After recent news that responsive email design improves click-through rates by 15%, it’s small wonder many people are asking “what is responsive email design?”

The answer is, on the face of it, simple.  Responsive email design is the design (and build) of emails so that they display content in a way optimised for any device they’re viewed on.

For instance, on a desktop the content will spread as wide as needed to provide best readability and display of images.  Whereas on a mobile phone, the content will most likely display in a single column, with clear legible text and smaller images.

How do you make an email responsive?

Thankfully the process for responsive email design is becoming easier all the time.  The most cost effective approach (one I always suggest to clients) is to settle on a few layouts for emails, and then have reusable templates created for these.  This means the hard work of developing and testing responsive design is only done once.

The actual technology behind responsive emails is the use of CSS (cascading style sheets) rules to change the way the email content is displayed depending on the viewport (screen) area of the device in question.  For instance, if a screen is considered to be small, the content will typically be displayed in a single column (by hiding other content).

Many different CSS frameworks exist now to aid developers in applying the ‘responsive magic’ to email designs.  A capable front-end developer should be able to ensure your emails are optimised from high-resolution desktops, through to the smallest phone screens within a few hours.

What are the problems with responsive email design?

One of the biggest challenges facing the current approach to responsive emails is that a few mobile email browsers strip out the coding that enables the emails to resize and change layout – defaulting to the desktop design.

The other major challenge is the current approach to responsive email design is to hide and display content, depending on the device.  This can often mean that large desktop images are downloaded to mobile devices.  This uses more bandwidth than needed, but as bandwidth becomes less of a restriction, this is a fading concern for many.

Both of these challenges can be overcome with more sophisticated email dispatch or marketing automation systems, but for most marketers this level of refinement doesn’t make commercial sense.

Should I use responsive email design?

The writing’s on the wall – do you want higher click-through rates?  If so, use responsive email design.

As customers become accustomed to mobile-optimised websites, and over 65% of emails are read on mobile devices, it’s a trend we can’t ignore.