Introducing the Ultra Managed Inbox

Caught up in our own inbox placement tracking, marketers often forget that mailbox providers like Yahoo and Hotmail are also competing for subscriber attention and loyalty. Retention for them equals active users of the e-mail service – and lower abandonment of inboxes due to clutter and excessive spam.

The latest example of mailbox providers improving the value of their service is the Hotmail announcement in late June of a number of new inbox management tools that will be available to all accounts toward the end of the summer. Gmail has long offered advanced spam filtering and social connection tools, and similar Yahoo “My View” features were released last year.

These new inbox management tools are designed to help all of us access the e-mail messages we want more efficiently, and eliminate the ones we don’t. Yahoo offers a streamlined design that, according to its blog, helps “make more space for what matters most to you” by filtering out messages from senders that are rarely engaged. Hotmail claims that only about half of what we see in our inboxes is actually something we’re interested in. Its product website calls the vast majority of the rest of it, “junk.” “Eighty percent of what gets reported to us as ‘spam’ isn’t actual spam (e.g., malicious mail from scammers). It’s what we call junk mail. It’s that newsletter you inadvertently signed up for two years ago that continues to haunt your inbox, or the promotional mailing that you forgot to opt out of, or the real estate listing alert you never canceled.”

Marketers: look in the mirror. This “junk” is our precious e-mail marketing! Time to face a new reality (drum roll, please): the ultra managed inbox.

Marketers have always enjoyed the benefits of close proximity to personal messages – our sale notice sits next to a private invitation for dinner with friends. That prominent position has helped make e-mail marketing one of the most powerful and ubiquitous digital channels.

Now, Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo (and I predict others soon to follow) are making it easier for customers to sort e-mail messages by both sender and type. Hotmail’s “sweep” feature makes it easy for me to create a “shopping” folder and sweep all messages from retailers directly into it. In the future, I will never see them in my inbox. After a week or so, they’ll be deleted from the folder, too. I could also sweep a sender immediately to “trash,” automating today’s manual delete-delete-delete process. That will save consumers time, but also means win-back campaigns will never reach the inbox. Hotmail may also notice that I never read messages from a certain sender and prompt me to unsubscribe.

The good part is that folders with high value (like “Weekend Deals,” “Productivity Tips,” or “Horoscope”) might get more attention. It may be true that subscribers who regularly visit their folders are much more actively engaged in the messages that they find there. Tracking behavior back to the subscriber will give marketers lots of insight into timing and relevancy, too.

It’s not clear how Hotmail and other providers will be using this data for calculating sender reputation – the score that determines if messages reach the inbox or get blocked. Certainly, they’re tracking this engagement level data, just as Yahoo is tracking opens and clicks. At some point, both providers will surely start to count engagement as part of the sender reputation cocktail, mixing it with today’s key elements: complaints (clicks on the “Report Spam” button), unknown users/spam traps, and infrastructure.

These changes by the world’s leading mailbox providers offers a new imperative for e-mail marketers. We can no longer “ride along” for attention by cozying up to personal messages. We must re-earn our way into the inbox, or at least into a folder that subscribers check frequently.

Managing sender reputation is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s the same frustration most of us feel with managing our weight. You can try all kinds of “quick fix” diets, but at the end of the day, the only way to lose weight and become more fit is to eat less overall, eat more healthy foods, and exercise. It’s a sobering truth.

The ultra managed inbox still spells opportunity for marketers. Inbox management isn’t new – all these types of filters have been available for a long time. Soon, however, they will be automated and promoted heavily to new users. There’s lots of good news for marketers in this potential rejuvenation of the inbox – but only if we get ready now and start testing what it really means to engage and compete with the clutter surrounding our messages.

In my next column, I’ll outline eight strategies to help marketers take advantage of this trend, and get ready to succeed in the era of the ultra managed inbox. Please let me know your questions and thoughts in the comments section below.

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