March 28, 2013, 4:11 PM

Smartphone marketing smarts

Retailers see results when they make key e-mail elements easy to read via mobile.

Lead Photo

U.S. consumers are changing the way they read e-mail messages, and retail marketers must take heed.

28% of marketing e-mails were opened on a smartphone in November 2012, according to a study of 2.85 million e-mails by mobile marketing firm Knotice Ltd. What's more, 69% of consumers ages 18 to 40 who own a mobile device have sorted through e-mails on their mobile devices before reading them on desktop computers, and 70% immediately delete e-mails that do not render well on mobile devices, according to e-mail services provider BlueHornet Networks Inc.

When that mobile device is a smartphone, and that e-mail is designed for viewing on a desktop computer, there's a problem. To read the e-mail, a consumer has to pinch and zoom, and swipe from left to right and back again, and again, and again. It's an onerous experience.

That's why some retailers are optimizing their e-mail marketing messages for mobile that reset elements to fill mobile screens and encourage vertical scrolling.

"Mobile optimization is about providing a good customer experience, engaging the customer with the brand and meeting our sales objectives," says Renee Adams, direct marketing manager at Radio Shack Corp. 50% of the retailer's marketing e-mails are opened on a smartphone.

It's not expensive to make e-mails easy to read on mobile phones and tablets. But it does require knowledge of the ever-changing array of mobile devices consumers are using, and attention to detail.

Because technical know-how is required, many retailers start the optimization process by talking with e-mail experts. For two-thirds of the e-retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide that's an outside company that specializes in delivering large quantities of e-mail to consumers' inboxes. These e-mail service providers are keenly aware of mobile trends and have optimization methods at the ready, the marketers say.

Outdoor apparel and gear retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. has monthly meetings with its e-mail vendor Responsys Inc., and it was at one of these meetings that Responsys proposed the path REI chose to take to address the 35% of REI e-mails being opened on mobile devices.

Responsys suggested applying a technique called responsive design to e-mails. Responsive design on the web breaks down page content into modules of different shapes and sizes and rearranges them to fit the size of the screen of the device requesting a page. That device might be a desktop PC, a tablet, a smartphone or even a TV.

Responsive design for e-mail works in much the same manner, breaking down e-mail message content into distinct modules, spreading them out wide for a desktop PC view, rearranging them for optimal display on a smaller tablet screen, or stacking them one atop another for a narrower smartphone view. Code embedded in a responsive e-mail detects the size of the consumer's browser window and renders the e-mail in a fashion and order determined by the retailer.

Radio Shack got mobile advice from its e-mail marketing provider Experian CheetahMail and ad agency Grey Advertising. They suggested the retailer send all its e-mails in a narrower format for better viewing on smartphones. So in January 2012 Radio Shack initially segmented a list of customers who regularly opened e-mails on smartphones and sent those consumers mobile-optimized e-mails.

The most important part of the optimization process is determining the order in which components of an e-mail marketing message are presented, retail marketers say. As screen size goes from extra-wide desktop monitors down to tablets and then to slim smartphones, it often makes sense to stack content vertically to accommodate the increasingly slender screens. And retailers may consider deleting some desktop content from the mobile version.

Radio Shack took this approach in a test of its "Wireless Newsletter" e-mail. The desktop version of the e-mail featured three Verizon phones on sale displayed side by side, a bar with wireless carrier logos for shopping no-contract phones, a new product announcement on the Pantech Burst mobile device, and a promotion for in-store support. Everything is displayed in a wide fashion with plenty of white space (see image, page 18). The mobile version focused on the Verizon phones, now stacked vertically, with a call to action stating, "All on Sale! Verizon No-Contract Phones." A much smaller announcement about the Pantech Burst device appeared below the Verizon phones. The mobile version eliminated the in-store support promo.

The test results were stark. The click-through rate was 0.67% for the desktop version and 2.07% for the mobile-optimized version. "A lot of that is attributed to very streamlined creative and a clear call to action," Adams says, pointing to the "All On Sale! Verizon No-Contract Phones" call to action.

REI followed a similar path in its "Wrap Up the Good Stuff" e-mail campaign, placing product images side by side for the desktop and stacked for smaller screens, with the products it most wanted to promote at the top.

Because smartphone users typically spend less time with an e-mail and because there is less space, a marketer must have a primary message designed to make a smartphone user click through slotted at the very top of the e-mail message, says Wacarra Yeomans, director of creative services at Responsys.

REI declined to reveal the exact results of the "Wrap Up the Good Stuff" campaign but reports increased interaction and conversion for the mobile-optimized version. And, like Radio Shack, REI has adopted mobile-optimized e-mails as a routine part of its e-mail marketing program.

In addition to prioritizing messages, there's other work to be done when optimizing for mobile. For example, Radio Shack made changes to the size and placement of text and buttons to make it easier to touch elements of a message since a smartphone owner does not have the precise click of a mouse.

"We enlarged the point size of text and purposefully placed space around the call-to-action buttons to make it easy for mobile users to use their fingers to interact with the e-mail," Adams says.

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