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Are You Ready for Inbox 2.0?

  |  April 28, 2010   |  Comments

To stay at the center of the digital experience, e-mail marketers must create amazing consumer experiences. Here is a six-point checklist to audit your readiness.

The advent of the socially connected digital lifestyle has changed forever subscribers' expectations of the inbox as well as how brands will communicate and serve them. How is your e-mail marketing keeping up?

While I'm confident the inbox will continue to act as the "hub" for all digital communications, it's up to marketers to continue the advantage. The inbox is the first place consumers and business professionals go to catch up with personal connections, read news, be alerted to product availability and sales, and see who's contacted them via a social network. To stay at the center of the digital experience, e-mail marketers must create amazing subscriber experiences - built from strategic and respectful use of content, frequency, cadence, and customization. Subscribers will reward us with response, revenue, and positive sharing.

In the near future, however, this inbox hub may not look like or be accessed the same way. There is a trifecta of activity changing the inbox opportunity for both subscribers and marketers.

  1. The inbox will improve as an advertising channel. Expect to see more rich media, dynamic content, transactions, and deeper data available for segmentation.

  2. The battle of the "Digital Destination of Choice" rages on. One day, Facebook is taking over the Web. The next day, no, Google is! The next, it's all about the iPad. Regardless of the winner, expect to see more services linked to the inbox via social connectivity. These may both empower and restrict marketing opportunity.

  3. The fragmentation of the inbox. Expect to see consumers share time and attention for e-mail and e-mail-like experiences across devices, portals, and online services. That could create more touch points, but could also clutter the inbox beyond comfortable levels.

Through all this, subscribers will start to make choices. Where will they keep their primary inbox? What will be the main purpose of that inbox? If person-to-person communications move to social networks, will the inbox be maintained for the "fringe" of their personal contacts (those who are not on the same social network as I am), business, and brand/company relationships? If e-mail is private, protected, and controlled, will social media remain public, frantic, and cluttered?

Some recent research from Microsoft seems to also suggest a change in the value of the inbox. Daniel Lewis, senior product manager for Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail shared research results at the Email Insider Summit earlier this month. It seems Hotmail users are interested in e-mail primarily to communicate and stay connected with commercial entities. This includes things like online banking and e-commerce, but also marketing notices and alerts.

As the inbox evolves, specific opportunities for marketers are everywhere.

Inbox data. The complaint button has long served as a subscriber feedback tool in e-mail marketing. A complaint is registered every time a subscriber clicks the "Report Spam" button, and that data serves as a penalty for overzealous frequency and other unwelcome messages. Even a small number of complainers will depress sender reputation and result in the filtering of all your e-mail messages. Most marketers would love to see more feedback buttons in the inbox - including a "Like This" button or "Easy Unsubscribe" - but mailbox providers like Yahoo have indicated they would prefer a cleaner interface and more active use of the behavioral data that makes up a sender reputation.

Reputation data is already one of the few predictive measures that marketers have. It tells you how likely your messages are to reach the inbox in the next 30 days. Expect to see this data improve and expand as the global three mailbox providers (Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail) explore the utility of user-level data. There has been talk of using engagement data (opens and clicks) to determine sender reputation. However, any use of engagement data for inbox placement is in its infancy - it's just not a significant factor in sender reputation or filtering today at any major mailbox provider, including Yahoo.

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses how Facebook's universal log-in and widgets (like the "Like" button that will soon appear on partner websites) create an infrastructure of social connectivity that marketers will be able to harness. Assuming privacy concerns can be mitigated (for some brands this will be easier than others), this kind of data and cross-experience tracking can help e-mail marketers create more targeted, relevant, and interactive messaging experiences. If that feels like a publishing model to you, then embrace it. What are digital marketers if not publishers of compelling content?

Inbox interactivity and advertising. Gmail is already testing interactivity and browsing with commercial e-mail messages from Netflix and Sears through its enhanced e-mail product. Yahoo and Hotmail are both exploring the best ways to offer dynamic content for e-commerce and transactions. These might manifest as working forms or exploding offers that adjust for time of open, sale deadlines, and inventory status. All three global providers seem adamant about only offering such "active" inbox experience opportunities to marketers and publishers who already have good sender reputations, the score of how welcome and valued messages are to subscribers.

Inbox socialization. Despite its lackluster early adoption, Google Buzz, which incorporates social features like status updates and shared content from the subscriber's network, could still be a game-changer due to the huge marketshare and growth of Gmail. We see Gmail now accounting for up to 15 percent of a typical B2C (define) file and an even higher percentage of new subscribers. Certainly, Buzz benefits from the familiar interface and strong filtering that are hallmarks of Gmail. At the same time, Facebook has announced plans for an open inbox. Is it harder for Google to add social features to an inbox or for Facebook to add an inbox to a social portal? I suspect the latter is harder, but do not underestimate the prowess of either company.

This new world is not so far away. Here's a checklist to audit your readiness to capitalize on the opportunity:

  1. Start to learn more about your subscribers and their habits.

  2. Erase any complacency about e-mail marketing revenue. Just because campaigns still deliver revenue, doesn't mean the majority of your subscribers are actually engaged. Wait too long to re-engage them and you've lost them to another channel, or worse, a competitor.

  3. Be among the best senders - and get rewarded for it. Third-party certification programs have the immediate benefit of higher response from images and links on by default. They also put you in the class of the best senders under consideration for the new dynamic content offerings.

  4. Carefully construct a content strategy that embraces social connectivity. This is more than just duplicating e-mail offers on Twitter. It's about digging into the data so you understand behaviors and preferences.

  5. Work harder to earn having your from address added to subscribers' address books.

  6. Focus on targeted, segmented messages. We find that while triggered or custom messages make up no more than 20 percent of a marketer's total campaigns, they generate a much higher percentage of revenue, often up to 45 percent. Those are the messages that are most welcome, earn the highest response, and generate the most revenue. Put your resources there.

How are you getting ready for inbox 2.0? Let me know what you think and please share any ideas or comments below.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a partner with brand and marketing technology strategy firm TopRight Partners, which helps customers use the technology they have today to do the marketing they want to do today and tomorrow. She is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable customer experiences. A digital marketing and CRM expert, she helps sophisticated marketers balance the right mix of people, process, and technology to optimize a data-driven content marketing strategy. She speaks and writes regularly and leads several industry-wide initiatives. Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT toprightpartners DOT com or @stephanieSAM.

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