LISTSERV at Work L-Soft
Issue 4, 2012

Computers, Tablets and Phones: The Changing State of Email

The Changing State of Email

You've got mail ... on your computer, on your tablet, on your phone. Email messages today simply aren't what they used to be. With each new technological leap, we, as email senders across every channel, need to reevaluate how today's subscribers take in and process our messages. And it's not just email. Use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media is growing daily, so quickly, in fact, that plain SMS text messaging is actually declining.

Early Email

Back in the dim mists of antiquity, when teletype machines were the only kind of terminal that connected to the mainframe, we had 36 alphanumeric characters (upper case only) and a handful of punctuation marks and special symbols. Eventually CRT terminals came along and we got lower case characters and more symbols. This was about the time email was invented1. A few years later, in 1982, email was formalized by the SMTP2 protocol. Not long after that, in 1986, LISTSERV® was created3 to manage the rapidly growing problem of email distribution lists as email usage spread widely. With the arrival of MIME4 standards in 1992, HTML email, multipart email, and non-text email attachments became possible. Advancements in email technology have been accelerating ever since.

Today's Email

Jumping to today, smartphone ownership has tripled in the past 2 years. 44 percent of Americans age 12 and older now own a smartphone5. Studies show that mobile users are a highly receptive and reactive audience. 82 percent of smartphone users check and send email with their mobile device6. 34 percent of smartphone owners now also own a tablet. PCs or laptops rule a lot of our workday, while our smartphones are always with us. Tablets are the new and very rapidly growing segment, often used at home.

In fact, what kind of device are you reading this newsletter on? How many devices do you have? Do you open, scan and respond to email messages in the same way on your desktop or laptop as you do on your smartphone or on your tablet? Does screen size make a difference or is it the mobility factor (being able to hold the device in your hands)? Email has become a multi-screen medium and needs to display well on desktops, laptops, mobile devices and now tablets. A study has shown that 70 percent of users will immediately delete an email on a mobile device if it doesn't render well, isn't designed for their device or is too slow to display7.

Technical Solutions

So what are we email creators and senders to do? There are some technical things we can do. Over the past year or so, the concept of responsive design8 has become a very hot topic in web design. In brief, this means making use of advanced HTML coding techniques and CSS39 that allow the web browser to query the device it is being displayed on and dynamically adjust the display accordingly based to the style sheet. You can see this in action as you turn a phone or tablet from vertical to horizontal orientation. It also works on computers and laptops if you drag the sides of your browser window to extremes. Of course, there is much more to responsive design than the media query and max-width feature, but can this solve the problem for email senders, bringing state-of-the-art web design and browser design together? Can we at last give up designing separate websites and emails for mobile users?

Unfortunately, no. The major problem is not so much with the latest web browsers, especially the ones used on mobile devices, but that the traditional email clients used on desktops and laptops are still in the dark ages. For example, Microsoft Outlook (2007 onward) uses Microsoft Word as its HTML rendering engine instead of Internet Explorer. So if you aren't careful you may risk having your email messages display well on mobile devices but perhaps appear sub-par in a computer's email client. But there is hope. Webmail clients are less affected by this. And, more than 50 percent of readers use the "view online" link in emails10, so they will be viewing your email in a web browser rather than a less capable email client. There are many online resources, tutorials and coding examples you can easily find with a little searching.

Non-Technical Solutions

So aside from the email design best practices suggestions we have already published11, along with making use of the newest web technology, there are a number of important non-technical things to do.

1. Keep it simple: Make your message clear. Keep the important information at the top, or "above the fold". Slim down your message.

2. Use bullets or numbered lists: This makes your content quickly understandable. Split up long blocks of text into short paragraphs and sentences.

3. Front load your subject line: Users triage their inboxes, saving important email messages for later. You have about six words to get your message across. Put what's important at the beginning.

4. Write like you would for Twitter: On many devices the inbox displays not only the subject line, but the pre-header as well, or approximately 100 characters.

5. Use fewer, smaller images: A logo and three other small images are ideal. Many email clients have images turned off. Keep your important information in the text. Large images can be slow to download.

6. Links are important: Use "Read more" links to longer articles or landing pages. Don't crowd links close together. It makes them hard to click or tap on small screens.

7. Make your call to action (CTA) clear: Whatever your intent, be it purchase, donation, sign-up, download, or attend, use CTA buttons to capture your readers' attention, and trigger them to do what you want.

8. Keep scrolling to a minimum: Readers will lose interest if they have to scroll too much. A single-column ladder design minimizes scrolling issues.

9. Design for a 600 pixel width: Your message will easily scale up to 1020 or 1200-pixel tablet and computer screens. It can also scale down to 320 pixels (iPhone). See for the latest information and pixel tester.

10. Email is just the start: Make the landing pages and websites you link users to mobile-friendly as well. Make sure that they also are easy to read on a small screen.

11. Test, test, test: If you are designing for mobile users, you must test on mobile devices. This also helps you get into the mobile reader's mindset and their on-the-go, distracted environment.

12. Design for your readers' convenience, not the device. Make your message and call to action more compelling than the rest.

That wasn't too tough, was it? Keeping these guidelines in mind while creating your email messages will make all the difference to your mobile readers, regardless of the device. Remember that the future of email is certainly going mobile. Plan now for your messages to be there and be effective.


8. You can do your own search on "responsive design" because the results change almost daily.

LISTSERV is a registered trademark licensed to L-Soft international, Inc.
Microsoft, Outlook, Word, and Internet Explorer are registered trademarks of Microsoft.
iPhone, iPod, iPod Touch, iPad, and iPad mini are registered trademarks of Apple Inc.
All other trademarks, both marked and not marked, are the property of their respective owners.

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