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Getting a strong email open rate on mobile devices

Smartphones have changed the way we behave. In particular in the way we work. In fact, many people now begin work in earnest the moment the commute to work starts and not when they get there. The role the smartphone plays in our life is huge. Every morning when you wake up, what is the first thing you do? Look at your partner? Open your curtains? Walk to the bathroom? A mobile consumer study by Deloitte suggests that 53% of smartphone users check their phones within 5 mins of waking up. We think it's probably an even higher percentage in reality. 

If you’re like me then one of the first things you do on your phone is check your emails, briefly scanning for anything important or interesting - deleting anything non-essential (more on that later). The same study by Deloitte also highlights that at least two thirds of us check our phones between 25 and 50 times a day, while 16 per cent of us do it more than 50 times from morning until night. And we're probably scanning emails briefly every time we check the phone. 

Indeed, A Hubspot study highlights the fact that the emails were only glanced at for 0-2 seconds and skimmed at for 2-8 seconds and only read for 8 Second.

What does all this mean?

We check emails obsessively. We're getting more of them and only interacting with them for a short amount of time. We can dismiss an email with the swipe of a finger or thumb. So all that hard work conjuring up the perfect campaign narrative can be gone in a heartbeat. Getting a strong email open rate on mobile devices is becoming increasingly tricky.

So you've got to regard your emails in the way any recipient would and that means not only checking how they render on mobile devices, but how they appear the first time a recipient sees them in their mobile inbox.

Battle for the inbox

iphone 5 inbox image
iphone 5 inbox image

Here's what my personal inbox looked like when I checked it earlier. Notice anything?

Focus area 1. Who's it from?

You've got a matter of milliseconds to grab someone's attention as they scroll through their inbox. The first thing we see is what is in bold - the sender. On the face of it, from my list of emails above, I've not got a single email from an actual person - sure Donald Russell is a person, but it's the name of the company. I checked to see if this was actually the case by looking at the body of the emails to see if a real person signed them off. Only one did (the second from bottom), which came from a delightful sounding Ben Jones, the Director of Operations at Extra Energy, my new energy supplier. But why didn't it say it was from Ben @ extraenergy. That's far more personal right? 

What I'm getting at is something that divides marketers. Should an email from a company come from a person or from the company as an entity? In the case of the Extra Energy email, it wasn't a marketing email, but an information email talking about the set-up of my direct debit. It also (rightly) addressed me personally on the first line of the email. Had it not, I might have skipped it, because the email address is too long for me to read on my iPhone screen.

So for the other 4 emails, no one is addressing me personally. Can I really connect with a retail brand if I'm addressed by that retail brand in its entirety? I would say maybe. But the age-old challenge that retailers face is one of loyalty to the retail brand. I like Nike shoes. But I've bought my last three pairs from three different retailer brands, none of which have made any attempt to connect with me personally. Subsequently, they've all sent me emails with nice pictures and discount codes in them. But they're all much of a muchness. So I would argue for emails coming from an individual and having some character within them. Otherwise the danger is that you just throw content at a consumer in the hope that something might stick eventually. So why be so aloof Mr. Retailer? People buy from people. So if you really want to have a relationship with customers, then identify yourselves to us!

Of course, when you're as big and ugly as Amazon you can do what you like, sadly! Including the avoidance of personalised salutation!

Focus area 2. Subject line length?

The second thing you see is the subject line. In each of the 5 emails in the image above (and in most cases actually) the subject line spills off the screen. Sure, if you turn your phone to landscape this might rectify things. But most of us don't do this. A UX study reveals how 15% of us interact with phones with two hands and 10% of that 15% hold the phone in two hands, in landscape mode, 90% in portrait mode. 

So short, punchy, intriguing subject lines are the order of the day, conveying a compelling reason to open the email.

  • Donald Russell does it with "BRAND NEW Butcher's Specials!" but then tries to add something else which is a tiny bit distracting.
  • Selfridges tell me I can get 50% off something beginning with "Hom".
  • I can guess that The Protein Works is trying to communicate 10% off Today. The Onl... refers to Only, though the first thing that popped into my head was Online. Doesn't make a huge difference, but had I seen Only, I might have felt a greater sense of urgency to open the email?
  • The Extra Energy subject line made me smile, because 9 times out of 10 I don't choose to pay for anything, it's a necessity! So thanking me for choosing to pay for something seemed a bit odd!

Again the point is that I don't have time to do any interpretation. I need to know in a split-second who the email is from, and what it's about.

Focus 3. Header text

This is the little snippet of light grey text below the subject line of the emails. In my opinion, it's rarely considered, yet it's valuable 'real estate'. Some mobile advertisers would pay a lot of money for that slither of space. So what I don't understand is why many of these companies say the same old thing about viewing the email in a browser.

donald russell email in inbox
donald russell email in inbox

In Donald Russell's case I can see a tasty 50% off minced steak. Then it says: "If you're having trouble viewing this ema..." .  

But when I open the email there is no reference to having trouble viewing it anywhere.

donald russell email
donald russell email
selfridges email in inbox
selfridges email in inbox

In Selfridges' case it says: "view email online | Add email@selfridges.com to your a...".

On opening the email there is again no reference to viewing the email online or adding email@selfridges.com to anything. Not sure what you make of that? but I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity to communicate something that invites me to open the email.

In The Protein Works' case it refers to two recipes.

TPW email in inbox
TPW email in inbox

This is quite good. I can see that there's some kind of offer from the subject line and then some information. When I open the email itself, though the word "recipe" is nowhere to be found (though I can see the extra 10% off today only call-to- action).

Extra energy has been a little frugal with their header content, which has left a gap. Ironically the space it created drew my eyes and when I saw my name there it grabbed my attention.

EEnergy email in inbox
EEnergy email in inbox


We check emails on our smartphones the whole time. You're competing within an inbox full of other emails and a ruthless screening process

It's a bit like travelling quickly down a white corridor. To the left and right there are a series of doors. Each door has a sign above it with some text on it trying to invite you to open the door. On the doors themselves there is further snippet of more information to try and get you to enter. The point being that the environment is sterile and the only thing that will encourage you to enter is carefully written copy that gives you a reason to do so.

So by all means spend hours crafting beautiful email content, but remember not to stumble at the first hurdle.