Jeff Greenhouse

Experienced Marketing & Analytics Executive

Inbox Intelligence: The biggest threat to email marketing.
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Inbox Intelligence: The biggest threat to email marketing.

[Ding] You’ve got mail!

If your marketing strategy relies on email marketing, you’d better start coming up with a Plan B. Some subtle but powerful changes in the way we use email are going to take a lot of the air out of email marketing.

Despite the rise of mobile and the oversized emphasis on social marketing, email has remained an incredibly useful and effective marketing tool, often delivering much better ROI (once you’ve built your list) than other types of media. It works because it gives you an opportunity to stay top-of-mind for people who have already done business with you or expressed some level of affinity.

Once you’ve gotten me on your email list, your main challenge is to come up with content and subject lines that get my attention. That’s certainly easier than snagging me with a banner ad or interrupting my social media with a sponsored post.

The new threat to email marketing is a recent trend towards what I call “inbox intelligence”. As email outpaces our ability to filter it (as evidenced by inboxes buried under thousands of messages), the new frontier for email software is to come to our rescue with intelligent filtering and organization.

Guess what? This “intelligence” doesn’t care about your sales goals, and your marketing emails can fall right off the map without you even knowing it!

Automated filtering is nothing new. Spam filters have been around for a long time. We know how they can impact email marketing. An unfortunate coding choice or an errant algorithm can banish our messages to the netherworld, locking away part of our mailing list and cutting into our results. That was just the start. It’s about to get a lot worse.

The first hints of the new age came in March, when Dropbox snapped up startup Mailbox right after launch. Mailbox promised a new and more effective interface for people to sort and filter their mail, allowing them to get to the elusive “inbox zero” state. Consumers responded by registering en masse, proving that we all desperately want an easier, faster way to sort through the mountain of mail.

The bigger step in this evolution came in June, when Google added automatic inbox filtering to Gmail. Aside from people’s custom filters, this feature automatically splits all incoming mail into five categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, Forums and Junk.

Your marketing emails are considered “Promotions”. And Promotions go into their own tab, after Primary and Social.

Is that such a big deal? YES!

By sequestering marketing emails into a separate area, away from the personal communications, active responses (i.e. registration, password resets, order receipts, etc.) and social media alerts, the chance that they will actually be seen drops dramatically. I look at my Primary and Social Gmail tabs dozens of times per day, but I have now gone entire days without looking at the Promotions tab.

Gmail isn’t everything (even though it is a BIG portion of the consumer audience), but this is the way the wind is blowing.

Mail software will get smarter and smarter, reflecting more of the consumers’ desire to focus their attention on the communications they consider to be the most important. As that happens, “casual subject line exposure” will continue to drop and so will email open rates.

Do I still believe in email marketing? Absolutely. I just realize that it is going to become more challenging. To combat this, we are going to have to be even more artful in our subject lines, we are going to have to know and understand how the state of the art of inbox intelligence is advancing, and we are going to have to come up with clever ways to encourage our audience to “promote” us out of the Promotions tab and into the Primary one.

From now on, to reach the consumer we have to outsmart the inbox.

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