Beneath Steadily Weak Inbox Placement, Frantic Struggle To Keep Pace

It’s tempting to view the most recent statistics on global inbox placement -- which show 17% of legitimate messages failing to reach the inbox -- as a sign that marketers are complacent about deliverability, or that they aren’t doing much to fix it. That view is wrong.

A better-informed interpretation is that most marketers understand the challenge perfectly well and respond with sophisticated, data-driven actions to get their messages to the inbox -- but as mailbox providers adjust to a constantly shifting landscape of spam tactics and email abuse, even the successful senders are struggling to keep pace with adjustments.

To be sure, some continue to run aggressive email marketing programs, knowingly taking risks and sometimes getting caught in spam filters or blocks. Our research found plenty of marketers with persistent inbox placement problems, in some cases entire industry sectors that underperform. We also found plenty of leaders, and even entire industry sectors, with consistently excellent inbox placement.



There are always winners and losers, even when the game stays the same and the rules never change. But deliverability isn't like that; fundamental shifts have been the norm for years, and the rate of change is accelerating:

The entire email subscriber experience is evolving so fast that the definition of inbox is no longer standardized. There are millions of consumer apps that customize mailboxes, changing the way they present messages, shifting their timing, showing their contents in different formats. Mailbox providers themselves are diverting from standardized displays and functions, with variations like the tabbed inbox and Gmail’s gridview challenging conventional ideas of what inbox means.

Measurement -- and therefore management -- becomes less clear, as "inbox placement" comes to mean different things. Mail delivered to the Gmail Promotions tab technically reaches the inbox, even if it's a click away from the Primary tab. This is a perfect example of the kinds of points we never had to consider when deliverability was a binary question of in or out. (For the record, email marketing performance in the Promotions tab argues convincingly that it's in the inbox

Measurement becomes harder still when mailbox providers introduce increasingly disparate criteria to reach subscribers' inboxes. Where user interaction with messages is analyzed for signals of interest, seed-based methodologies become less accurate because seed accounts can't behave like real people, but measurements based on real users’ inboxes never see blocked mail. One-dimensional views of inbox placement simply don’t work anymore.

There may have been a time when senders could bone up on deliverability best practices, follow some commonsense guidelines, and achieve reasonable effective inbox placement rates. Hidden in the relatively steady global inbox placement benchmark is the story of a changing deliverability landscape leaving those senders behind, as best practices no longer apply universally. The senders keeping up are constantly adjusting their Gmail sending practices, their sending practices for highly engaged subscribers, etc. There’s nothing complacent about their approach; the last thing they’re doing is standing still. While the worldwide average inbox placement rate hasn't changed much in recent years, it's about the only thing in email marketing that hasn't.

You can give your email program the best chance of reaching the inbox and staying connected to subscribers by applying three fundamental approaches used by leaders identified in our report:

  • Measure inbox placement accurately using consumer data, derived from actual consumers’ inbox interaction, in addition to seed-based monitoring. Seed addresses are still vital components of measurement, but without a dimension of real user behavior, they can’t provide the insight senders need to make informed decisions.
  • Rethink segmentation strategies to match the increasingly fractured inbox placement landscape. ISPs, devices, and distinct subscriber behaviors now produce distinct inbox placement trends. A blended view increasingly obscures (solvable) problems that threaten inbox placement.
  • Design for mobile. The identified leaders are already doing this. Most messages are now opened on mobile devices, and their share is building. A surprisingly large number of marketers aren’t designing their messages for mobile. Making it easy for subscribers to interact with messages on their iPhones etc., is critical to maintain engagement levels that signal relevance to mailbox providers.
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