I can’t think of a year that brought more innovation to the inbox than 2012. New ideas about managing email are coming from everywhere -- some from big mailbox providers, like AOL’s Alto, but lots from entrepreneurs and developers that just see a new way to experience email. As more and more gain traction in 2013, they have the potential to totally change the email ecosystem in ways that are great for consumers. That doesn’t mean they’re bad for marketers. Here are a few of the emerging email trends and technologies worth watching -- and more important, planning for -- in the next 12 months.
Start with inbox foldering, which you already see in major ISPs’ mail clients, and from a number of third-party providers like OtherInbox (a Return Path property) and Sanebox. More and more mail will be automatically sorted into folders in 2013. Consumers are embracing the idea because it declutters their inboxes and makes it easier to find messages from senders they care about. Marketers that make that cut can relax and enjoy some uninterrupted time building real relationships with their subscribers. Those on the outside need to find a way to break through. This might seem frustrating, especially to marketers that work hard to reach the inbox only to find their messages shunted into a folder that never gets opened. It may be a new hurdle to clear, and even a new skill to develop, but marketers don’t have much choice -- and for those that get it right, the rewards easily justify the effort.
Like foldering, mobile email is a former trend becoming the norm this year. Even as mobile opens surpassed desktop clients and webmail in 2012, marketers for the most part only begrudgingly accepted the rise of mobile rather than embracing it. It’s easy to see why: Opening email on mobile takes away a lot of control over the customer experience. Mobile email changes when and how subscribers interact with messages, it changes how likely they are to respond, and most important it changes the site experience for those that click. On a phone or even a tablet, some sites are just… crappy -- even to the point where visitors can’t transact. Last year there were two ways to deal with mobile opens: find a way to create mobile user experiences that work, or find a way to get subscribers to open on another platform. Now we’re down to one. This year marketers will shift from hoping messages aren’t opened on mobile devices to assuming that they will be.
Among the emerging trends that popped up in 2012 and should be on marketers’ radar by the end of this year is inbox interactivity. I’ve named a handful of examples before, but collectively these may represent the biggest near-future shift in the email ecosystem, and marketers should be excited about this one. Today the range of subscriber response that can take place within the inbox is generally limited, but that’s changing fast. Soon it will become commonplace to comment on social media from within the email client, or to watch video, or to shop and transact. Subscribers won’t have to leave the mailbox, and that’s good news for email marketers because it eliminates clicks/inertia/friction that suppress response. But it’s great news for ISPs, because users stay within their environments, improving their monetization opportunities and deepening their customer relationships. That’s part of the reason this innovation is moving fast -- the needs of consumers, mailbox providers, and marketers are perfectly aligned.
Another game-changing email experience shift will come from the increasingly intelligent, increasingly automated content engines that match individual user behavior and device-specific data with relevant offers and communication. Companies like Sailthru and Moveable Ink are using what they learn about subscribers – what they’ve responded to, where they are, what kind of devices they’re using – to create truly personalized email experiences. More traditional ESPs are talking about bringing more automated, triggered messaging based on client behavior. This was always the promise of data-driven direct marketing, that one day list management and segmentation strategies would give way to personal communication – segments of one. These technologies are already here, and they’re getting closer to fulfilling that promise. Together they’re poised to emerge as one of the most important email marketing trends in 2013.