October 31, 2013, 11:19 AM

An iOS 7 calendar quirk could affect some e-mail marketers

Marketers need to stay abreast of mobile operating system changes, an expert says.

Lead Photo

How Sears' e-mail opened on iOS 7 led to a mistaken calendar event.

More than half of e-mail opens occur on a smartphone or tablet, Experian Marketing Services finds. Making sure marketing e-mails look and perform well on mobile devices has never been more important. As a result, retail marketers must keep abreast of mobile operating system changes that could impact the e-mail messages they send, says Chad White, principal of marketing research at e-mail marketing services provider ExactTarget.

That’s why White took notice when he spotted something peculiar in his routine screening of e-mail marketing messages from across the retail industry. After updating his iPhone to run Apple Inc.’snew mobile operating system, iOS 7, he discovered his iPhone e-mail app was more sensitive to numbers in subject lines than in past. For some time, when the iPhone detects a date in a subject line, it turns the date into a link a user can touch that automatically creates a calendar event with all pertinent information filled in.

But a Sears Holdings Corp. marketing e-mail with the subject line “Rain or shine Saturday 1 Day Sale Is On” turned “Saturday 1” into a link that, when touched, created a calendar event for the sale, placing the event on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 (see image). That was not the date of the sale, nor did Sears intend for “Saturday 1” to turn into a link as the day and the number are not related to each other in the sentence.

Curiously, in a different marketing e-mail from another retailer, “Oct 27th” did not turn into a link, and that is clearly the date of an event, White says.

These automatic event links appear to be rather unpredictable and uncontrollable at the moment, White says.

“Since e-mail subscribers spend just a few seconds on average with an e-mail, these event links can be a very unwelcome distraction,” White says. “The vast majority of marketers want their subscribers to take action right now, not set a calendar reminder.”

White says instances of the calendar event trigger quirk have been rare so far, but advises retailers to monitor their marketing e-mails as they render on devices running iOS 7. And if a retailer wants a subject line to turn into a calendar event trigger, White says it should use the “MMM D” format, meaning the first three letters of the month and the single- or double-digit numerical date, which is the format that Apple designed to be the trigger.

Sears and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

White says e-mail marketers are blessed with a lot of readily available information online on such quirks.

“Thankfully e-mail marketers and digital marketing companies are very active on social media and produce lots of helpful blog posts, articles, infographics and reports,” White says. “There’s lots of sharing in our industry. Take advantage of that.”

White also points to e-mail rendering tools as a way to see if anything may have changed on a mobile or desktop platform.

“Rendering tools will show you how your e-mails display in every e-mail environment, whether it’s on mobile devices, web mail or desktop clients,” he says. “Device proliferation and a continued lack of e-mail coding standards has made rendering a bit more challenging in recent years, so it’s wise to keep a close eye on rendering within the e-mail clients that are most popular among your subscribers.”

Things change, it’s unavoidable. An unannounced e-mail client change in the summer of 2012 caused a bit of a stir among e-mail marketers, White says. Hotmail began replacing symbols and other special characters with oversized, 19-pixel by 19-pixel emoji, tiny icons that are a kind of .gif image. The change affected subject lines as well as HTML text in body copy for months before it was fixed by Microsoft Corp., White says.

For now, White says the calendar event trigger in iOS 7 is not likely to cause any serious troubles. “However,” he adds, “it is another reminder that e-mail inboxes are always evolving and that marketers must keep an eye out for these changes, especially since small changes are rarely announced.”

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