The Inbox 2012: Surf the Wave

This is one of six “The 2012 Inbox” columns this month, as the e-mail columnists of ClickZ examine the near future of e-mail marketing.

A lot will change in the next two years: the type of “inboxes” used for communication, how information gets combined, how information gets filtered, and how consumers (and their proxies) decide to control access. The key to success will be surfing this wave of change – control yourself, you can’t control the wave.

Inbox Proliferation

As time marches on, people are finding more ways to connect with each other. In each case, the emergence of a new channel is driven by individual needs, and marketers arrive on the scene once the channel is big enough to be considered an “audience.”

I’ve written on the importance of mobile and social to the ongoing development of one-to-one marketing. Stephanie Miller did a great job kicking off this Inbox 2012 series, noting that the inbox of 2012 would be social and cluttered. Facebook, Twitter, and SMS mobile all present themselves as new marketing channels that are now at a critical mass and worthy of investment by most marketers.

Inbox Consolidation

Stephanie looks at these emerging channels creating fragmentation. I think that is true today, but by 2012 it may be different. Rather than channel proliferation causing fragmentation, I think it will cause consolidation. Google has already seen this potential with its Google Wave product. (And also its Google Voice, which has the potential to consolidate multiple voicemail boxes.) MySpace has introduced an e-mail inbox. Apple’s new iPhone operating system consolidates all your e-mail boxes into one inbox if you like. No doubt, Facebook has plans to help consolidate your personal inboxes across many channels. Think of these power players as the next “Inbox Service Providers.”

I think consolidation of inboxes, rather than fragmentation, will be the trend in 2012.

Inbox Filtering – On Steroids

I’m not talking about deliverability as we know it in 2010. Stephanie Miller expects “more sophisticated deliverability systems – more factors like engagement drive sender reputation.” True, that may be a component. But that’s just looking at e-mail, and just looking at reputation as a measure of relevance. I hope the “Inbox Service Providers” do much more than that. By 2012, as inboxes consolidate into one universal inbox, we’ll see the need for filters to sort this information like we would do, if we only had the time. Messaging will evolve so that the inbox looks more like a search results page (filtered by relevance of unread messages from the full preponderance of channels) instead of by time, sender, or subject – today’s hierarchical method. This also implies that there will be no need for today’s crude binary filter for the e-mail only inbox – filtering only into “junk” or “not junk.” The new combined inbox will be a continuous spectrum of relevance.

Customer Control

For years now, people have been talking about the customer in control as the new way for marketers. Jeanne Jennings pointed out in her column that “It’s not the inbox that we, as e-mail marketers, are used to sending to. It’s a separate inbox, controlled by the recipient. It’s non-transferrable and revocable at any time.” I think that’s true. Customers control access to themselves, as it should be. But that doesn’t mean marketers should have less control. In fact, I’d argue you need more control than ever…but not over your consumers, over yourselves. Every move you make. So you aren’t relinquishing control. It’s like surfing a wave – the surfer doesn’t give up control. They control themselves, but can’t control the wave. That’s the ticket. Marketers need more control over themselves, and need to view consumers and the marketplace the way a surfer views a wave. Powerful, full of mystery – but capable of being understood and ridden as an art form.

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