B-to-c can’t afford to overlook the ‘third screen’

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Conventional wisdom to date has associated mobile e-mail access with high-flying business executives hopelessly addicted to their BlackBerrys. But that could soon change, according to research from Indianapolis-based e-mail software solutions provider ExactTarget E-mail Marketing. The company says the mobile e-mail market is rapidly shifting to include consumer users—a trend b-to-c marketers should overlook at their peril.

ExactTarget released its findings last month in a white paper titled “E-Mail Marketing for the Third Screen.” The company’s research was conducted through an e-mail utilization survey of more than 4,200 mobile phone owners on market research company Zoomerang’s online research panel. In addition, ExactTarget interviewed mobile marketing and manufacturing experts, reviewed mobile e-mail rendering across 45 different devices and tested mobile e-mail practices on several of its clients’ e-mail communications.

“We’re on the cusp of a radical shift in terms of who is using mobile devices to view their e-mail,” said Morgan Stewart, director of research and strategy at ExactTarget. “In our survey, we saw a drastic difference between those who currently owned and those who planned to buy [in the next six months] devices with mobile e-mail capabilities.”

ExactTarget’s research indicated current mobile e-mail users are 18-to-44 years old, self-employed or employed full time, affluent and highly educated. Seventy-two percent of current users have an annual household income of $100,000 or higher.

However, the decreasing cost of smartphones and the introduction of new devices, such as Apple’s iPhone, are attracting interest from new users. “When you look at where [the market] is shifting … there’s a fivefold increase in the number of homemakers and retired persons who plan to buy a mobile device in the next six months,” Stewart added.

ExactTarget’s research also revealed that students, Asian-Americans and African-Americans showed significant increases in those planning to buy mobile e-mail devices.

So what does this mean for b-to-c marketing?

Stewart cautioned that mobile e-mail remains somewhat difficult to respond to and is often checked while users are multitasking. Just 54% of mobile users in ExactTarget’s survey said they have clicked on an e-mail link using their mobile devices. But 55% said they routinely flag mobile e-mail messages for later viewing on a laptop or desktop; another 29% flag messages from time to time.

Stewart said that marketers can make mobile e-mail more user-friendly by sending messages in multipart MIME format, allowing recipients to view the text version from their mobile devices and the HTML version when checking e-mail from their home computers.

In addition, he suggested that companies optimize the text version of an e-mail to make it easy for mobile device users to preview and flag for follow-up. “Create a very simple, very concise … message that is the first thing that shows up in that text version,” Stewart said. “Don’t put a bunch of disclaimer language or fluffy stuff at the top. Be very direct: This e-mail contains this offer for this time frame, and we want you to come back to the site and take action.”

Annie Angelo, online marketing manager at ExactTarget client Wild Oats Markets, said the research makes marketing to mobile device users seem doable for the average b-to-c marketer.

“I see us using this medium to create a new communication strategy within our online marketing plan,” Angelo said. “For example, our customers could sign up for special mobile messaging that might include a weeknight recipe, complete with the shopping list, driving customers into the store for a quick and easy dinner solution.”

Jami Goertzen, advertising channel manager at Florida Power & Light Co., said, “The biggest take-away has been the low-hanging-fruit opportunity of improving our text part of our e-mails to provide the mobile user the same information in a more readable format. We have now moved towards sending everything in multipart MIME to ensure we … continue to evolve toward the needs of our consumer.”

As for when other companies should consider implementing changes, it’s important to note that ExactTarget’s consumer survey research was carried out in April 2007, with intent to purchase data compiled for the ensuing six months.

“We’re in the middle of that transition from mobile e-mail being a b-to-b thing to becoming a b-to-c thing,” Stewart said. “We need to start thinking about mobile e-mail now.”

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