Commentary

The Inbox Of The Not-So-Distant Future

For better or worse, the email inbox is well on its way to becoming the nexus of all digital communications. Inboxes are also set to be able to do much more, reducing the need for subscribers to click through to take action. Future inboxes may also give consumers even more control over their email streams beyond eliminating unwanted email with a click of the "report spam" button.

Here are some of the changes affecting inbox experiences:

Social Media
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.

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Barcodes
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
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.

Browsing
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.

Transactions
Goodmail's CertifiedCommerce product also enables product carousels for browsing, but more interestingly it allows for transactions to take place within the email itself, totally eliminating the need for a landing page. Both Gmail's Enhanced Email and Goodmail's CertifiedCommerce represent extending JavaScript (or something like it) to the inbox, which brings up security issues. There are already concerns that some of these higher inbox functions will come with price tags that will allow only big marketers to use them, but sender reputation -- along with authentication and various forms of accreditation -- may ultimately be the factor that opens the door to these need tools when there are security issues.

Email Management
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?

5 comments about "The Inbox Of The Not-So-Distant Future ".
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  1. Jennifer Omeara from FLIMP Media, March 16, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    Chad -

    Video email is an extremely effective way to reach an audience in a direct marketing capacity. As you mentioned, video email campaigns can be created by using animated gifs or by using systems such as Goodmail or Gmail to reach a limited audience. At Flimp Media (http://www.flimp.net), our clients have been successfully producing video email campaigns for over three years. The average video email generates 2 to 3 times higher click rates and an audience engagement rate that is 4 to 7 times higher than standard creative.

    Today, as a best practice, video email campaigns should present a screenshot of the video and a link to the video content. Current technology does support video playing directly in an email. But this is not a good user approach, especially for marketers focused on a B2B audience. Many corporations do not want to support the bandwidth for video playing directly in an email message. Also, many users do not want to deal with auto-playing video - they want to control the video playing experience.

    Audiovisual content is an extremely effective way to engage an audience and to communicate complex ideas. Client testimonials come to life when a client is sharing them - product demos are more vibrant. Email is an outstanding way to deliver video content.

    On a different note, Morgan Stewart's recommendation that ISPs provide a "thumbs up" button as an alternative to the "report spam" button is brilliant!

  2. Holly Terry from Creative Expressions, March 16, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    FYI: J.Jill has been printing barcodes at the top of their HTML emails all month long. Here's an example:

    http://bit.ly/aMBf0T

  3. Jordan Cohen from Fluent, March 16, 2010 at 12:15 p.m.

    Excellent article Chad.

    These are all positive changes. They may add more complexity and required sophistication by the marketer, but ultimately make the consumer email experience better, which is always a win-win.

    The only thing I'd add to the list is "Analytics," which leverages the same scripts that will allow firms to run video and commerce applications. Marketers will be able to dive much deeper into their customers' email behavior in the same way they are able to on their web sites - e.g., metrics like "avg time spent" will be introduced into the equation.

    My final comment here is that it seems like there is still a lot of work to be done before a lot these next-gen email capabilities will be ubiquitous. Like you point out, current implementations are not broadly supported, and there's a high degree of complexity involved even for those that are.

    The security and deliverability problems that have plagued email for years need to be resolved once and for all, on a broad scale, before the fun can really begin.

  4. Chad White from Litmus, March 16, 2010 at 12:31 p.m.

    Thanks for your comments, Jennifer and Holly.

    Jordan, to your point, there will definitely be a long rough patch where different capabilities will be supported on one or two major email platforms, making it difficult for marketers to present a uniform experience to their subscribers. Adoption will take time. On the upside, that will give marketers time to experiment and gauge the ever-changing reaction of subscribers.

  5. Jared Kimball from Spamspert.com, March 17, 2010 at 7:04 p.m.

    In addition to the bar codes for Target, airlines like Continental are using email/pda bar codes for Blackberry's and Iphone's. I'm a pilot in the airlines and I see more and more travelers using the feature.

    I welcome the changes. Hello! We live in a technological world and things change fast! Email is here to stay (in one form or another) and it needs to adapt and change as technology gets better. I think video emails are on the leading edge and I've spoken with tons of people that love the idea. I also welcome the challenges that this is going to bring to the industry and how it will affect marketing and advertising dollars.

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