Email user interfaces (UI) hadn't changed a lot from 2002 until relatively recently. Since 2009 we've seen a lot of innovation in webmail UIs that have very real implications for email marketers. I've talked about these changes and their implications here, here and here. In the last three years we've seen the launch of Priority Inbox and Smart Labels at Gmail, "sweep" functionality at Hotmail and message categorization functionality at several mailbox providers. These are all important changes that marketers need to contend with.
All this innovation raises a few key questions:
1. What about mailbox providers other than Gmail, Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo -- are they going to make an investment in fancier UIs, individual-level filtering and message categorization?
So far, most of the serious UI innovation has been at the largest webmail providers. Building a top quality webmail interface powered by sophisticated analytics requires a large investment. Is this something that a large number of mailbox providers are going to invest in? Will we see desktop email clients like Thunderbird and Outlook institute any of these innovations?
My prediction is that we won't see a lot of similar style investments by other webmail providers. The cost is too high and the alternatives -- see #2, below -- too numerous. Exception here is possibly Outlook or very large cable providers. Microsoft has a lot of skin in the email game and desktop is still important. They aren't going to want to cede that ground, so I predict more innovation there.
2. Is innovation coming from the mailbox providers or from startups creating technology that can sit on top of existing interfaces? Will any of these "plug ins" really pop in 2011?
There are a very large number of email "plug in" companies that are building some super interesting applications that can be added on to Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Outlook and others. There are a small handful of these vendors that have more than 500,000 users. If you take a look at the Google Apps Marketplace or at some to the applications offered by Yahoo in their "applications" section, there is some pretty interesting pieces of functionality for users. For example, I've seen plugins that allow users to: 1) better integrate data from social networks to learn more about those they communicate with; 2) automatically unsubscribe from message that they don't want; and 3) organize messages into convenient folders (e.g., bills and notifications), and share photos and pay bills.
My prediction is that we will see at least one of these plug-in vendors really start to rack up a high number of users in 2011.
3. How are mailbox providers going to innovate with "Active Views" and "Enhanced Email" type functionality?
Microsoft , Yahoo and Gmail have announced functionality that brings the experience of a website directly into the in inbox by removing some of the constraints that are put on HTML email. There have been some really great implementations for early adopters. Some of my favorites: a Living Social offer that automatically shows the amount of time remaining in an offer, and real-time package tracking right in an email.
This is some exciting stuff, but the question remains: How will these innovations be offered beyond the initial set of companies that are implementing them? If change is opened up more broadly, how prepared are most email marketers to take advantage of it?
I think it remains to be seen how much end users actually like these "Active Views" and "Enhanced Email" features. If they are well used, mailbox providers may broaden the availability of these programs. So, no real prediction here.
Time will tell if my forecasts are right. However, one thing is sure: It should be a good year for innovation in email.