Big Trend #1: The continued growth of "graymail." The email channel is more than a little overloaded. There has been a huge rise in the number and types of messages received by the average email user. Social networking messages, shipping notifications, messages from friends and family, marketing messages (which can vary in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous) and other types of mail are mixed together in the typical inbox. A large portion of these messages is made up of what some mailbox providers call "graymail": it's not clearly spam , but it's not universally loved. Some users like it while others don't. Graymail messages are ones that the user signed up for but may not want right now.
The major mailbox providers -- including Hotmail and Gmail -- have responded with changes to their interfaces that make "important" messages easier to get to. You can see clearly that making it easier to avoid graymail (and easier to get to the messages the subscriber wants) are the major goals of these upgrades.
These changes also mean that these major ISPs are starting to do some personalized inbox filtering. What is important in Gmail's priority inbox and what gets rescued from Hotmail's junk mail folder are now determined (at least in part) on an individual basis. Global rules may be overridden by local, user-specific rules. It's not clear that this will work - machine filtering may not provide complete inbox nirvana, especially when even at the message level there are times when you like that newsletter and times when you don't. It's also unclear if this will ever move beyond a few top mailbox providers where there is both budget and incentive to make improvements. Still it's an important trend to note.
Big Trend #2: An increased focus on making email safe. Email continues to be a major vector for attack by the Internet axis of evil. Spoofing of domains used in phishing messages is becoming broader, as the aims of the spoofers have changed. Previously, when a sender was spoofing a sending domain, the purpose was largely to phish credentials from the recipient -- stealing account information that would allow the attacker to get something of economic value. That is still a problem. However, more frequently the aim is simply to get the message recipients to click on a link that takes them to a site where malware is installed on their machines. This allows the attacker to "own" the recipient's machine -- potentially stealing all passwords and allowing the attacker to use the machine for other purposes. To combat this trend, most of the major global and North American mailbox providers have instituted DKIM (or have it on their roadmap). By itself, DKIM isn't sufficient to stop spoofing. However, it is an important element in protecting end users. In addition, Hotmail presents an inbox trust icon next to messages that pass authentication checks and are on a list of trusted senders. Gmail has similar functionality.
There were also three smaller trends worth noting:
Small Trend #1: Mobile usage exceeds 10% for most lists for the first time. The ability to measure mobile usage is still a little wonky, but the trend -- just in terms of device sales -- is pretty clear. If you're not worried about how your message can be rendered and interacted with in a mobile email client, you probably should be.
Small Trend #2: Increasingly poor deliverability for all third-party marketing mail. Over the course of 2010, those email companies that were in the list rental business saw much higher hurdles for getting mail delivered than they had in preceding years.
Small Trend #3: Email marketers finally got the reputation religion. Many sophisticated marketers have known for years that the sender's reputation (metrics measured by the receiving system to determine if the sending source is likely to be sending spam) is the major driver of inbox placement. This year, the average marketer seemed to get the message. I think there is finally widespread understanding that it is not capricious postmasters at ISPs making decisions about what gets in and what doesn't, but that it's machines employing algorithms that are intended to reduce spam.
What trends did you spot this year? Leave me a comment below -- would love to hear what caught your attention this year.
Meanwhile, what should you be on the watch for in 2011? Read my next column in January to find out what's on my mind for the year ahead.