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When thinking of mobile, email is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

A technology first popularized in the 1990s, it still carries strong associations with the desktop and web experience. Even on platforms like Blackberry, which first introduced the concept of mobile email, the messaging format has lost its luster. Today, marketers are much more excited about app-centric messaging and mobile-first apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Despite its lack of novelty, email is still massively effective. Just two years ago, email open rates were a healthy 23 percent, and email advertising commanded one of the highest CPMs (cost per mille) of all ad formats. But as smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices explode in popularity, the landscape has shifted dramatically.

This year, email open rates have surged to 31 percent. As more people access email on the go, there is a higher probability that marketers will reach them. But even more impressive is that 44 percent of all emails are now accessed on mobile, compared to 11 percent in 2011. That number is projected to cross the 50 percent mark by the end of the year.

Standard email

Above: Standard email (Amazon)

Image Credit: Cezary Pietrzak

Imagine a technology that was originally built for large screens and physical keyboards, now being used on small screens with even smaller input devices. That’s a massive change, and its implications are far-reaching.

Unfortunately, many mobile marketers have completely forgotten about email when crafting their mobile strategy, limiting themselves to push notifications as the sole messaging channel to drive engagement.

Do you remember reading emails for apps like Instagram or Flipboard? (Hint: they don’t exist). And what was the experience like with companies known for their email notifications, like Facebook or Amazon? You may recall seeing tiny text and images, as if there was an expectation to bring a magnifying glass. A paltry 11 percent of email newsletters use responsive techniques to optimize their layouts, creating a large gap with existing mobile behaviors.

Mobile-optimized email

Above: Mobile-optimized email (Square)

Image Credit: Cezary Pietrzak

Sending emails that require pinching, zooming and panning on a small screen is a missed opportunity for marketers. It frustrates the end user and minimizes the potential engagement that an email would otherwise achieve.

When done right, mobile email has several strategic advantages. First, it’s the only non-native messaging format that can bring an audience back into a mobile app. This is a big selling point for mobile marketers who typically lose 76 percent of their users after 3 months. Second, email is permanent and can be accessed at any time, in contrast to push notifications and in-app messages which disappear as soon as they’ve been read. This gives the marketing channel “engagement insurance,” or guaranteed results even if its timing is not perfect. Lastly, email can drive purchases to desktop devices, which are better suited for form-filling and credit card checkout than the small screen.

To take full advantage of email on mobile, marketers must adopt a mobile-first mentality. This is not easy, as only some of the principles of desktop email apply to mobile, while others are completely different. But making such a change is imperative. Below are a few ways to maximize the efficacy of email in a mobile marketing program.

Optimize email for the small screen

Even with some formatting limitations, this should be your first priority. You can optimize email through a set of responsive design techniques that size content for the small screen, but still look good on the big screen. Remember, you only have 3-4 seconds to engage people before they tune out.

Create bite-size content

Long-form emails are less effective on mobile because they require a lot of scrolling and panning. To solve this problem, create bite-size content that captures all of the important points you want to convey, while giving people the option of a longer version. It may help to think of mobile email as a social media channel – short, timely and directional.

Make your subject line snappier

While subject line preview lengths vary by operating system, they’re typically shorter on mobile phones than desktop computers. The importance of headlines in driving open rates are well-known, so make sure to get your key message across quickly. In portrait mode of iOS mail, an email headline is approximately 30-33 characters, compared to almost triple that number in web-based Gmail. The rise of wearable technology like the Pebble watch will place even more emphasis on subject line brevity, given that screen sizes on these devices are smaller.

Rethink your link strategy

It’s very difficult to multitask on mobile devices. Think about the number of links you’re including in your content and prioritize the most important ones, focusing on one primary call to action. You should also incorporate large, easily clickable buttons and images. Once people link out of the email, there’s a high chance they’ll get distracted and never come back.

Consider mobile usage patterns

It’s a well-known fact that the best time for mobile engagement is in the evening. Research the times that work best for your audience, as there may be a significant difference between mobile and desktop behaviors.

As email shifts to a mobile-first experience, marketers should think about the channel not as a dusty old technology, but as their secret weapon. Email today is much more effective than it was a few years ago, and it carries several strategic benefits for the small screen. It only takes a few small steps to get started. Marketers who embrace these changes — which can be as small as optimizing an email’s length — will gain an important advantage over their less-savvy competitors.

Cezary PietrzakCezary Pietrzak is the Director of Marketing at Appboy, a customer engagement platform for mobile apps. He writes about mobile strategy and helps large brands and enterprises to manage relationships with their mobile users. You can read his thoughts on Appboy’s blog and follow him on Twitter at@appboy.

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