Gmail Priority Inbox: What's The Big Deal?
Gmail's new Priority Inbox: Will this message classification and prioritization system become one of the biggest changes to affect commercial email and the inbox, or will it evolve into a footnote along with Google Buzz and Wave?
After living with Priority Inbox for a week, I'm in the "too early to tell" camp.
Priority Inbox probably isn't an industry game-changer by itself. However, it likely heralds the next stage in inbox management, coming on the heels of changes at Yahoo (displaying emails received from contacts or social connections) and Hotmail (new "smart" filters).
It might also foreshadow improvements by email clients like Outlook and add-ons like Xobni.
Having generally minimized spam in the inbox, Gmail and other ISPs/Web email service providers are moving the battlefront to "gray" mail or "bacn. " Priority Inbox is designed to help Gmail users get control of their inboxes, spending less time on messages that aren't spam yet aren't meaningful or relevant for them at the moment.
How Priority Inbox Works
Essentially, Gmail identifies which emails are more important to recipients, based on their previous actions (opens, clicks, replies) and recurring keywords across all their messages, and then groups these emails at the top of the inbox under an "Important" label.
Starred messages (Gmail's equivalent of flagging) appear in a second category. Further down, the "Everything Else" category contains all the other non-spam email in the inbox.
In addition to Gmail's algorithm, users can identify emails as "Important" or "Not Important" by hitting a "+" or "-" button in the Gmail navigation.
Users can also easily turn Priority Inbox on or off, but many users have overlooked the ability to simply toggle in the left navigation from the regular "Inbox" to "Priority Inbox." So at any time, a user can view emails by "last received."
Road-Testing Priority Inbox
After a week of trying out the new inbox configuration, here are a few observations on how it works:
· Gmail does appear to identify transactional emails and social-network notifications as "Important."
· However, Google has a lot of work left to make Priority Inbox more accurate and more valuable to users.
· Priority Inbox is simply inconsistent. I subscribe to several wine-related newsletters, and so several of them are automatically showing up as "Important," apparently based on the "wine-related" content. But several are not, and my interaction, or lack of, seems to have little impact.
· Even more frustrating, Gmail often doesn't recognize emails from the same sender. Many of the emails and newsletters I've marked "Important" continue to show up in "Everything Else." These misidentified emails use the same "From Name" and email address each time but are using different "reply-to" or "return-path" addresses.
Issues for the Email Marketer
Features like Priority Inbox clearly present an additional challenge for email marketers. The "Everything Else" category could become a virtual circular file because those who use the feature will become trained over time to look primarily in the "Important" category.
But let's be real here. No matter how or whether the email service classifies your messages, your recipients are already identifying your emails in their minds as consistently, occasionally or rarely of value.
I expect Google will modify its algorithm and sender identification. But until they do, the inconsistent categorization will be frustrating for those commercial senders able to get the "Important" categorization from many subscribers that still goes unrecognized by Google.
What Can Email Marketers Do?
Priority Inbox builds onto the trend among ISPs to factor in relevance when accepting, filtering or blocking email. While not new, getting more of your subscribers to interact with your messages regularly -- not just once during the holidays or with those blow-out sales -- is becoming paramount to success.
At this point I don't recommend any radical changes to your email program. However, here are a few things to consider:
1. The "welcome" email is even more important. Whether you use a single welcome email or multiple email series, these emails will play an ever-more-critical role in setting expectations and conveying immediate value. You may also want to consider some language for Gmail users on the subscription confirmation page and welcome email that promotes marking your message as "Important."
2. Slot new subscribers into a "newbie" track. Either as part of your welcome series or in addition to it, consider putting new subscribers into a special track that is designed to maximize engagement out of the gate.
3. Clarify your value proposition. What makes your emails valuable and different from competitors? Focus even harder on creating emails that can occupy a special spot in your subscriber's mind.
4. Use consistent branding. Stick with a recognizable "from" name and be consistent. Avoid using one brand for transactional or triggered emails and a radically different brand for your broadcast email program.
5. Establish and use personality. While not limited just to the use of humor, establish and create a personality with your emails that helps them "pop" in the user's inbox.
6. Get relevant. The biggest and most obvious action is simply to make your emails more relevant. Move your program more to one that's triggered by individual user behavior and data.
Is Priority Inbox a Game-Changer?
At present, I don't see Gmail's new classification system itself having more than a minimal effect on most email marketers.
· Gmail addresses probably make up less than 15% of most consumer marketers' email databases.
· Although it's early, adoption of Priority Inbox is likely low and may never be adopted by a majority of Gmail users.
· Many Gmail users actually view their Gmail account messages in Outlook, other email clients and mobile devices that do not display the Priority Inbox categories.
· Users can simply toggle on the navigation and view their normal inbox at anytime.
Realistically, despite all the hoopla, most email marketers may find that less than 1% of their subscribers actually use Priority Inbox.
What poses the greater challenge to email marketers is not this particular inbox innovation. It's the clear trend that most Webmail, desktop and mobile email clients are adding similar categorization and filtering features.
While subscribers to this MediaPost column are no doubt tired of the various authors constantly lamenting the coming death of the "batch and blast" email approach, the ISPs, combined with user behavior, may actually make this a reality in the coming years.
Now, more than ever, take it up a notch.