Email Attention Spans Increasing

Written by Litmus on 8 March 2017

This article originally appeared on Litmus Software, Inc.

Mobile phones, Twitter, texting, video games, and other digital era trappings have been blamed for shortening our attention spans to less than that of goldfish. You might be tempted to throw email in that bucket…but you’d be wrong. According to an analysis of billions of emails using Litmus Email Analytics…

The average time spent reading an email increased by nearly 7% to 11.1 seconds between 2011 and 2016.

Honestly, we were more than a little surprised by this. We expected to find that email attention spans were shrinking. Instead, we found that the percentage of emails read for more than 18 seconds grew to 44.4% in 2016 from 38.4% in 2011.

We also expected to find that mobile email reading was the culprit behind shrinking email attention spans. That hypothesis was completely wrong, as the average amount of time that mobile users spend reading an email increased nearly 16% over those six years.

Historically, longer engagement with mobile emails wasn’t necessarily a good thing. That’s because mobile email clients didn’t always render emails well and brands didn’t always send mobile-friendly emails.

However, mobile email clients have improved significantly and brands have made huge strides in making their emails mobile-friendly, to the point that responsive is now the dominant email design approach. On top of that, mobile screen sizes have increased considerably, making email reading even easier. So the time spent with emails on mobile has increased during a time when the email client user experience and the subscriber experience have both improved dramatically.

The gains in email engagement times have been fairly consistent. The average amount of time that mobile users spend reading an email increased every single year from 2011 to 2016. And seasonality didn’t appear to affect these gains, either.

Why the big increase in mobile email engagement times? We have a few theories:

  1. Ownership of desktop computers has stagnated, while ownership of tablets and smartphones has exploded. Consumers are becoming more comfortable doing a range of activities, including checking email and shopping, on mobile devices. That trend is most evident in the percentage of consumers that rely solely on mobile devices for internet access has grown over the years, especially among those under 30 years old.
  2. People turn to their mobile devices when they’re bored or have a little free time on the subway or bus, in a waiting room, while watching TV, or even while in the bathroom. They aren’t in a big hurry—at least not compared to when they’re at work. That means that many of the email interactions on mobile devices are slightly more relaxed compared to those on desktops.
  3. While a lot of email content has become shorter, the content of some emails has gotten much longer. Media companies are the best example of this trend. Email newsletters by theSkimm, REDEF, Next Draft, and traditional media can be lengthy and provide a lot of value without clicking through. Email has become so important to some media companies that they’ve invested in building some of their own email technology.

Whatever the reason, the increase in email attention spans is impressive, especially considering the rise in ad blocking and ad skipping, and the decline in organic social reach.

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