How Does Mobile Email Engagement Compare to Desktop Rates?

How Does Mobile Email Engagement Compare to Desktop Rates

Email engagement rates might be the most scrutinized piece of data in marketing. Case studies abound on the “best” terms to use in subject lines and the “ideal” time to send messages.

Now we’re adding another layer of understanding to email engagement, thanks to a recent study by email service provider Return Path that compared mobile and desktop rates.

What was measured?

The main question Return Path wanted to answer was: Where are people reading emails?

To get an answer, they analyzed over 27 billion client emails between May 2016 and April 2017. They looked at opens by environment*, time spent reading by environment, and a whole lot more. For the full study, click here.

*Environment refers to where the email was viewed. There were 3 options:

  • Mobile devices (smartphone and tablet apps)
  • Webmail clients (e.g.Gmail, Yahoo, etc. accessed through a browser)
  • Desktop clients (desktop software downloads; e.g. Outlook, Apple Mail, etc.)

What did they find?


Essentially, most emails are opened on mobile devices, and people spend more time reading mobile emails than desktop emails. But that’s not the whole picture.


Email opens by environment

On average, 55% of email opens came from mobile devices, while 28% of opens came from webmail clients, and only 16% came from desktop clients.

What’s interesting is not mobile’s dominance in email engagement (that’s expected), but how much open rates varied over the year-long study.

Return Path Where Are People Opening Emails

Mobile accounted for 58% of total opens at its highest point in July 2016, but only 52% at its lowest point in February 2017.

Webmail only accounted for 25% of total opens at its lowest point in May 2016, but made up 32% of total opens at its highest point in April 2017.

Desktop clients accounted for 19% of total opens at its highest point in May 2016, but only made up 16% of total opens at its lowest point in April 2017.

Mobile devices are believed to be consuming more of everything we do on a daily basis, but mobile’s share of email open rates actually decreased over the year, while webmail’s share of open rates increased.

Mobile is dominant, but its growth seems to have slowed. This is echoed in our study on how much time people spend on their mobile phones in 2017.

Email engagement by environment

People spend more time reading emails on mobile devices than on other platforms. Webmail engagement holds pretty close to mobile, while desktop engagement drops significantly.

Take a look at Marketing Chart’s graph of this (below).

ReturnPath Email Engagement by Device Jul2017

64% of mobile emails opened were read (meaning users spent 7 seconds or more viewing the email), while 22% of emails opened were skimmed (users spent 2-7 seconds on it), and 15% of emails opened were abandoned (users spent less than 2 seconds viewing the email).

61% of webmail emails opened were read, 21% were skimmed, and 18% were abandoned. Of desktop emails opened, only 45% were read, while 24% were skimmed and 30% were abandoned.

Between number of opens and time spent, mobile brings the best email engagement rates, though webmail isn’t far behind.

Desktop client emails perform poorly by comparison, but almost half (45%) of their opens still get 7 seconds or more of read time.

How should we interpret this data?

Interpretation is where we move from objective numbers to subjective thought, so we have to make sure we update our views with each new piece of information.

For instance, based on these numbers, it would be easy to say all emails should be tailored explicitly for mobile, because those get the most engagement. But there are other factors to consider, too.

When do people open emails?

Many studies show the best time to send emails is 10am on Tuesday. There’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case. Most people chalk it up to being the time after people have settled in for the day, and are looking for something to do.

The problem is, other studies show “best” times ranging from Monday evening all the way to Sunday morning!

There are too many variables to say hands down which time is best for which consumers on which devices in which market. Even that sentence is complicated!

For more on when people open emails, see our guide: How many emails do people get every day?

best-time-of-day-to-send-email

How much time do people spend on mobile devices?

The average American spends over 4 hours a day on their phone, and that figure increases among younger audiences. But, the average worker spends the majority of their 7-10 hour workday in front of a computer.

Between the 2 devices, people check their email an average of 74 times a day! People are spending anywhere from 25 minutes to 2 hours a day actively involved in their inbox.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they read your emails. Even though people check their inboxes constantly, less than 30% of emails are ever opened.

What are people looking for?

People are generally looking for things that bring value, but what brings value changes throughout the day.

During mornings and evenings, for instance, people are often looking for updates, news, and interesting stories. This is also when people are most likely to be on their phones.

Related: 15 Reasons Why I Didn’t Reply to Your Email (& How to Improve)

Think about someone sitting on their couch, drinking their morning coffee, and scrolling through updates on their phone. If you were in that situation, what would you be looking for? 

During business hours, what people find value in often changes. For instance, they might be looking for tips and new offers to help them do their jobs better.

Because they’re already sitting in front of a computer, they’re more likely to view these kinds of messages in a webmail or desktop client.

How does age affect this?

We don’t know a lot about which demographics or companies use webmail and desktop clients. But we do know that 92% of adults under 30 own a smartphone. 88% of adults 30-49 own a smartphone, 74% of adults 50-64 do, and only 42% of adults over 65 own smartphones.

Pew Research Center Who Owns Smartphones
PC: Pew Research Center

The drop-off rate for smartphone ownership is relatively steady. This means there are more opportunities for younger demographics to engage with mobile email simply because more of them have mobile devices.

So what does all of this mean?

It means that the kind of emails you should send, and at which times, depends entirely on your brand and the audience you’re trying to reach.

Are you targeting younger or older demographics? Are you a B2B company or a B2C? What kind of information or offers are you sending?

Your #1 priority should be adding value, because value is what drives engagement. But how valuable something is, and in which environment it’s valuable, changes throughout the day.

Mobile emails tend to bring more value outside of business hours while webmail and desktop client emails tend to bring more value during business hours.

Accordingly, emails that aren’t work related tend to bring more value outside of business hours, and ought to get more engagement on mobile devices.

Emails that are work related tend to bring more value during business hours, and ought to get more engagement in webmail and desktop client environments.

Smart Insights Device Usage by Time of Day
PC: Smart Insights

The best times and the best environment all depend on what you’re sending and to whom. The only way to know for sure what’s best for your brand is to test, and answer questions like:

Do emails tailored for mobile devices perform better in the evening?

Do people engage with this content more around lunch time? Etc.

A Final Note

While this research is new, the implications are not. Mobile has dominated email engagement for years, although its dominance isn’t as overwhelming as normally depicted.

Just remember to always do 2 things: Focus on adding value, and tailor your messages for where your audience is most likely to view them.

If you follow these 2 rules, you’ll do great!

Related: How Many Emails Do People Get Every Day?