What Engagement Means For E-mail Marketing

What does engagement mean for e-mail marketers?

It’s always been an important factor. But as Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL change the way they filter and deliver e-mail, engagement has gotten increasingly important.

As a result, marketers must act quickly to improve relevancy to tap the opportunity here – and not get relegated to the “everything else” folder.

Consider two distinct announcements in the last week of August.

The biggest news is that Microsoft has released that Hotmail will now use new engagement metrics that filter messages based on how actively a subscriber interacts with messages from specific senders. Keep in mind: some level of engagement has always been a factor in e-mail sender reputation scores. Complaints, or clicks on the “report spam” button, are the mother of all engagement metrics and are still the biggest factor in sender reputation. And marketers have always had to accept that a certain number of subscribers would take untraceable actions to filter messages to specific folders.

Also last week, Gmail joined its peers in releasing a new inbox management tool called Priority Inbox. It’s a filter that splits a subscriber’s inbox into three sections: “important and unread,” “starred,” and “everything else.” These tools are in line with those introduced by MSN/Hotmail and Yahoo earlier this summer. And even AOL got into the game by hinting to Forbes.com about future product developments.

All of these changes represent the arrival of something I call, “The Ultra Managed Inbox.” While global mailbox providers are taking different approaches, their changes all impact inbox placement, demand a higher level of relevancy and customization from marketers, and are driven by the mailbox provider’s desire to reduce false positives.

So Why Does This Matter to Marketers?

Marketers must understand the rationale behind the Hotmail and Gmail announcements. While there’s certainly interest in being the “inbox of choice,” the real reason mailbox providers are making these changes is to reduce false positives (messages blocked or sent to junk when they should have been in the inbox). The false positive rate is an important key performance indicator for postmasters. These changes are not about helping marketers; they are about helping subscribers.

Yet, both sets of changes are good news for marketers. Senders who are welcome and helpful to subscribers will be given priority in the inbox or special folders, especially as users become more familiar with inbox management tools. For example, Gmail makes it easy for subscribers to “star” a message and lift it up to the priority inbox. Messages subscribers send to a “shopping” folder may actually get more attention, as subscribers focus on the offers of the day.

Similarly, the new engagement metrics from Hotmail are, according to Microsoft, intended to reduce false positives. If global sender reputation rules would put a message into the junk folder, but a particular Hotmail user has interacted positively with messages from that source, Hotmail will deliver that message to a user’s inbox.

The term “engagement” means something specific to marketers – it’s the measure of response and revenue. But mailbox providers use a different meaning. Clicks are not a measure that Hotmail is using. It’s looking at a large number of metrics, including:

  • Messages read, then deleted
  • Messages deleted without being read
  • Messages replied to
  • Frequency of receiving and reading a message from a source

For mailbox providers, engagement means that subscribers are active in their inbox – they log in, they respond to messages. And that they aren’t just using this mailbox to hide from unwanted marketing, etc. In fact, Hotmail has started to use the word “active user” to avoid confusion about “engaged user.”

For senders who have strong subscriber ties and create satisfying subscriber experiences, these changes will be good news – further separating us from the clutter. However, for marketers still clinging to broadcast approaches, these changes will mean less “air time” in front of subscribers as unwelcome and irrelevant messages are filtered away from the inbox. And that will surely harm response rates.

Time will tell how consumers use the tools or how effectively the engagement metrics will measure subscriber preference. However, as we start to see the effect on people’s inbox habits, marketers will need to improve relevancy to make the cut for inbox priority placement.

Where Marketers Can Begin

It’s often difficult for marketers to get their arms around how to be more relevant. Yet, that is exactly the challenge ahead. I recommend starting now. Put on your audience hat and audit your program content, frequency, and value. Be tough on yourself. Are you truly helping, or just sending batches of similar offers at a break neck pace? Are you truly listening to subscriber behavior and demographics, or are you continually blathering on about yourself and your products? Are you segmenting your file in order to respond to the needs of various types of subscribers?

Test some new approaches and focus on subject lines, too. Be sure that your brand impact is high so you can claim whatever loyalty you have built over time. Marketers have always known this level of attention and care to e-mail programs is important; we just haven’t always done anything about it. Now, we must act, or forever be relegated to the “everything else” folders of our customers and prospects.

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