Are You Ready for the Ultra Managed Inbox?

Email marketers have long benefited from the linear nature of the inbox, where everything is sorted by time of arrival.  Marketers enjoyo close proximity to personal messages – our sale notice sits next to a private invitation for dinner with friends.  That prominent position has helped make email marketing one of the most powerful and ubiquitous digital channels.


Don't get too comfy.  The world is changing.  A new set of inbox management tools are emerging from the global mailbox providers like Yahoo!, Hotmail/MSN and Gmail. These tools make it easier for subscribers to avoid whatever is not interesting to them.  Hotmail did a major release of the new features in the last week of July, and more and more subscribers have access to the new Sweep and other filtering tools already.  Gmail has long offered advanced spam filtering and social connection tools, and similar Yahoo! “My View” features  were released last year. 


(Author's add: I posted this last night, and this morning find that Gmail has now announced "Priority Inbox" – a feature that lets you sort mail by what is important, interesting and "other."  Yikes.  How much marketing mail will make it into the first two?!  Doesn't change the theme or recommendations herein.)


I call it the “Ultra Managed Inbox” – and it creates both opportunity as well as threat for email marketers.
The new inbox management tools are designed to help all of us more efficiently access the email messages we want, and eliminate the ones we don’t. Hotmail’s “sweep” feature makes it easy for me to create a “shopping” folder and sweep all messages from retailers directly into it. In future, I will never see them in my inbox.  After a week or so, they will be deleted from the folder, too.  I could also sweep a sender immediately to “trash,” automating today’s manual delete-delete-delete process.  That will save consumers time, but also means win-back campaigns will never reach the inbox, either.  Hotmail may also notice that I never read messages from a certain sender and prompt me to unsubscribe. 


The good part is that folders with high value (like “Weekend Deals,” “Productivity Tips” or “Horoscope”) might get more attention.  It may be true that subscribers who regularly visit their folders are much more actively engaged in the messages that they find there. Tracking behavior back to the subscriber will give marketers lots of insight into timing and relevancy, too.


These changes by the world’s leading mailbox providers provide a new imperative for email marketers.  We can no longer “ride along” for attention by cozying up to personal messages.  We must re-earn our way into the inbox, or at least into a folder that subscribers check frequently.  


The good news is that the same rules still apply:  Delight subscribers, manage infrastructure well and keep your file clean — and you will continue to enjoy high inbox placement rates. However, there are some nuances that emerge as a consequence of the ultra managed inbox.  


1. Encourage personal whitelisting.  Long a good deliverability tool, “add to the address book” now is a survival approach.  Marketers on a user’s “safe senders” list will continue to be given preference.  Plus, this is still one of the only ways (besides third party certification) to ensure images and links are on by default.  Be sure to make it easy, and tie your “from” domain clearly to your brand.

2. Segment your “from” addresses. From what we at Return Path can tell from using the new tools, the Hotmail Sweep feature bases filtering on the “body from” domain, so the entire from address is what is filtered.   Therefore and should be treated differently.  Unlike their current personal block list, Sweep won’t give the option to block by domain, only the entire address.  (Subscribers can still block domains with other tools.)  Please consider this carefully. We as marketers know the nuance between marketing@ and transactional@, but subscribers may not.  The actual email experience must be unique and tied to the from address – each email message type must have a clear purpose to be viewed by subscribers as unique. Otherwise, they may sweep a marketing@ from address and wonder why newsletter@ is still coming to the inbox. That second set of messages may be quickly marked as spam.

3. Turn frequency into cadence.  When everything reached the inbox, being present was enough to earn a brand impression.  As users employ more filters, being relevant and timely will trump volume.  When I open the folder, I will expect to see timely messages tailored to my interest.  On the other hand, repeated reminders about last week’s sale may turn me off from visiting this folder again.

4. Transactions are the new connectors.  As always, transactional messages are very welcome by subscribers – and could be a great co-marketing opportunity.  Consider appropriate marketing that is tied to the transaction rather than pure promotions that dilute the value of the original purpose.  (Also, remember that CAN SPAM governs what is considered transaction vs. marketing in the U.S.)

5. Segmentation by activity trumps demographics.   Messages sorted into folders are likely to be viewed by utility.  Defaults at Hotmail include Social Networks and Upcoming Events.  There is no “special offers” flag – so users will either create folders by sender (e.g.: L. L. Bean) or activity (e.g.: Sales, Banking, Read Later).  It’s up to marketers to create content and offers that is worth reading later.

6. The first click really counts.  New subscribers will receive initial messages in the inbox (provided our sender reputations are good) – the ones just after sign up.  This is the chance to be relevant, and earn the right to STAY in the inbox.  Give considerable thought to the first 3-5 messages a new subscriber receives.  It may be the last set of messages ever to go directly to the inbox.

7. Consider mobile implications.  Portable devices may have fewer features.  For example, Hotmail on a smartphone does not allow movement to any folder but trash.  If you have a high mobile readership, consider segment and frequency options to reduce the clutter and engage more deeply.

8. Get feedback now.  Start now to investigate subscribe behavior so you can plan ahead.  How many of your subscribers have actually opened and clicked this week? This month?  How can you gather data on their preferences and other interactions with your brand? How do subscribers want you to use email strategically with other channels like postal, social and advertising? 


The Ultra Managed Inbox still spells opportunity for marketers.  Inbox management is not new – all these types of filters have been available for a long time. Soon, however, they will be automated and promoted heavily to new users.  There’s lots of good news for marketers in this potential rejuvenation of the inbox – but only if we get ready now and start testing what it really means to engage and compete with the clutter surrounding our messages. 


How are you planning to adapt for the new, ultra-managed inbox?  Let me know any questions or thoughts in the comments section below.

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3 Responses to “Are You Ready for the Ultra Managed Inbox?”

  1. Joshua Baer
    August 31, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    This is even more relevant today Gmail's Prioritized Inbox announcement!

  2. Kelly Lorenz
    August 31, 2010 at 2:45 pm #


    Timely post! I've had a lot of the same thoughts and discussions with clients now that ISPs are introducing the ability for more user control. My additional thoughts are:

    1. I haven't seen a mass adoption of the new features in Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL yet. Is the average user interested and/or knowledgeable about these features for them to hit critical mass? The jury's still out. Gmail may be different as the audience is a bit more tech-savvy than the others. It'll be interesting to see the lasting impact on marketing metrics.

    2. On your point #2 around transactional messages and separate from addresses, this is something that I have yet to find an answer on: is the sweep/filtering based on the sending address or the sender and how does sweeping impact transactional messages? Have the ISPs made the filters smart enough to recognize the difference?

    3. How will all of these new customizable inboxes affect the first send? Will users have to whitelist a marketer for them to even show up in the first place?

    There are so many variables that it can be a scary time for marketers. My thought is, at the moment, that marketers should be laying the groundwork (like setting up a stellar welcome message/series and pushing people to whitelist, as you mention), so that when these changes start to make a huge difference, they're ready for the impact.

    -Kelly Lorenz

  3. Ben
    September 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Priority is so critical in this era of information overload! also does a nice job of prioritizing your tasks. Which also happens to have the effect of reducing email by making your digital life more streamlined. . .