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How to Adapt to the Ultra Managed Inbox

  |  August 4, 2010   |  Comments

Eight steps e-mail marketers should incorporate into their practices to improve response and revenues for the long term.

It's never been a question of knowledge, really. E-mail marketers have always known what to do to create amazing customer experiences. We know we need to segment, customize content, personalize the experience, and pull back on generic promotions. The reason why most e-mail marketing doesn't do those things and resembles broadcasts more than dialogs is that we just never put our full effort into it. Pressure was low because the channel is inexpensive and broadcasts to the file earned plenty of short-term revenue.

Now, a new set of inbox management tools are emerging from the global mailbox providers like Yahoo, Hotmail/MSN, and Gmail. These tools make it easier for subscribers to avoid whatever isn't interesting to them. In fact, Hotmail did a major release of the new features in the last week of July, so more and more subscribers have access to the Sweep and other filtering tools. I call it the "Ultra Managed Inbox" and introduced the concept in my last column.

To continue to earn high revenue from the channel, e-mail marketers must adopt a new attitude about the importance of subscriber experience and loyalty - and focus on making our e-mail messages worthy of the inbox.

Consider these eight steps now, and incorporate them into your practices and calendar to protect your base and improve response and revenues for the long term. Embrace them before the full suite of inbox management tools become ubiquitous over the next few months.

  1. Encourage personal whitelisting. Long a good deliverability tool, "add to the address book" now is a survival approach. Marketers on a user's "safe senders" list will continue to be given preference. Plus, this is still one of the only ways (besides third-party certification) to ensure images and links are on by default. Be sure to make it easy, and tie your "from" domain clearly to your brand.

  2. Segment your "from" addresses. From what we can tell from using the new tools, the Hotmail Sweep feature bases filtering on the "body from" domain, so the entire from address is what is filtered. Therefore, marketing@returnpath.net and transactional@returnpath.net should be treated differently. Unlike their current personal block list, Sweep won't give the option to block by domain, only the entire address.


    (Subscribers can still block domains with other tools.) Please consider this carefully. We as marketers know the nuance between marketing@ and transactional@, but subscribers may not. The actual e-mail experience must be unique and tied to the from address - each e-mail message type must have a clear purpose to be viewed by subscribers as unique. Otherwise, they may sweep a marketing@ from address and wonder why newsletter@ is still coming to the inbox. That second set of messages may be quickly marked as spam.


  3. Turn frequency into cadence. When everything reached the inbox, being present was enough to earn a brand impression. As users employ more filters, being relevant and timely will trump volume. When I open the folder, I will expect to see timely messages tailored to my interest. On the other hand, repeated reminders about last week's sale may turn me off from visiting this folder again.

  4. Transactions are the new connectors. As always, transactional messages are very welcome - and could be a great co-marketing opportunity. Consider appropriate marketing that is tied to the transaction rather than pure promotions that dilute the value of the original purpose. (Also, remember that CAN-SPAM governs what is considered transaction vs. marketing in the U.S.)

  5. Segmentation by activity trumps demographics. Messages sorted into folders are likely to be viewed by utility. Defaults at Hotmail include Social Networks and Upcoming Events. There is no "special offers" flag - so users will either create folders by sender (e.g., L.L.Bean) or activity (e.g., Sales, Banking, Read Later). It's up to marketers to create content and offers that are worth reading later.

  6. The first click really counts. New subscribers will receive initial messages in the inbox (provided our sender reputations are good) - the ones just after sign-up. This is the chance to be relevant, and earn the right to stay in the inbox. Give considerable thought to the first three to five messages a new subscriber receives. It may be the last set of messages ever to go directly to the inbox.

  7. Consider mobile implications. Portable devices may have fewer features. For example, Hotmail on a smartphone doesn't allow movement to any folder but trash. If you have a high mobile readership, consider segment and frequency options to reduce the clutter and engage more deeply.

  8. Get feedback now. Start now to investigate subscribe behavior so you can plan ahead. How many of your subscribers have actually opened and clicked this week? This month? How can you gather data on their preferences and other interactions with your brand? How do subscribers want you to use e-mail strategically with other channels like postal, social, and advertising?

These changes are not off in the distant future. The tools are available (and being promoted by the mailbox providers). How are you planning to adapt for the new, ultra-managed inbox? Let me know any questions or thoughts in the comments section below.

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association (www.the-dma.org). Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.

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