Commentary

Hey ISPs, Can I Get a Thumbs-Up?

One of the most common questions I have received in over the past three months is "What is going to be different about email this year? REALLY different?"  

The expectation, it seems, is that we'll claim impending victory over one of email's killer codes (i.e., video in email, mobile rendering). While I'm hopeful we'll make progress in these areas, don't cue the marching band yet.

Looking at broader online marketing trends, it occurred to me that the answer is starring most of us in the face every day on Facebook: Email needs a "thumbs up" button.

Good content gets rewarded in social media. On Facebook, we can "like" something. On Twitter, we can "retweet." These are measures of positive sentiment that tell marketers they've hit the mark, even when no immediate action is taken. Email clients, on the other hand, train users to focus on the negative by giving the "spam" button prominent placement.

ISPs do have what they consider a positive sentiment measure. TINS ("this is not spam") data is not widely advertised nor shared, but ISPs do use it when determining sender reputation. After a message has been relegated to the spam folder, a user can mark the message as "not spam," telling the ISP it made a "false positive."

Problem is, both email feedback mechanisms focus on the negative. Either we mark something as spam, or users correct an incorrect evaluation. Email needs a mechanism that encourages subscribers to affirm marketers who do things right!

Of course users can stay engaged. They can open and click email messages and these roughly translate into positive sentiment. However, these actions are private. In contrast, social media encourages public displays of affection. When I tell one of my children I am proud of them behind closed doors, they shrug. When I stand in front of their team after a hard-fought game and say I'm proud of them, they blush. It's different.

Some innovative email marketers have already started down this road on their own by including links allowing subscribers to "rate this email" (see Chadwick's via RetailEmailBlog.com). Still, an ISP-based solution would provide several improvements over the current state:

1)   Improve SPAM filtering: The ratio of "thumbs up" to "this is spam" (e.g., "thumbs down") clicks would provide a new benchmark that more accurately measures the quality of each email message. By tracking which messages users like, ISPs could leverage this data to reduce false positives at both aggregate and individual levels.

2)   Enhance metrics for brands: Email marketers rely on three basic measurements: opens, clicks, and conversions. Opens tell us: 1) Did the sender and subject lines work? and 2) Has the program developed a good reputation over time? Opens provide no qualitative insights about the content of each message. For that we rely on click and conversion data.

But as consumers, sometimes it simply doesn't make sense to click. Assuming you like this column, you can read it in your inbox without clicking anything. You can get its value without downloading images. So, you can appreciate an email while leaving no trace of positive sentiment.

Or assume you're in the market for a new TV. You do your research, purchase the television, and then receive an email promoting the same TV at a better price somewhere else. You're not likely to click, but you may want to give the deal your public endorsement.

A "thumbs-up" mechanism would provide qualitative metrics on each email message, which could be revolutionary, especially for editorial and brand-oriented programs.

3)   Make email more social: Social works because of its public appeal. Consumers are empowered to provide direct feedback to companies in a public forum. Feedback in a private forum just doesn't provide the same level of innate satisfaction.

Why shouldn't this feedback take place directly in email clients? Imagine a world where the number of "thumbs-up" votes was displayed next to the sender line. This would provide an improved user experience for filtering which emails I choose to open.

4)   Improve relevance: Relevance comes at two levels. First, if you can't make it through the filter of public opinion, you probably need to invest more in content. At an individual level, Pandora music uses a "thumbs-up" system to help tailor relevant experiences, as does TiVo. Likewise, email marketers could use this data to determine which messages are relevant to individual subscribers.

Instead of asking, "what is going to be different about email this year?" let's spend some time thinking about "what could truly revolutionize email?" Could this be Facebook's opportunity to upset the email applecart?

You have my thoughts. Let's hear yours!

4 comments about "Hey ISPs, Can I Get a Thumbs-Up?".
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  1. Liz Lynch from Demandware, March 3, 2010 at 11:56 a.m.

    This is definitely an interesting concept, not only on the ISP level, but on the ESP level as well.
    I think the biggest impact would be in helping marketers measure relevance and create more relevance.
    Consumers already are familiar with "liking" something on Facebook, so I think it would be easily adopted on that end.
    It could even be applied not only to an entire e-mail, but to various sections, such as different product categories.
    And for marketers, it would give real-time feedback on how their messages are doing.

  2. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, March 3, 2010 at 4:39 p.m.

    Morgan another insightful post,.
    I take the view though that we are talking about two distinct email marketing campaigns. What I see from large corporate retailers are mainly flyers, posters sent out and called 'email marketing'. I find this is really nothing more than another form of billboard advertising, except it is going to someone whom may be interested. There is nothing personal in this type of email marketing. The second type of email marketing which is much more productive is one which is constructive emotional direct response copy. It is words crafted to entice a customer to respond. It is written in the first person and direct to a client using personalisation, subject lines, and the skill of a copywriter. This type of email content does not need a thumbs up as it is aimed directly at the recipient and they would not need to let anyone know it's good or bad - just as they wouldn't do this if they were in a shop. Instead the thumbs up is the sale. I see your point but I also see too many corporations turning their email marketing into billboard advertising and think they are connecting with their clients which is poppycock. Cheers Kurt http://www.kurtjohansen.com Email Mastery

  3. Kym Vance from V12 Group, March 5, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.

    Morgan, please tell me MediaPost forwarded a copy of this column to each and every ISP and ESP in existence! Very insightful and right on the mark! An excellent idea that would go along way to validate a marketer's credibility and help ISPs set more realistic filters vs working on a broad stroke platform.

  4. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, March 11, 2010 at 11:07 a.m.

    Thanks for the encouraging comments. There have been blog posts both supporting (http://blog.deliverability.com/2010/03/where-is-there-not-spam-button.html) and meh-ing (http://blog.wordtothewise.com/2010/03/improving-the-email-interface/) this concept.

    Granted, there are challenges, but the most encouraging note came from the leadership of a company in the receiver community that has asked to discuss the concept in more detail. Progress!!! :)

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