Message prioritization and foldering is becoming the typical email experience, as big mailbox providers and independent developers introduce ways to organize and unclutter mailboxes. Many take different approaches to reach a similar solution: essentially an inbox within the inbox. (The primary example of this is Gmail’s Priority Inbox.) Does that mean commercial senders who’ve worked to maintain deliverability can now find their messages shut out of subscribers’ email sanctum sanctorum? In some cases, yes, but smart marketers already have the knowledge they need to succeed in the automated inbox.
There are two keys to maintaining subscriber relationships in this new email environment. The first is to engage subscribers enough so they either identify your messages as priorities, getting you into the inbox within the inbox -- or they make a habit out of finding and reading your messages in their folders. While easier said than done, our research shows that effort pays off. Commercial mailers’ read rates in Gmail’s priority inbox (66%) more than double non-priority-enabled messages (32%). This may be the case for two reasons: the fact that messages at the top of the queue get read at a higher rate, and the fact that messages that generally get read end up at the top of the queue.
The second key to holding onto subscribers in this environment is to learn how to stay in contact from outside the priority inbox. Studying campaign timing is one way to do this. Marketers that know when their email is read have a real advantage: By sending just before their messages are usually read, they avoid having their messages sit in folders for days, being pushed down the queue by newer campaigns. Senders that consistently get their timing wrong may seem to disappear, buried beneath others’ messages. Subject line optimization is another skill that becomes even more critical outside the priority inbox, giving the best marketers another way to separate their messages from the rest.
Tactics like these become even more important when foldering decisions are automated, because deliverability is then partly determined by proprietary, unseen calculations of engagement. Here, too, marketers that understand engagement metrics and optimize programs to increase positive measures (like read rates and forwards), and decrease spam complaints and messages deleted without reading, have a marked advantage over others.
The automated inbox, as it becomes the norm, may favor the long-term health of engagement-optimized programs over those relying on response metrics for decision-making. Here’s why: A relatively low percentage of messages actually produce revenue, or even clicks, but that doesn’t mean the remainder of subscribers are bad prospects. It does mean that they’re not signaling to their mailbox providers that they want that mail, though, especially if those messages are ignored for months -- something that’s more likely to happen when they sit in the bottom of a folder. As a result, those messages will stop reaching the inbox altogether. So a program that focuses solely on response without actively prompting non-responders to engage will lose the ability to market to them. Seasonal buyers (Christmas, Valentine’s) are at risk in this scenario. So are those who buy occasionally but rarely read messages when they’re not actively shopping.
As message prioritization and foldering present this new challenge, maintaining effective list size is becoming a critical email marketing goal. Email marketers that know when subscribers aren’t engaged, and understand how to reactivate them and market to them from within folders, are preserving relationships and reaching a bigger audience. As others lose contact with their subscribers, engagement-optimized marketers are also facing less competition in the new inbox. While they strengthen their connections and entrench themselves in the inbox, it’s becoming harder for others to interject themselves into the conversation. Today’s inbox within the inbox may widen the gap between email marketing’s haves and have nots so much that those left behind can’t catch up.