Here are some of the changes affecting inbox experiences:
With the debut of Google Buzz in Gmail, now all three big webmail providers include social elements in their inboxes. Add to that MySpace Mail and Facebook's upcoming webmail product, Titan, and it's clear that social and email will be closely intertwined in the future. That should be a boon for SWYN (share with your network), allowing subscribers to easily share email content with their friends and family, but it also offers a challenge in that promotional emails will be competing head-to-head against status updates for attention.
Target just announced the launch of a scannable mobile coupon program, where discounts are redeemed by scanning a barcode on the phone at checkout. While the program is currently via SMS, with email and SMS converging I expect similar functionality to be available in emails in the next couple of years or so. That will make in-store only discounts easier to redeem for consumers and easier to track for retailers.
Video, in a variety of forms, are finding their way into the inbox as well. On the low end, video gifs are bringing a video-lite experience to the inbox. Frame rates are good and they work in most email clients, but you have to click through to enable sound. On the high end, Goodmail's Certified Video offers sound in the inbox for videos, but it's not broadly supported. Similarly, Gmail now enables YouTube functionality in emails, but that's also a single-platform solution.
Gmail's Enhanced Email, which is still in development, gives us a glimpse of what browsing in email might look like. The ramification of this on email design could be very significant, particularly for discount retailers that tend to show lots of products in their emails. For others, it would allow them to maintain tight designs while giving subscribers the option to drill down further into product assortments without having to click though.
Morgan Stewart of ExactTarget recently suggested that ISPs should provide a "thumbs up" button to counterbalance the "report spam" button. Considering that this is a standard option on Facebook, it's possible that it could find its way into the email world as well. We might also see Hotmail's x-unsubscribe functionality adopted more broadly, giving subscribers a more trusted opt-out mechanism without the reputation damage cause by the "report spam" button. Whitelisting and "add to address book" functionality could continue to evolve and become more automated. Plus, might consumers be given the option to suppress emails from a sender for a month as a form of email holiday? It doesn't seem too farfetched that ISPs would give their users this kind of control over the emails they receive.
Do you see these changes as positive or negative for email marketing? Will they make your job easier or more difficult? Do you foresee other changes to the inbox?