5 Email Marketing Variables You Can't Control (But Can Outsmart)

by Meghan Keaney Anderson

Date

January 30, 2014 at 8:00 AM

smart_email_marketingThis month, Litmus, an email testing app, released an infographic featuring data from 3 billion email opens over the past year. The data was enlightening, though not surprising: Consumers today have many more options and far greater control over how and when they read emails.

Yep, just like the rest of inbound marketing: Marketers aren't the ones in control. 

That being said, there are ways we can adapt to these changes and send emails that are relevant and well-tuned to any scenario. Let’s take a look at some of the bigger trends in Litmus' findings and go over a few ways marketers can adapt their email marketing to take advantage of these trends.

5 Aspects of Email Marketing You Can't Control (But Can Outsmart)

1) Email Clients

People access and read their emails through things called email clients. Commonly known clients include Gmail and Microsoft Outlook, but there are also newer entrants like Thunderbird mail and Windows mail. 

Each of these clients displays emails differently. For instance, an email that looks perfectly fine on Gmail may not resolve properly on Microsoft Outlook and vice versa.

Here’s the complicated part with email clients and devices: There are more than 30 of them. It’s tough to optimize for every single email client in a scalable way, but through email testing, you can preview how your emails will come across in the most popular clients pictured in the Litmus graphic below:

Litmus-top-email-clients

This week, HubSpot introduced Litmus email testing right within its email marketing tool. If you don’t use HubSpot or have built-in email testing in your ESP, you can mirror this by creating dummy accounts for Gmail, Microsoft Office, Apple mail, and other top clients and sending a test email to each to review before emailing your full list.

(HubSpot customers: Here’s a video of how email testing now works in HubSpot.)

2) Mobile Devices and Screen Size

It finally happened: For the first year in Litmus testing, mobile opens have taken over as the most common way consumers read email. According to Litmus data, 51% of all opens occurred on mobile devices in 2013 -- an upward trend that will almost certainly continue.

The challenge with mobile devices is not only delivering the same content in less space, but also the wide variances between screen sizes of different handheld devices.

You can’t control whether someone is reading your email from an iPad or a Blackberry phone, but you can optimize your email templates with responsive design to adapt to the device's shape and font size.

litmus-mobile-opens

Check with your email service provider to see if responsive email templates are available (HubSpot customers: All default templates in HubSpot are now responsive). If your email service provider doesn’t have responsive templates built-in, they may have a marketplace where you can connect with designers to build you a responsive template for a fee.

With the majority of opens happening on mobile devices, this is a worthwhile investment.

One important note before we move on: It’s not enough to use responsive templates for your emails. The goal of any good email is to encourage the reader to click through to a landing page on your website.

We’ve seen a number of cases in which marketers optimize their emails for mobile but then send their readers to a page on their website that’s tough to view on mobile ... which'll just make your conversion rate drop. To really reflect the way people research and buy, you’ll need to optimize both.

Want to see what your website looks like on various devices? Go to HubSpot's Device Lab and type in your site's URL to find out.

3) Subject Line Cut-Offs

Related to mobile device consideration is the fact that different clients and devices cut off your subject line in different places. Similarly, only some allow you to provide a preview line, while others leave that out entirely.

Your sender information and subject line is the first threshold you have to pass in email marketing. Fail to inspire opens here and every other metric will suffer. 

The best way to out-craft subject line limitations is to keep your subject lines brief and front-loaded. For example:

Join us for Acme’s 50th annual end of year celebration featuring Bruce Springsteen
 
... would be more effective as …
 
Invitation: Year-end celebration with Bruce Springsteen

4) Gmail Tabs and Filters

In May 2013, Gmail made a major change to the way it handles emails in your inbox by introducing tabs. While optional, tabs enable Gmail users to streamline their email inboxes by automatically sorting out social media notifications, auto-triggered alerts, and promotional emails into separate windows. This change has had a notable impact on emails sent to Gmail users. 

According to Litmus data: "Gmail opens have declined 27% since the introduction of tabs in May." There is, however, some bright news, as Litmus also notes click rates have been unaffected, unsubscribes are unchanged, and engagement levels are up.

These mixed messages point to something interesting: Opens may be dropping in Gmail, but those emails that do earn an open seem to be receiving more engagement. They may have even been cherry-picked from a quick scan of all marketing emails.

You may not be able to keep Gmail users from setting up tabs, but you can work on finding the right formula for subject lines that stand out within a folder of "promotional" emails.

5) Images Not Displaying

In December, Gmail stopped automatically blocking images in its emails, but many other email clients still do so. While you can’t control how email clients display your emails, you can accommodate for the times they don’t show images.

As explained earlier in this post, email testing will help you see how your emails will look without images loading. As a strategy, you never want to rely too heavily on images in an email.

Here are some helpful tips for implementing images in your emails:

  • Make sure your email is a mix of text and images so the message comes through even if the images do not.
  • Don’t use images for any major conversion points in your emails, unless you can replace that image with a clear hyperlink if it doesn’t load.
  • Make sure your images have alt-text associated with them that describes the image if it doesn't load.

The bottom line from all of this data is that customers control the way they consume information and research purchases. This isn't news to inbound marketers.

Each year, changes to technology further underscore this lesson. The rapidly diversifying lenses through which consumers receive information, the varied way they learn about your company -- all of that's okay, actually.

Control was never the end goal for marketers -- connection was. By understanding the ways that prospective customers behave, marketers can react to and channel their interests more appropriately.

What are you doing to enhance your email marketing campaigns this year? Give us a glimpse into your strategy for 2014.

Written by Meghan Keaney Anderson

A product marketer at @HubSpot. Meghan is interested in tech, social innovation, writing, and just about any action movie from the early 90s.

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