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Following a late night spent pre-ordering the Watch (38mm stainless-steel with classic buckle, for the curious), here’s our take on what email marketing trends we see emerging with the uptake of wearable devices.

If forecasts are correct that over 22 million Apple Watches will ship this calendar year, it goes without saying that all those devices are going to change how we see people reading and reacting to email marketing messages. But what are these changes likely to look like?

Based on early interactions with the Watch and other wearable devices, we’ve compiled 6 predictions that we’ll either go on to live, or laugh at in the months ahead. Let’s get started:

1. Wearables will become a new category

A fancy Apple Watch

Until 2012, desktop and webmail email clients were how everyone read their email. Then, mobile email clients emerged as both data plans became commonplace and smartphones matured, ultimately allowing people to not only read their email on the go, but interact with them, just as they would on their home or work PCs.

Since then, mobile email client usage has skyrocketed, with over 41% of all opens being recorded on a mobile device. In the same period, desktop and webmail email clients have had their market share cannibalized, as email recipients have increasingly taken a mobile-first approach to engagement.

It was back in mid-2010 that I wrote my first article on optimizing email for the new crop of mobile devices, particularly the iPhone. This is before we really understood what impact it would have on email designers and marketers. Now, at what feels like a very similar intersection, we predict that we’ll likely see wearable devices define their own category, complete with their own “email hacks” and optimization techniques. The category is already diversifying too, with email clients like Gmail and the Kickstarter-backed Mail Pilot already jostling to be the top wearable email client.

However, before we all start breathlessly reporting on the “rise” of wearable email client share, it’s worth noting that wearables like the Watch are a completely different beast from the HTML-heavy environments that email designers and marketers have become comfortable with. For reasons that I’ll outline in our next prediction, at least initially, the Watch and others won’t even register as a blip in your email client usage reports. In fact, they’ll be invisible to all of us.

2. Plain-text email will become relevant again

I have to admit that sometime last year, I grew complacent… When dealing with the plain-text versions of my email campaigns. That’s because in email marketing services like Campaign Monitor automatically generate and send a plain-text alternative version of your email campaign with your HTML email newsletters – and generally do a great job of it, too. If all you want is a carbon-copy of your email content (minus images, of course) for accessibility purposes and the benefit of seriously old-school email clients, then these defaults work just fine. However, the Watch is about to shake things up considerably.

Brace yourselves, email designers – plain-text is back. The Watch displays the plain-text alternative supplied with HTML email campaigns, which means that your media queries and pretty images aren’t going to make the cut here. In fact, if your plain-text alternative is audacious enough to feature more than a couple of lines of content, there’s a good chance that it’s just going to be deleted in a quick swipe of the finger. More on that in the next prediction.

3. Super-short content will rule

If you’re less interested in working with the HTML and plain-text versions of your email campaigns separately, your option is this – keep your email marketing campaigns super-short.

Given that you can’t tap on links and browse web content via the Watch interface (you’ll need to Handoff to Mail on your iPhone to do that), it’s important that your email’s plain-text version provides immediate value to the reader and very clear instructions as to what to do next. Again, long-form content is most likely going to get your email deleted if a Watch wearer is skimming their email while in line for coffee.

4. Open rates and engagement will go down

After the rationale in our last prediction, you might think this point has been resolutely explained. However, the reasons we predict engagement will drop extend simply beyond emails becoming that much harder to navigate.

As mentioned, the Watch relies on HTML email newsletters featuring a solid plain-text alternative. This plain-text version is devoid of images… And images are what every pretty much email marketing service uses to track opens (and no, silent sounds won’t load either).

Combined with an inability to click or tap on links unless you Handoff to another device, we’re likely going to see engagement drop as people choose to delete their email immediately, instead of opening it (and thus loading images) first.

5. “View on your iPhone” will become the new “View in your browser”

Does this all sound grim? Well, remember what email marketers did when the perils of images not displaying became apparent – they prompted people to view them in their web browsers. We predict that similar messages may start to appear in the plain-text versions of email campaigns, to encourage Handoff for easier reading and interaction.

The same may also happen with call-to-actions (CTAs). I’ll smile when I finally receive a message on my (future) Watch, pleading for me to “RSVP on my iPhone”, or to visit an e-commerce site “on another device”.

6. Personal messages will rule the day

Finally, one thing that stuck out to me in the Mail demos is how “normal” the Apple-provided demo emails have been. The personal messages and party invites featured are diametrically opposed to most marketing emails as far as language and content goes; in Apple’s world, you receive email from your friends, then marketing content via brand-specific apps.

So, will email marketers try to closely emulate the language and interactions of personal emails, but within their email newsletters? Instead of asking people to “click here to find out more”, will we start to see prompts to “come by our store tomorrow for a chat”? Time will tell if softer messaging and offline interactions will take on greater importance amongst brick-and-mortar brands in particular.

Wearable devices have been gaining acceptance steadily over the years, so at this stage, it’s hard to tell how close we are to the “tipping point” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. However, if history is anything to go by, we may quickly find ourselves amidst both a behavioral and technological shift, reminiscing about that first-penned article on wearable devices when on the cusp of an even newer trend.

Finally, we are sure that the wearables space is going to launch marketing trends that we’ve totally overlooked here, so be sure to let us know in the comments if you have a prediction of your own. We’ll have the pleasure of seeing if they come true or not when the Watch ships on 24 April!

  • Chris

    “Kickstarter-backed Mail Pilot already jostling to be the top wearable email client.” I’m confused, I haven’t heard any news from Mail Pilot that they have a wearable applet a lone the “top” wearable app. As for them in the iPhone arena they have absolutely horrible reviews across the board for their buggy software, compared to say the “top” apps in the market such as Dropbox’s Mailbox or Apple’s Mail. Can you clarify? PS. Why do you require a user have a website to be able to post a comment?

  • Chris

    Looks like the comment bug issue is that you have http:// as a value and a placeholder. It should only be a placeholder, or if you have it as a value, then you need to update your URL validator to ignore it if a person does not change it from the default http:// (aka has no website).

  • Kathleen Javen

    So in a nutshell is the new email content format really going to be a version of twitter using plain text within a 140 characters boundary to get our message across?

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Hi Chris, thanks for following this up! You can find out more about Mail Pilot’s Watch app here: http://mindsensehq.com/mailpilot/

    Of course, whether it will carve out serious market share is yet to be seen, but if history is anything to go by, “alternative” OSX mail apps like Postbox that have aimed to simplify the inbox and help recipients prioritize email have seen fair amounts of success. Personally, I wish them the best of luck in helping people tame their inboxes :)

    Sorry about that commenting quirk – we’re hoping to give this platform a bit of an update in the months ahead, so we’ll certainly try to make sure things like this get ironed out.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Hi Kathleen, not necessarily – it’s possible to read the entire plain-text version of an HTML email using Mail on Watch. With this in mind, we do suggest keeping your message concise, focused and above all, relevant. While people will likely have patience to read a few paragraphs via the Watch app (then use Handoff to respond if it’s important), I don’t think the Watch is the most practical device for reading long-form text.

  • Jaina

    Almost sounds like, to me, that the plain-text emails are going to be different campaigns to their HTML counterparts rather than being the, erm, counterpart. I often think of the plain text being another version, so both are easy to compare when it comes to reporting and analysis. If wearable tech like this does take off (Yes, I’m in the dubious camp of wearable tech!), it’ll be interesting to see where email on it does go. After all, some wearable tech are in the camp of just showing notifications and less of the actual functionality, as opposed to the Apple Watch.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Hi Jaina, you raise a really interesting point there about treating the plain-text alternative as a different campaign. If we do see a lot of traction from wearables (and again, it might be hard to measure), we’ll likely see plain-text content perhaps providing the “super-short” version of any given HTML email campaign. We may also see a re-think of how subject lines are structured, for the benefit of devices that only show this in notifications, but don’t let you browse the full text. I anticipate a lot of new best practices to come!

  • Andrew

    Has anyone seen the Apple Watch displaying the plain-text version of an HTML email?

    From what I’ve seen, Mail may display this message in blue – “The full version of this message isn’t available on Apple Watch. But you can read it on your iPhone.”

    Perhaps Apple thought about how bad plain-text versions could appear, full of unnecessary “===” characters and lengthy tracked URLs.. users could be scrolling through URLs that take over the entire screen forever!

    It makes sense that they would display the plain-text version in lieu of not being capable of rendering HTML on screen, and I hope they do, however it looks like this may not be the case initially. I’m sure updates and other email apps will keep us on our toes. It would be cool if media queries could be used to display something different and more relevant to the context of viewing on your wrist.

    Some examples of HTML email on Apple Watch:

  • Andrew

    So, are you saying that because the Watch only displays plain-text we won’t be able to tell if they do (or do not) open an email (since there are no images)?

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Andrew, this is certainly a possibility. Now that it’s in the wild, we’ll be keeping a sharp eye open for engagement from the Watch – fingers crossed we’ll see something!

  • Andrew D.

    Litmus has added a great post on this – https://litmus.com/blog/apple-watch-favors-text-version-breaks-links

    If plain-text exists then it will display the plain-text version, if not then the “..isn’t available” blue message will display.

    Time to get our plain-text versions in order!

    PS – There’s 2 different Andrew’s in this comment thread. I’m the first one :)

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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