Mailbox Providers Suggest Collaboration with Senders

I was delighted to hear both Yahoo! and Hotmail strike a very cooperative and collaborative tone for working with marketers and other senders today, as the two major global mailbox providers discussed plans to expand their inbox products and spam filtering.

Carlo Catajan, Product Manager for Yahoo! Mail and Daniel Lewis, Sr. Product Manager for Microsoft Windows LIVE Hotmail, both said at their Email Insider Summit panel today that priority number one is to make sure that only messages that are welcome and valued by end user subscribers reach the inbox. That is very different from the early days of email when the focus was on building walls to keep bad stuff out. Filtering technology has evolved and improved to the point where mailbox providers are pretty good at parsing out spam - in fact, both gentlemen cited stats indicating that more than 95% of all messages they see are blocked from users mailboxes. For senders, establishing trust, brand value and a good sender reputation are paramount.

The postmaster and product teams are now focused on user experience - and this is where the collaboration with senders and marketers comes in.

Microsoft's Lewis' shared some research results showing his Hotmail users were interested in email primarily because it gives them a channel for communicating and staying connected with commercial entities. This includes things like online banking and ecommerce, but also marketing notices and alerts. Lewis seemed surprised to find that commercial mail was so welcome, but he certainly has embraced the customer feedback.

Perhaps these findings from Hotmail users are also an indication of how email and social will co-exist in our personal and professional worlds. Email is private, protected and controlled. It's a place for meaningful conversations with one person or brand. Social media is public, frantic and cluttered.

"We know that users manage their inbox through triage," Lewis says. "We've identified users by the way that they manage their inbox: Filers (who use folders), Pilers (who let it all pile up) and Purgers (who delete).

"More than half (55%) are Purgers," he said. "So our focus is to make it easier to quickly identify what they want and what they don't, and to ensure that the messages they find most valuable are the easiest to find. We think we can work with senders to improve the value of the messages they send, which in turn helps create value in the inbox for our users."

Yahoo! Mail's Catajan emphasized the need for allowing users to send feedback about a particular message or sender, but not having those individual preferences dictate the larger sender reputation. He stopped short of committing to adding a "like this" button to complement the "report spam" button, but Catajan said Yahoo! was synthesizing complaint data with a back-end review of engagement data. Users would not be giving feedback directly through a click, but their actions would be incorporated into the "cocktail" of sender reputation data.

Catajan emphasized that any use of engagement data is in its infancy - it's not a significant factor in sender reputation or filtering today. In future, however, the idea he offers is that an individual's click on the spam button would stop the messages for that individual, but if that person also engaged with emails from that sender, the complaint would not factor into filtering of all messages to all subscribers. He was not able to give us much more detail than that, but conceptually, the audience of marketers and publishers loved it, and encouraged Yahoo! to continue in this direction.

As far as dynamic content or rich media in the inbox, both speakers were adamant about only offering such "active" inbox experience opportunities to senders who already have good sender reputations. "Only the most trusted senders will be able to utilize rich media in our inboxes," Lewis says.

This was a very exiting conversation and both gentlemen were incredibly generous with their time and insights for attendees after the panel.

With more collaboration between senders and mailbox providers, the entire email ecosystem improves. Senders who have more data and transparency into filtering decisions can (and do) change their behavior and reach more inboxes. That happens today, of course. In future, I hope we will see more collaboration and sharing between the two groups - especially since marketers and mailbox providers share a customer: The end user subscriber.

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