate Spade counterparts...and your mobile phone will help you track your points just as some use it to check their bank balances. Email provides a wonderful delivery mechanism for delivering these kinds of updates. Most other commercial messages are going to find themselves rapidly deleted by consumers who are increasingly focused on what's most important.

    2. Gregg Oldring from Mailout Interactive, January 13, 2009 at 1:53 p.m.

      Optimizing multipart HTML email for mobile devices is a frustrating excercise. I did a post on <a href="">Mobile Email Rendering</a> recently. Currently, of the mobile devices I've tested, only the iPhone, the BlackBerry Bold and Mobile Gmail on BlackBerrys render intelligible HTML emails. For the rest, Optimization means adding a "Mobile Version" link at the very beginning of the email and linking to an XHTML Mobile Profile version of your message (which is still difficult to test since Mobile web browsers are also poor at following web standards). There aren't that many email campaigns that can justify that kind of effort. Our best bet is to pressure Mobile manufacturers to adhere to <a href="">standards</a> so that their customers have an optimal experience with their products.

    3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, January 13, 2009 at 4:34 p.m.

      Great stuff! Thanks for continuing to stay on top of this. I agree that in most cases it simply does not make sense to go through a big exercise in optimizing the mobile experience. It would only make sense if there were compelling data to suggest that a significant portion of the audience was using one or two unsupported phones. Not too likely... unless you happen to be sending email on behalf of Research in Motion or Nokia user groups. :)

      Gotta agree with Brian, time to start thinking about what to drive people to do from mobile email instead of worrying how images are rendering or how table cells are lining up.

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