From 'You've Got Mail' To 'Inbox Zero'

In 1998, the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy "You've Got Mail" was released. Buoyed by an infectious consumer enthusiasm over the freshness and marvel of instantaneous person-to-person electronic communication, the film grossed a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office. If you're in the email industry, you don't just remember the late '90s; you pine for them. People (they were just "people" then, not consumers or subscribers or -- gasp -- segments) genuinely liked getting email.

Fast-forward to 2010. Merlin Mann, the productivity champion behind the popular 43folders.com blog, has a book called "Inbox Zero" due out this year. The book springs from some articles Mann originally wrote for 43folders.com, which he spun into a presentation he delivers at companies across the country. One of these was at Google, and the hour-long video of his talk has been viewed over 300,000 times.

"Inbox Zero" claims powerfully to be "about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life." Says Mann, "Just remember that every email you read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-re-read as it sits in that big dumb pile is actually incurring mental debt on your behalf. The interest you pay on email you're reluctant to deal with is compounded every day and, in all likelihood, it's what's led you to feeling like such a use less slacker today." Like a good email marketer, Mann regards attention as the dearest of commodities. But his energy is channeled towards protecting that attention from intruding email, rather than capturing it: "Give each message as much attention as it needs and not one iota more. Remember the contextuality of triage: if you keep trying to care for dead and doomed patients, you'll end up losing a lot of the ones who could have actually used your help."

"Inbox Zero" teaches citizens of the Internet a process for managing inbound email so that it ultimately becomes less of a burden, and more of a communications channel. It's a self-help book, which means it has the potential to be wildly successful. If a quarter of a billion dollars worth of movie audiences were enraptured by the thought of inbox romance in 1998, how large to you think the prospective audience for a book about help with email will be today? (Hint: it's a number larger than your house file.)

If the book and the concept of  "Inbox Zero" do catch fire (I believe they will), the rules for email engagement will tighten down even further. The net result will be comparable to many of the other changes the industry has faced, from spam filters to engagement-based metrics. The gulf between successful, legitimate, disciplined, honorable emailers -- and those who are, well, not -- will continue to grow.

What does your organization need to do now to get on the right side of that chasm? Here are what I believe are the attributes that will distinguish the email haves from the have-nots in an Inbox Zero world:

Respect: Increasingly, people are going to be putting energy into developing and maintaining the processes to balance email with the rest of their lives. Email marketers should look at the soft drink companies for some guidance here. Faced with the movement towards weight management and healthier lifestyles, the soft drink companies tried first to make it even easier to get a soda, through aggressive promotions, partnerships with (and funding for) schools to get vending machines installed, and aggressive sponsorship and brand promotion. The smarter and more recent approach is to swim the current, not against it. Soft drink companies today have diversified by offering fruit juices, sports drinks and fortified water. Emailers need to take the long view toward harmonious coexistence within new inbox lifestyles. Respect the process your subscribers are trying to implement, instead of focusing all your energy toward trying to disrupt it.

Relevance: As the premium on attention increases, relevance and anticipation become the preferred currency. The best advice I can offer on that front is to point out that the best advice is already out there. Reread every article you've ever seen on relevance.

Brevity: There is a pat response in the direct marketing industry to the question about how much copy a marketing communication should contain: "It should be as long as you can still hold your audience's attention." After "Inbox Zero," that's bunk. It's a very selfish mentality for marketers to believe they're entitled to all the attention they can grab. It takes a short view and disrespects the consumer's process. Attention is finite, so any excesses garnered by a single emailer come at the expense not just of competitors but of the reader's ultimate objectives. "Inbox Zero" is very good news for disciplined emailers, so encouraging its adoption should supersede monopolizing inbox attention.

Humility: Mann points out that the reason email carries such psychic weight is because it is out of our control. We cannot choose who sends us email, how many we receive or -- importantly -- the expectations of the senders. The result is that the entire inbox feels urgent, and "getting through" the inbox quickly becomes a manic preoccupation. Successful emailers in an Inbox Zero world will cede control to consumers, giving them broader options for managing their subscriptions: preferences centers, "lite" subscriptions, subscribing through alternate channels such as RSS, mobile or even Twitter can and should be offered.

If "Inbox Zero" arrived today, which side of the gulf would your company be on? If you regard it as an opportunity, you're likely already in position. But if you see it as a threat, you've got some hard work in front of you.

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2 comments about "From 'You've Got Mail' To 'Inbox Zero'".
  1. Rita Allenrallen@freshaddress.com from FreshAddress, Inc. , June 30, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.

    Great recap of working with email with a positive direction, Mike. Always good reminders to honor respect of the recipient, relevant and brief content along with the understanding that email can be overwhelming. Taking the time to review your content from the eyes of the recipient and providing them with exactly what they agreed to when they signed up for this online relationship will garner their respect of the sender.

  2. David Skocik from PR Delaware LLC , June 30, 2010 at 12:13 p.m.

    This article hit the mark. I check on my email throughout the day. Much is junk mail from friends and family. Other messages are from marketers who can't wait to show me how to make a million dollars with their newly-discovered system. The rest comes from professional services I subscribe to -- like this one. More often than not, I quickly glance at the apparent keepers and save them as new. The file can quickly build to several hundred messages. I suspect "Inbox Zero," will provide the same file management techniques as do the folks who straighten out your home. Rather than save this message, I'll save the book title for reference. Now there's progress!