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!