Tactics for Better Looking Email Marketing in a Mobile World

In my job as Distilled’s Junior Marketing Manager, I’m lucky enough to try my hand at numerous aspects of digital marketing, but one part that has always fascinated me is email marketing. This goes back to my first graduate job in marketing (way back in the rose-tinted days of late 2013), where I was put in charge of pretty much implementing our whole email strategy, despite never having heard of MailChimp.

I sent out some horror stories at first, no obvious CTAs (bear in mind the business was an internet retailer that used these emails as a direct source of revenue), spacing issues all over the place and so on. Despite my mistakes, our email revenue grew and grew, and I was allowed to spend more time making sure the emails looked good and did their job. However, there was one thing I never even considered - how does this email look on mobile? I just didn’t think that many people would read emails on mobile. How wrong was I?

Even in 2013, mobile had already become the most popular environment for email opens, and its share reached 48% by the start of 2015.

Since joining Distilled, I’ve been determined to ensure that our emails look just as good on mobile as they do on desktop. I’ve very little HTML knowledge (yet), so the following tactics are all achievable with no technical know how, just the use of email marketing software like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor.

8 Quick fixes that make your emails look better on mobile:

1. Use bulletproof buttons

This is a tip that can be applied to all email marketing, but for a number of reasons, it’s even more important for emails on mobile. CTA buttons are your most vital way of getting clicks on email, and making them more visually appealing will improve your CTR. However, many email providers will not show images by default (here’s a detailed breakdown of which providers will and won’t) so the most straightforward way to create a button (as an image) will render your email useless to a significant proportion of your audience.

Instead, use VML and CSS to create your ‘bulletproof’ button (Campaign Monitor has an excellent tool for this that needs no technical knowledge). Having buttons is even more important on mobile, as text links can be too small and fiddly, deterring users when they accidentally click the wrong part of the screen.

The automatically generated code on buttons.cm

2. Create emails that look good without images

While it’s frustrating to accept that your carefully crafted emails will not show correctly to a large proportion of your target audience, it does not mean that you can’t still send them clean, well-designed emails. At Distilled, we’ve taken a minimalist approach to our emails, which means that they do not rely heavily on complicated design to convey their message.

Below is a recent email we sent out with a free marketing training video (you can sign up to these videos here). On the left is the email with the images showing, and on the right, without. While we ideally want the images to show, it is still perfectly clear what we’re trying to say. Plus, on the imageless email, the button (in all its bulletproof glory) appears at the bottom to prompt the reader into action.

3. Ensure the images that do show are useful

Even when images do show automatically, they can be rendered useless on mobile if they are too small, and therefore impossible to see what they represent. Remember, on MailChimp, the mobile email templates will keep your text to a readable size, but any text in an image will be made smaller (and possibly unreadable) as the image size is reduced.

The below example from InVision shows the problem of small image text on a mobile device. It’s almost impossible to read the text in the images under the headlines.

A nicely designed InVision Email with one flaw.

(If anyone from InVision reads this article, I genuinely think your emails are very good. I just think this is one small area that is at fault in an otherwise excellent newsletter email.)

4. Keep it simple with a one-column layout

Looking at Mailchimp’s drag-and-drop editor, you can select templates with multiple column variations, such as 1:2:1, 1:3:1 and so on. While there might be an argument for using multiple columns on newsletters, for the most part, single column layout is far and away the most popular. It also has the additional benefit of being the only real choice for mobile users, as multiple columns are too narrow on mobile screens. Unless there is a very compelling reason to use multiple columns (one example would be a comparison of pricing models) keep it simple with a single column and your audience will thank you for it.

5. The importance of the from name is even greater on mobile

It’s well established that the from name is a huge factor in whether your emails get opened or not. In this excellent article from Aaron Orendorff at Marketing Profs, you can see that from names like ‘auto@’, ‘marketing@’ and so on are open rate destroyers. However, with mobile emails needing mobile inboxes, a good from name is even more vital. Take gmail for example, which according to this Litmus report, enjoys 16% of email share. The image below shows the desktop version of the gmail inbox.

While the from name on the left-hand side is obviously prominent, three-quarters of the screen is devoted to the subject line and pre-header text. In the mobile version (pictured below), the from names are, by far, the most prominent.

There’s a lot of debate around using a real person’s name vs. brand name. We, like some pictured in the screenshots often use ‘name’ at/from ‘company’ to show a real person is behind the email, but it’s still easy to identify what company they represent.

6. Keep your headline concise

Take a quick look at the two above screenshots again. You’ll notice that in the desktop Gmail preview, every email headline fits comfortably on the screen. On the other hand, only one of the six shown in the mobile preview does.

Adestra suggest writing subject lines of 20-30 characters, which will cover most mobile email previews. I’ve personally found that it’s a balancing act, as certain longer headlines can be impactful. If you can’t shorten your email headline to fit into the preview space, be sure to frontload your headline, so the important information is near the beginning.

A note on emojis - Mailchimp, among others, now offers emoji support in the subject line. Research has shown that the tactic can have a positive impact. According to Dlvr.it, emojis tend to have a positive influence on open rates.

But beware, even if the data stands up, emojis have some strange quirks depending on where they are viewed (they render differently on different operating systems). For example, the cinema emoji looks drastically different on Windows 10 and Apple iOS 9, and could drastically affect how your email subject line is read.

7. And keep the body copy concise too

Assuming the text in your email is responsive (The Economist example in this Unbounce article is a good example of when this goes wrong on mobile), the text in your mobile version will take up more screen space than the desktop version. Below are two screenshots of a recent SearchLove campaign: one from the desktop preview (left) and one from the mobile preview (right).

The relatively short email fits comfortably on the screen in the desktop version, but is already starting to look  like a ‘wall of text’ on mobile. This shows how easy it would be for longer emails to become a chore to read on mobile. So, with that in mind, if you plan to send the same copy to desktop and mobile readers, you will need to distill what you want to say down to its most concise form. This is also useful advice in general, and our guide to more focussed writing is a great place to learn more.

8. Use smaller (file size) images where possible

This one is a no-brainer, but it’s easy to forget about when you’re using any of the email marketing softwares’ drag-and-drop editors, because it’s so easy to upload new images in no time. However, if you upload a large image, you may be setting yourself up to fail on mobile. There’s still a large proportion of global mobile internet users without access to 3G, nevermind 4G.

So, in short, where possible, restrain the size of your images to ensure they load as quickly as possible to as many users as possible. For further reading on the best types of image to use, see Litmus’ excellent guide.

Thinking beyond the email

This post has simply focussed on the look of the email itself. There is so much more you should and can be doing to improve your audience’s email experience. Personalisation and automation, for example, should be high up the list (I can easily admit that these are both areas I’m still working on in regards to Distilled’s communications).

You should also think about what happens beyond the email (especially when opened on mobile). Assuming your email is now mobile ready, this means your customers will expect that your website is too. If for some reason you haven’t already made your website mobile friendly, I strongly recommend that you look at this post from my colleague Bridget Randolph.

Even if your website is mobile-friendly, you still need to look at the landing page in question. If you’ve taken my advice and made your emails more concise, your landing page should answer any questions a user may have that the email doesn’t immediately answer. In short, consider the journey as a whole when crafting your email marketing strategy.

Wrapping up

If you’re involved in email marketing in your job, there’s a reasonable chance some of these tactics will already be part of your standard email set up, but I hope there are at least some on there that will improve your process, or at the very least make it less time consuming.

I’m really keen to hear if you have any of your own quick fixes that have improved your mobile emails. Let me know in the comments.

Get blog posts via email