The Microsoft Hotmail Team just released a new version of Hotmail that has important implications for marketers.
The main purpose of the release is to "address inbox clutter" -- which seems to mean mainly marketing email. Microsoft has even coined a name for the non-spam, but unwanted mail that the company wants to help subscribers avoid -- it's called "graymail."
The biggest changes are around prioritization of messages and include some features similar to the improvements made recently by Yahoo. Microsoft is prioritizing the email that its users have indicated are the most important messages: those from family and friends, along with social network updates.
Microsoft has accomplished this through five new features:
1. Hotmail Highlights: This is now the page you see first when you log into Hotmail instead of the inbox. The page provides a few categories -- including From Contacts, Social Updates, Flagged, and Upcoming events. There is no category for "special offers" or anything else that might flag marketing messages.
2. Filtered Views in the Inbox: This feature organizes the inbox using just three filters -- Contacts, Social Updates, and From Groups.
3. Quick Views: Another filtering feature that allows the user to see only messages that are flagged, that contain photos, that have documents attached or that are shipping updates. That last category is intriguing. It appears that these shipping updates are from a few package delivery services (like USPS) that are part of the Active Views trial (see more on this, below).
4. Improved user-level filtering: This offers yet more filtering options, including, in an example given by Microsoft, a prompt to unsubscribe from a message that the user frequently deletes unread.
5. Sweep: Probably the most talked-about, this feature makes it easier to either "permadelete" messages you don't want from a specific sender, or automatically shuttle these messages into a folder. As anyone who maintains a "To Read" file can attest, it seems unlikely these messages will make it out of this kind of purgatory. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that some consumers will create a "shopping" folder with marketing mail that they can flip through when they are in a spending mood.
This new release also includes a feature called Active Views. If your company is up to the challenge of creating good email interactions, Microsoft has added some cool functionality for a handful of pilot users: a new partner platform that will allow senders to put Web-like functionality into the email. Examples include: viewing photos from Flickr, watching videos from YouTube, getting social invitations from LinkedIn and shipping notifications for USPS. Based on these early beta customers, it seems that the purpose of the partner platform is to allow folks to transact directly from the inbox.
Another feature called Trusted Senders is aimed at protecting consumers from phishing. Microsoft has identified about 100 often-phished senders and is providing a trust mark next to their messages. While details on this program aren't yet available, the feature appears to be driven by authentication results and sending history. It's also not clear at this time how or when Microsoft plans to expand this program.
How do these features impact marketers? As with the changes to Yahoo, these features break the old model of the "last in, on top" inbox. Now personal email and a few select mass messages will have priority over everything else. But Microsoft is going several steps further to give consumers the ability to rid themselves of "clutter" (read: your email promotions) faster than ever.
My advice to marketers:
· Deepen the connection between email and social networks and get your customers to friend or follow you on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Notifications from these services will be treated almost as well as personal email, giving a distinct advantage to companies who leverage them.
· Favor shippers that are able to take advantage of the shipping notification features. Also, if you aren't already using these types of transactional notices to cross-promote, you should.
· Give customers a reason not to sweep you into permanent oblivion. If you aren't using segmentation and targeting, now is really the time to start, especially for Hotmail addresses. The penalty for sending too much boring email just got a lot higher.
· Start thinking about the kinds of things, beyond shipping notices, that might be "transactable" in your business. What else can you do to engage the customer in the inbox? You should be planning how to benefit from the Active Views platform when Microsoft opens it up.
· Get your authentication in place. While the exact mechanisms for the Trusted Sender feature aren't known, proper authentication will certainly be required.
Bottom line: The top providers of inboxes are in a fierce competition to be the "inbox of choice." This, by the way, just goes to show the power that email still has. It's where so many of us spend a good chunk of time connecting, consuming media and working. But this competition is going to have vast implications for companies that use email for marketing and even for transactional use.