Email Design Tips for BlackBerry Friendly Newsletters

Keep BlackBerry users happy. Learn how to design email newsletters for the best readability. Here's how.

Despite the appeal of the iPhone, many businesses and individuals rely primarily on their BlackBerry. Yet, despite the amount of time users spend checking e-mail on their BlackBerry, many BlackBerry models display messages in a text format. Therefore, any messages sent in HTML can't really be read, at least not the way the highly-paid graphics designer intended.

Readers might look and click at the newsletter's pretty graphics on their laptops. But when drowning in an e-mail deluge on a mobile device, it's tempting to delete the "junk" unreadable message. Certainly, that's the e-mail triage I apply, since I receive upwards of 30 newsletters daily, and not all require immediate attention.

Recently, a niche magazine publisher asked me how to make his newsletters friendly to BlackBerry owners who represented the majority of his readership. I didn't have any useful suggestions, so I asked a few experts. Here is their advice, which may help you improve your newsletter usability and effectiveness for your mobile readers.

A Problem Worth Solving

To some, it's not worth the effort to design a newsletter that's tuned to BlackBerry users. Obviously, if your target reader rarely uses a BlackBerry this isn't as relevant; a Mac software vendor probably doesn't need to care as intensely about HTML e-mail because of the expectation that users prefer iPhones. (Though there are other UI considerations, as you'll see later.)

If you are certain that your readers all use late-model versions of the smartphone, you may not need to be concerned about tuning your newsletter. Most new BlackBerry devices render HTML well. According to Al Sacco, BlackBerry expert at sister site CIO.com, all BlackBerry devices running RIM's handheld OS 4.5 or higher support HTML mail, and all the latest BlackBerry devices run OS 5.0.

However, not everybody sports the latest BlackBerry – my trusty BlackBerry Pearl works just fine, thanks – or feels the need to upgrade. Unless you want to bet that only early adopters are interested in your company news or marketing material, it behooves you to design your newsletter for the lowest common denominator.

The inability to read HTML on a BlackBerry (and other such devices) is not trivial; it has dollar signs associated with it. Anne P. Mitchell, president of the Institute for Social Internet Public Policy, law professor at Lincoln Law School, and author of "The Email Deliverability Handbook," says, "For e-mail senders who live, breathe, and die by open and click through rates, [the HTML unreadability] can artificially suppress both open and click through rates. This is due to several factors, not the least of which is that even if the user can view the images and links, and take a desired action such as clicking through, often they don't – and having already read the e-mail on their mobile device, they are not going to open and read it again once they get back to the office; they are going to simply delete it unopened."

Let Them Eat Plain Text

Then there's the "Let them eat cake" approach: Give newsletter subscribers the option to read all your newsletters in plain text, and expect anyone who objects to HTML mail (including your BlackBerry users) to take that choice. Text newsletters, decorated with stars for emphasis and unadorned URLs, are a good choice for users who prefer accessibility and speed over "pretty," without regard to mobility. However, assuming that people read the newsletter only on their smartphones is unlikely to be a good idea.

Certainly, the plain-text option is a common way to sidestep the issue, particularly if you're outsourcing newsletter distribution. Bob Steinkamp, owner of Finger Lakes Media Strategies, says, "Most of the e-mail marketing services now offer both HTML and plain-text versions, and also allow you to upload your own images and graphics, anyhow, so that really isn't an issue."

Lots of people stop there. But e-mail newsletter professional Kristi Bennitt says of text newsletters, "It hurts my teeth just to mention it because you can't navigate it, it doesn't draw your attention, and click through rates drop 75% or more."

E-mail senders must strike a delicate balance, but finding it is rarely left up to the technical staff, such as web developers and designers. "Sadly, most 'what goes into the e-mail' decisions are made by the marketing departments," she explains. The marketing staff have little understanding (and care even less) how the newsletter content affects whether the message makes it to the inbox – or is read on a BlackBerry, says Mitchell.

When it comes to delivering content to users – whether it's on a company website or in the e-mail the company sends out – the tech staff should be involved, at least at the design stage. Internet and Email Marketing Consultant George Giles at AgencyFour opines that although web browsers have evolved considerably in the last decade, e-mail clients have not. "This couldn't be more true than on mobile devices where there are additional issues like real estate, rendering issues from one version of the browser, OS, screen size, platform and HTML," Giles says. "That means 10 different Blackberries could render the same e-mail 10 different ways." Is this something you want to leave up to the Marketing department to figure out?

Okay, perhaps I've convinced you that it may be worth devoting some attention to your mobile readers. Next up: how to do that.

MIME: Not Just Silent Clowns

The big answer up front: MIME is your friend.

Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) is an Internet standard which details how messages should be formatted in order to be exchanged between different e-mail systems. MIME permits messages to include virtually any type of file or document, including text, images, audio, video, and other application-specific data.

The e-mail experts agree that the best way to fix mobile newsletters is to ensure that the e-mail is sent using MIME. Explains Mitchell, "This means that each e-mail contains the HTML version and a text version of the same e-mail, along with a standardized indicator embedded in the e-mail which tells the receiving system, 'If you can't handle HTML e-mail, there is a text version here for you to display.'" (I'll leave out the gory details about how to construct MIME messages; now that you know what to look for, it'll be easy to find the specifics online.)

However, don't depend only on MIME. Every e-mail campaign has three parts, says Giles: a text only message, a HTML message, and a "view as web page" website page. The "view as a web page" option launches the smartphone's browser – and it also requires that the newsletter be posted somewhere on your site that a browser can access.

Another option is to move the newsletter to a web page based newsletter and have the primary message for that issue be sent via MIME, suggests Bennitt. "The primary message links to the actual newsletter page, which if the tech guys worked it properly can be viewed by any device." In that case, she says, the newsletter can be as simple as "The December Newsletter is now available…click here to view" or as complex as a content teaser with a link to view the remaining newsletter. Some newsletters include a letter from the editor in the e-mail message, from which they link to that month's newsletter. The right method is a personal choice that reflects the company's attitudes, personalities, and comfort level, Bennitt says.

Restructure the Newsletter for Mobile Readers

If you know that a significant number of your newsletter readers are mobile, then it may make sense to design the layout for that very tiny screen.

For example, Larry Blumsack, president of Zoka Institute recently worked with his designer to improve the newsletter's BlackBerry friendliness. "Larry's newsletter was designed in a two column layout with a sidebar on the left and the main article content on the right," explains web designer Marty Crouch. The narrow screen format required too much scrolling; the article, his main newsletter content, was buried below the fold.

Their simple solution: "We swapped the left-hand sidebar and the right-hand article by rearranging the table cells in the layout," says Crouch. "Now the BlackBerry renders the article much closer to the beginning of the message. …We were able to retain the appearance benefits of HTML styling and the accompanying graphics without burying the body content."

Keep It Simple. Don't Use CSS Styles Heavily.

When you do use HTML for newsletters, keep it as simple as possible. Advises Alex Moazed, CEO of Applico, Webmail services are likely to modify your code; be prepared to have tags like DOCTYPE, BODY, and HEAD stripped. Also, don't use CSS styles heavily, he says; 90% of the time they're stripped out by the mail client. "That's especially true for services like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail as your CSS has a chance to override their own styles," he adds.

"Avoid sophisticated designs requiring high width, as a lot of the client e-mail preview windows will be just a few hundred pixels wide," says Moazed. Use TABLE tags to position the content within your web page – as old school as that may seem. Go back to basics and rely on what's proven and working across different rendering engines.

Create a Dedicated Design for Mobile Users

So many people suggested to me that the "obvious" way to serve the BlackBerry user is to suggest they use a text version of the newsletter that it's surprising they missed the next step: creating a newsletter version explicitly for the mobile user.

"Consider providing alternate versions right out of the box," suggests Mitchell. "Let users sign up for 'the mobile version of our newsletter' [the stripped down version], and encourage people who know they will be reading your e-mail on a cell phone or other mobile device to sign up for that mobile version." In that case, you don't have to make compromises on the "real" newsletter, and the mobile users know that they're getting a version optimized for their needs.

Giles agrees with this solution – and not just for technical reasons. "We recommend that a client build into their e-mail newsletter sign-up form an option for mobile platforms so that we can segment and build unique solutions for them," he says. In the mobile signup process, the subscriber can be asked if she is using a BlackBerry, Palm, iPhone, and so on. That information can be tracked in the customer database and the list can be segmented for a separate send with a unique e-mail, says Giles.

Whatever you do, test the results. Mitchell recommends a $5 service (with which she's affiliated but from which she earns no money) called ISIPP SuretyMail that shows how an e-mail message looks in 20 different clients, including mobile devices such as Windows Mobile devices and BlackBerry.

Take any opportunity to get your message across, says Giles. "If that means building the right e-mail for a Blackberry or iPhone, then take the opportunity... otherwise it may be a lost one."

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