Email's Global Warming

Last month I called out some of my deliverability friends for focusing too much on inbox placement and not enough on the revenue implications of mailing less. Sometimes “more, more, more” is the right answer at the individual level.

Unfortunately, the sum result of all those decisions to send more mail is that we’re sending a lot more email collectively. Many “more, more, more” proponents don’t see the broader, “environmental” impact of constantly taking that approach. They think the deliverability folks (like me) are alarmists, and refuse to believe that the email ecosystem is going to change. They’re wrong.

I spend a lot of my time working with mailbox providers. Right now, graymail is one of their biggest problems, with commercial mail clogging inboxes (along with compromised accounts and machines on their own networks). The number of messages received in a typical consumer inbox is many times higher than it was five years ago, and almost all of this growth has come from commercial mailers.

The ISPs are already reacting by dramatically changing webmail interfaces and filtering techniques. In the next six months I expect to see new email interfaces at the major mailbox providers that make it much harder for consumers to find marketing messages -- and much easier for them to stop getting those messages. Messages will be automatically put into folders (or “stacks,” in the case of AOL’s new, cool Alto email client). Senders whose messages get ignored may see automatic unsubscribes, or find their mail routed directly to junk folders. And we’ll see more email clients with functions like Hotmail’s sweep that make it easier to get rid of commercial mail. Messages that aren’t read will be less likely to get seen at all. These innovations will make it to mobile email clients, too.

For some senders, these changes will affect the effectiveness of email marketing. It’s hard to estimate by how much, but we’ll find out soon enough. It’s possible that they’ll alter the landscape substantially, and that email marketers will confront a very real “adapt or die” scenario in 2013. I hope not.

Many of the “more, more, more” advocates will react the way they always have: “Another stupid thing done by mailbox providers to make our lives harder.” They’re not seeing the big picture. They’re not recognizing that the marketing choices we make every day are the reason mailbox providers are changing the rules.

To be fair, I’m not sure that there is any way to prevent mailers from optimizing their programs for this week, month, or quarter by sending more. The way marketers are measured makes it hard to send less. But I think that the optimal way to send mail may involve sending less in the future.

(Now I’m going to get in my Ford Expedition to drive to bottom of the driveway to pick up my mail.)

Tags: email
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