The Ever-Evolving Inbox and the Future of E-mail Marketing

  |  March 22, 2011   |  Comments

With Google Priority Inbox and Smart Labels, e-mail marketers are seeing serious changes they can't afford to ignore.

According to Wikipedia, "The End of Days" is "a time period described in the eschatological writings in the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam);" this is the doomsday scenario. As an e-mail marketer, I tend to be optimistic. After all, I'm responsible for communicating with the most engaged and valuable customers a brand has in its database. However, last week, I had a scare that made me a bit more fatalistic.

I feel it's important to occasionally look into the future and prepare ourselves for things to come. For e-mail marketing, we're certainly not talking about the "end of days," but we are talking about serious change that we can't afford to ignore.

The First Sign of Trouble: Google Priority Inbox

On August 30, 2010 (just over six months ago), Google introduced "Priority Inbox." In Google's own words: "Today, we're happy to introduce Priority Inbox (in beta)—an experimental new way of taking on information overload in Gmail." The brand went on to say, "So we've evolved Gmail's filter to address this [overload] problem and extended it to not only classify outright spam, but also to help users separate 'less important messages' from the important stuff."

For those of you not familiar with Priority Inbox, I suggest you watch Google's two-minute explainer video. (Pay close attention to what happens to the promotional e-mail in its overview.) I turned on Priority Inbox and have been using it for months. The tool is incredibly efficient at determining, for me, what messages are worth my time. Based primarily on level of engagement, Gmail determines what I should see. Over the last eight weeks, my eyes wander less and less into the section of my inbox labeled "Everything Else" and stay focused on the messages Gmail decides deserve to be placed in "Important and Unread."

Most articles I read and discussions I have with brands downplay the implications of Priority Inbox. The arguments make sense. "Gmail represents less than 10 percent of my opt-in file" or "So few Gmail users have turned on Priority Inbox" or "Consumers never change their e-mail filters." It's the last comment that I find most interesting. Consumers today have a plethora of ways that allow them to control and filter e-mail. However, very few of them leverage such features. Even for the most sophisticated, it's often difficult to construct rules to manage the inbox effectively. This is good news for e-mail marketers. However, the easier it becomes for the subscriber to filter volumes of unwanted e-mail, the more of them are likely to do it and the smaller e-mail marketing audiences will become.

The Tipping Point: Google Smart Labels

Priority Inbox in itself wasn't enough to make me nervous, and for months I have agreed with many in the e-mail marketing space that advanced filtering hasn't yet scaled to a level that warrants concern. That changed when I caught wind of Google's most recent beta feature, Smart Labels. Smart Labels takes Priority Inbox a step further by dividing all inbound communications into three broad categories. The first identifies e-mail from individuals – this applies no labels to the e-mail and places them immediately in the "Important and Unread" section of your Gmail inbox.

The second label is called "Notifications." It seems to attach a "notification" label to automated and triggered e-mails like news alerts, LinkedIn connections notices, and event updates. These messages are placed into either the "Important and Unread" section or the "Everything Else" section of Priority Inbox, depending on subscriber engagement.

The final Smart Label is "Bulk," which attaches a "Bulk" label to Everything Else. The problem is that bulk e-mail doesn't fall into the "Everything Else" section of the inbox. Gmail moves all of these messages directly to the Gmail Bulk folder. In the week or so that I have had this feature enabled, Gmail has moved almost 100 percent of promotional e-mail from my inbox to the bulk folder.

The Inbox Evolution

E-mail marketers need to see this for what it is. ISPs are fighting for market share; they are looking at innovative ways to make individuals more enamored with the user experience within the inbox. Active Views, an interactive e-mail experience launched recently by Microsoft, is a great example of this initiative. It was developed to keep the users engaged in the inbox rather than have them immediately click through to a brand site. I expect all ISPs to continue to enhance the value of the inbox environment itself with advanced filtering playing a key role.

It's critical to understand that Google is not alone in this endeavor. For its part, Yahoo Mail has partnered with OtherInbox to provide e-mail organization capabilities. The Yahoo implementation, in its current form, is less likely to cause problems as configuration and setup require a much greater investment of time by the consumer. However, even with that bit of comfort, the trend is clear, and as new players enter the e-mail inbox domain (Facebook for example), all marketers reliant on the e-mail channel should be aware of it.

What All These Inbox Changes Mean for Now

The good thing about a trend is that by definition, it's a general direction in which things are headed. We haven't arrived at a point in time in which ISPs automatically filter promotional mail in any scalable way. There's time to edit current programs and introduce new ones that are more like notifications than promotions or are more conversational in nature.

Brands should immediately look to track disengagement in a way that informs them as to who is and who isn't interacting with e-mail programs and then build dynamic reengagement strategies that shrink the size of inactive customers within e-mail files. E-mail marketers should also prepare to explain to senior management why e-mail list size is not a valid gauge of success, focusing closely on data that reinforces the fact that the engaged segments are typically responsible for 80 percent or more of channel revenue contribution. With a new focus on engagement at the recipient level and continued focus on personalization, automation, and value, it won't matter what Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail do. Your recipients will anticipate and expect your messages, and they will land in whatever "inbox" they choose to interact with in the future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Deutsch

 Ryan Deutsch was vice president of strategic services, StrongMail,  up until July 2011. There, he worked closely with senior e-mail marketers at large brands to help them increase subscriber engagement and improve program effectiveness. Before that, Deutsch served as vice president of marketing automation at Premiere Global Services, where he was instrumental in managing customer relationships with numerous global brands. Previously, Deutsch held senior sales and marketing management roles at Twelve Horses and Springdot.

An online marketing veteran and industry thought leader, Deutsch has more than 14 years of direct marketing experience across the catalog, retail, and publishing industries. Deutsch is a regular contributor to marketing industry publications, including MediaPost, DM News, BtoB Magazine, and Chief Marketer, and is a frequent speaker at industry events, including the DMA Annual, eTail, Email Evolution Conference, ad:tech, and the MediaPost Email Insider Summit.

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