You’ve Got Mail: Responsive or Adaptive Emails?

What is the biggest difference between a responsive email and an adaptive one? In reality, your budget. In this blog, I’m going to compare these two mobile-friendly methods of building emails and what each of them means for the end user’s experience.

When it comes to email, especially from the user’s point of view, they really only care about one thing: The information they’re reading in your message. Essentially, they want to be able to consume the content quickly so that they can either take action or move on.

In that small time-frame when a person checks their email on their phone, you, as the marketer, have to create a design that supports the content and breaks through the clutter to grab hold of the user’s attention. Because let’s be honest – there’s nothing more infuriating than an email that doesn’t load properly or provides zero value.

Wasting the recipient’s’ time is a surefire way to have your future emails sent right to the trash bin of their inbox. So, how can you avoid this fate? You need to create emails that perform well wherever and however the user chooses to read them.

As most of the world is checking their email via mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, your emails should be readable on just about all of them (or, if you’ve done your research on your target audience, you can cherry pick the most common devices and optimize for those). Basically, developing a mobile-friendly email is a must. However, fully responsive emails are just visually better.

How? Allow me to explain.

Adaptive Email

These emails simply adapt to the screen size by scaling down proportionately. For example, if part of your email has an image next to some text in a two-column layout, it will remain that way on all devices. The downside is that on particularly small devices like smartphones, your text may be so small that users can’t read it without pinching the screen to zoom in, which isn’t going to provide the best user experience for your audience.

Responsive Email

In a responsive email, the design responds to the screen size by recognizing the width. The same two-column layout on a smaller device will instead stack the image and text on top of one another so that the text remains large enough to read. Your users won’t need to pinch and zoom, as the email is perfectly readable on whatever device they’re using.

With that in mind, some will argue that responsive emails will garner more user engagement because of the favorable user experience, and more engagement may lead to increased conversions. However, there are many variables that contribute to whether the user will ultimately decide to take further action, including, but not limited to, the content and design.

So why does the budget decide?

It would be awesome if we could always use responsive emails all the time, every time. In the beginning, I said that it was your budget that realistically decided what method you use to build your emails. That’s because time is money, and fully responsive emails take a lot of a developer’s time to build and test.

Adaptive emails take much less effort to build and are much less time-consuming than fully responsive emails. There is only one version and it simply scales to the device. Testing across different devices, browsers, and email clients is less painful because the email should look the same in all of them. Just set the same width value in three different ways and you’re done! No messy media queries that may or may not work.

Fully responsive emails, on the other hand, take much longer because the developer has to test the email thoroughly to ensure it looks fantastic across the different devices, browsers, and email clients. A fix for a bug in one email client might break something that worked in another one. So that starts the process of what I like to call fiddling around until they find a solution.

To help you decide whether you should go for the fully responsive or adaptive email approach, I present to you the Iron Triangle, also known as the project manager’s triangle. Your ideal goal for any project would be to get the best deal by paying the least amount for a good quality product with fast turnaround time. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, accomplishing all three is simply impossible; you have to choose up to two of the three goals: fast, good, and/or cheap. Anyone who promises you can have them all is lying – beware!

If you have the budget, it’s worth it to request (and expect) a high-quality result. If your project is also a low priority, the “fast” goal doesn’t matter. In that scenario, only the “good” goal was chosen. Those are my favorite types of projects because I can spend the time making a great, robust, and bug-free product. The fast and cheap projects hurt my soul because it is inevitable that the outcome will be of low quality. If you need to choose cheap, I’d recommend setting your deadline far in advance, else the quality will suffer and everyone working on it will know it before it ever even reaches the user.

I think I’ve covered enough for one article. As you can see, I’m very vested in this subject, so I’m going to leave you with a teaser for a future blog post:

Adaptive emails are not “enough” and fully responsive emails are too time-consuming, so check back in the coming weeks to learn about how new method developers like me are now learning!