March 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

E-mail To Go

Marketers put their e-mail messages on a diet so they fit the skinny screens of smartphones.

Bill Siwicki

Managing Editor, Mobile Commerce

Lead Photo

20% of all marketing e-mails sent by retailers are opened on a mobile device, according to a recent study by direct digital marketing firm Knotice. That's a big chunk of customers looking at an e-mail designed for a desktop screen that must be miniaturized for a mobile screen. To read the message and enjoy the images, a mobile consumer must pinch and zoom and swipe his smartphone screen. And that's not an optimal e-mail experience.

Recognizing this, executives at online retailer Buy.com began tests in February in which they shrunk some marketing e-mails by 18% and moved some key elements to the top of the message so they were immediately visible on a smartphone screen. Buy.com sent the modified e-mails to 360,000 customers on its house list of 6 million.

"The results for the tests were so impressive that we decided to permanently switch all e-mails to the narrower width. The narrower e-mails produced significantly higher click rates, orders and gross merchandise value than the larger e-mails," says Jeff Wisot, vice president of marketing at Buy.com. "Customers are much more engaged, and that means more sales and happy customers."

Buy.com's next step is to further optimize the content of its e-mails so that they fit perfectly on smartphone screens, as car rental company Avis Budget Group already has done. These companies are in the vanguard of marketers adapting e-mail to the millions of consumers accessing their messages on the go.

They're finding that the effort is not that great, and the return is dramatic for an investment that e-mail experts put at between $1,500 and $6,000 per campaign, depending on the amount of functionality and creative input from a provider. Some e-mail service providers say they have creative systems that are so automated that they charge nothing extra for a mobile e-mail, the content of which is extracted from a conventional e-mail and reorganized.

A mobile opportunity

It's not surprising that consumers respond differently to e-mail designed for mobile phones, given the big difference in screen size between computers and handsets. Even a relatively small 13-inch laptop has a screen almost 13 inches wide, while Apple Inc.'s iPhone screen is only 2.3 inches wide. That means a smartphone user must do a lot of pinching and zooming to see all the text and images in an e-mail message designed for a PC.

For merchants that draw significant business from e-mail marketing, optimized e-mails can mean the difference between maintaining or even increasing sales or losing customers to retailers with optimization that meets those mobile customers' needs.

If a merchant or a merchant's e-mail marketing service provider is not yet prepared to completely overhaul its e-mail messages, as Avis Budget has done, it can follow Buy.com's lead: Make tweaks to e-mails designed for reading on desktop PCs that make the messages more palatable to smartphone users.

One way or the other, examples like Buy.com show that marketers should consider acting now to prepare for a more mobile future. The leading indicator for the future is the adoption rate of smartphones, which offer richer mobile web experiences and the ability to run hundreds of thousands of apps. Every smartphone comes with a built-in e-mail app that in just a few steps automatically links a user to his e-mail accounts.

In the third quarter of 2009, 19% of all mobile phones in use in the U.S. were smartphones, The Nielsen Co. says. That jumped to 31% in Q3 2010 and will soar to 49% in the third quarter of this year. More smartphones continue to flood the market. And more consumers with older phones and expiring wireless contracts are choosing to upgrade to smartphones with a new contract. Thus, while 20% of marketing e-mails are opened on a mobile device today, that number will certainly increase considerably tomorrow.

In fact, Wisot predicts in two years 50% of Buy.com customers will be shopping the company's site and opening its e-mails on a smartphone or tablet.

Taking action today

And that's why Buy.com is taking action today. Its marketing and web development teams work together on mobile optimization, coming up with ideas and then testing them with consumers. "It's not any one person saying this is what we will do," Wisot says. "It's the team coming up with ideas on how to improve the creative and then A/B testing to prove the theory correct or incorrect."

And he's not talking about making test-based changes over the course of weeks or even days; he means hours.

"It's all about having a fluid system to make improvements instantly," he says. "For instance, our customer opt-in database of mailable consumers is more than six million. So we're able to send out small tests to random samples and quickly see what customers are clicking on and then make changes to the e-mails as the day goes on."

In addition to making the mobile versions of e-mail narrower, Buy.com eliminated an area in the middle of e-mails promoting a variety of products that consumers never clicked on in tests. In its place it put a large banner, which tests showed mobile customers preferred. In other words, the customers liked bigger and less variety over smaller and more variety. And mobile customers clearly preferred images, so the retailer placed greater emphasis on images and made them bigger.

And it's not just the look that changed—the message changed, too. "You saw a big product in both versions, but no wordy product descriptions in the mobile version; our mobile consumers don't want to see fluff," Wisot says. "These consumers are on the go, they just want to see what the deals are, what the offer is, what the message is. They want it to be easy and fast."

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