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Mobile boosts email deliverability, but will it last?

Email marketers could be facing a sudden drop in email deliverability this holiday season if they do not take steps to ensure mobile users across all devices are equally engaged, according to a new report from Return Path. 

The past year has seen a reduction in spam complaints for email and strong deliverability rates, trends driven by the growth in mobile email opens ? especially on Apple devices, whose native email experience lacks a spam complaint feedback mechanism. However, if inbox providers suddenly begin accounting for this, any effect on deliverability rates could disappear. 

?Whatever influence that Apple devices are exerting over complaints and inbox placement is artificial, and whether the user experience is changed or mailbox providers begin accounting for it, or both, the resulting positive effect on deliverability can go away overnight,? said Tom Sather, senior director of research at Return Path. ?Or on Black Friday. 

?Email marketers can avoid the trap - a sudden drop in deliverability and response from mobile users - by knowing which subscribers are reading mail on which mobile devices, and making sure that those users are at least as engaged as others,? he said. ?Certainly follow best practices to deliver a great mobile email experience - making it easy to take action form a small screen, or compelling to keep messages for later - but if the holiday season is critical to your success, use the early fall to find mobile subscribers that ignore your messages and reactivate them. 

?Late November is a lousy time for a burst of complaints from mobile users that found it suddenly easy to report ?this is spam? instead of opting out.?

Email deliverability
Email deliverability slightly improved during the 2013 holidays period, and one reason is the growth of the iPhone and the lack of a "report spam" button in the native email clients. 

Mailbox providers are adjusting by moving to an engagement based on a spam filtering process that looks at factors such as how much mail is read, or how much mail is read without being deleted, per Mr. Sather. 

Marketers can compensate by looking at metrics such as the unsubscribe rate or "deleted, not read" rate as a proxy for how their subscribers feel about their program before ramping up volume.

Changing landscape
Marketers increasingly recognize the need for an email strategy that reaches customers with the best experience possible based on the device they are using. 

For example, Sephora, a leader in mobile marketing, has signed a multi-year agreement with Epsilon that will see the two working on delivered targeted emails across the retailer?s omnichannel marketing platforms to create more personalized customer experiences. 

However, as mobile opens continue to grow, the email landscape is becoming more complicated because of the proliferation of devices as well as inbox providers? efforts to better meet the needs of mobile users. 

One of the biggest challenges that marketers face is reaching the inbox. Return Path?s latest report reveals that 17 percent of email marketing campaigns fail to reach consumers, going directly to junk folders, or disappearing altogether. 

Changing user preferences
Part of the problem is that mailbox providers such as Google are applying new rules to what is delivered to the inbox as users? preferences change, in part because of the growth in mobile email opens. 

By sector, retail and financial services did the best at reaching customers? inboxes while publishers, media and entertainment providers trailed others industries. However, the results by sector were swayed by a number of large, global brands with very strong email marketing strategies while other companies in these sectors did not perform as well. 

Interestingly the Gmail Promotions tab appears to have not had the negative impact on email marketing that was predicted when it was first introduced in 2013. 

Return Path found that read rates for messages in the Promotions tab have approached 20 percent in 2014. Additionally, inbox placement rates are among the highest for any large mailbox provider. 

However, senders who asked subscribers to redirect promotional messages into their Primary tabs - which Google urged marketers not to do - have not seen the same success, with brands delivering messages to the Primary tab seeing much more mail diverted to the spam folder. This is because commercial mail in the Primary folder is being held to higher standard, with these messages ending up in the spam folder if subscriber behavior did not clearly indicate the message was wanted. 

For example, the placement rate was 1 percent for apparel marketers sending emails to the Primary tab on Gmail but 98 percent for emails sent to the Promotions tab. 

Shopping folder
One takeaway from the introduction of Gmail?s tabs is that consumers like email marketing, as placing messages a click away from the Primary tab did not discourage engagement. Instead, it created the equivalent of a shopping folder, per Return Path. 

With Return Path reporting that other mailbox products are also adopting compartmentalized inboxes, marketers should keep in mind that messages qualify as inbox placed whether they are delivered to the Primary tab or Promotions. 

Further complicating how marketers define, measure and manage inbox placement is the proliferation of email applications. Return Path reports that a recent search of the iTunes store for email apps produced more than 16 million results. 

Also, mailbox providers continue to fine-tune their offerings to address consumers? changing needs. 

For example, Google is testing a grid-like view for the Promotions tab on Gmail that creates a Pinterest-like experience for users. 

More than simply delivering an image-driven experience, Grid View enables senders to optimize campaigns opens in real-time. 

?The big news is also the most surprising: The influence of mobile email is affecting fundamental aspects of email marketing measurement,? Mr. Sather said.

?The surge in mobile email opens, especially on Apple devices, may have played a direct role in worldwide deliverability by reducing spam complaints,? he said. 

?This unintended consequence of the Apple mobile email experience may be helping marketers reach subscribers' inboxes. In the span of a year, email and mobile became inexorably linked.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Marketer, New York