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brainy laptopFive minutes on Mashable or TechCrunch and you’re ready to retreat to the woods with a year’s supply of tinned food and a shotgun.

There’s only so much change you can take.

For email marketers, one area of important change is at the recipient end of the email marketing chain. Barely a day passes without an email heavyweight or software vendor announcing some new tool or feature to improve the functionality of the inbox.

There’s so much going on, it’s impractical to keep up. But I’m not sure you have to.

The implications of these inbox changes for our marketing efforts can be gleaned from an understanding of the wider issues behind these changes: unsurprisingly, the social web is the new factor in the rapid evolution of the inbox.

What’s causing change?

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are incredibly successful, but a key constraint for them is reach. Not everyone is on Facebook, even fewer are on Twitter.

However, nearly everyone has an email address, which is one reason why email remains hugely popular and might be considered the original online social network. Social needs email.

Conversely, the big email players (like Google and Microsoft) can see eyeballs drifting to social applications. If they want to keep people on their webmail sites or using their software, they need social.

So what are the consequences?

This combined need to overcome the limitations of self-contained social networks and compete for audiences and attention results in:

  • Social networks adding email features to their service (see, for example, Facebook’s proposed Project Titan)
  • More tools supporting interaction between social and email (see, for example, this list of Twitter email tools or Inbox2)
  • Webmail services adding social functionality to their inboxes (see, for example, Gmail’s Buzz)
  • Growth of social add-ons and support in email client software (see, for example, Outlook’s Social Connector)

Put simply, the lines between email and social are blurring: we’re looking at the arrival of the so-called social inbox.

So does this have any implications for your email marketing? Here are three…

1. Reach the inner circle

Increasingly, our emails will no longer land in an email inbox, but in a communications hub: a genetically-modified super inbox. These emails share space with a wider variety of messages, many of which are highly targeted and personal.

As messages flood into social inboxes, the associated services will provide more and more tools to help sort, stream and prioritize those messages. Yahoo! Mail, for example, has a “Show” menu item that…

“…will allow you to view emails only from your Contacts or Connections”

It seems inevitable that “intelligent” inboxes will highlight “priority” messages, based on the user’s previous interactions with that sender’s messages or whether the recipient has some formal connection with that sender.

The inbox becomes an expert system, looking for signals that indicate an important email or one that can be safely ignored: is the sender in the recipient’s address book? Is the recipient a friend, follower, fan or contact of the sender?

High message volumes and intelligent message streaming have obvious implications. You need to:

  • constantly work to raise the quality and value of your emails, as I’ve talked about before. User attention is scarce and value drives attention.
  • ensure your messages are easily recognized.
  • encourage interaction with your messages: consider alternative tactics to get people clicking even when the primary call-to-action is not of interest to them.
  • put appropriate keyword text in your subject lines or message body so people can easily find your emails later with a search.
  • work to establish formal connections with your subscribers: encourage them to whitelist you and “connect” through social sites.

The last reason may turn out to be an important incentive for developing a social presence.

Chris Penn, for example, reflects on Facebook’s forthcoming email service. Even if Facebook doesn’t restrict inbox delivery only to emails from the recipient’s Facebook connections, this particular quote remains very relevant:

“…start contacting your user base, your customer base, anyone you have permission to contact, and get them to become fans of your Facebook Fan Page.”

…not (just) because you want social media connections, but because these social connections increasingly look set to drive email marketing success, too.

2. Address new expectations

As social and email merges, then the expectations subscribers have of email will be influenced by what they get through social channels.

Social networks and social media are, by definition, largely about interaction (one-to-one and one-to-many), exchange, feedback, content, sharing, etc..

Traditionally, commercial emails…um…aren’t.

Time for a change in perspective?

This ties back into the idea of marketers as publishers, the need for interaction and the continuing importance of value: making your emails a richer experience and not just a stream of coupons.

The social influences in the inbox also strengthen the value of SWYN (Share With Your Network) links in emails.

Since emails are read in a decidedly social environment, recipients are more likely to turn to social sharing tools as a response to a message. SWYN links make perfect sense in that context.

3. Build trust to access functionality

Trust, of course, has always been key to broader email marketing success (and here are 22 ways to grow that trust).

If the inbox becomes a communication hub, then there is pressure on inbox providers and software manufacturers to allow more interaction within that inbox.

This pressure comes from those sending and receiving messages and from the inbox providers themselves: if people can watch videos, submit forms and complete other interactions from within a message, then they don’t need to leave the messaging environment.

And this is happening already.

We have, for example, Goodmail’s CertifiedVideo, which extends full video email functionality to AOL inboxes.

Goodmail and Gmail are also testing products that allow in-email transactions, among other features.

Given security concerns, however, such interactive functionality is likely to be limited to messages from trusted senders.

Indirect indications of such trust (e.g. low spam complaints, high percentage of recipient’s whitelisting the sender, authentication) might play a role in the long-term, but for the immediate future, this trust will likely need formal proof through some form of certification.

Email certification was traditionally seen as all about deliverability. Satisfy certain quality criteria to get certified and your email then has a better chance of reaching the inbox at whatever ISPs partner with the certification agency.

In the future, email certification may be as much about email functionality as about deliverability. That’s also already happening today. Only recently, Return Path announced that senders on their certification whitelist will have images and links turned on automatically at Yahoo! Mail inboxes.

The social inbox might oblige us to reconsider the costs and benefits of certification.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

Changing inboxes don’t so much change email marketing approaches as make existing needs more urgent.

Words like value, trust, interaction, relationships etc. are as old as email marketing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So there you have it: my vision of the email future. Do you agree?

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Permalink | March 26th, 2010 | 14 Comments »
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surveyIt’s Friday, the sun is out (hopefully) and all is well with the world (hopefully). So now’s a good time to take ten minutes to complete the UK DMA’s Annual Client Email Marketing Survey.

I write the commentary for the resulting report and loads of great insight pops out of the survey numbers. But we need your help to produce this state-of-the-UK-industry document.

So if you’re a practicing email marketer in the UK, please support this great initiative and tell us about your practices and attitudes. When the report is complete, the DMA will send you a personal copy.

Here’s the link again.


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Permalink | March 26th, 2010 | Comments Off
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statistical chartsThe commonest question I get is “why can’t you spell island?” (Answer here).

After that, a common one is “Where can I find benchmark numbers on open rates, CTR, delivery rates, top tactics, etc.?”

So I’ve pulled together around 30 top sources of published email marketing data and listed them here.

You’ll find free and for-fee sources for statistics on campaign results and other performance indicators, deliverability stats, consumer email attitudes and habits, email client market share, and competitive intelligence.

If you know of any other sources, leave me a comment and I’ll add them.

That link again.

Needless to say, there are dangers associated with comparing your results with published benchmarks. Those dangers are covered here and here.

And if you want stats with a lighter slant to them, remember the 8 email statistics to use at parties.

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Permalink | March 18th, 2010 | 11 Comments »
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Despite all the warnings, most of us still take open/render rates as a major indication of the success or failure of an email and, particularly, an email subject line.

Take a look at the unique open rates for my last six newsletters:

open rates

Pretty much steady as she goes. No dramatic peaks or troughs, so keep up the good work, make another cup of tea and be happy.

And so ends our open rate analysis.

Let’s try again.

Segment out, for example, subscribers with a address and compare their open rates with everyone else:

open rates at Gmail


Three issues immediately spring to mind:

  • open rates at Gmail are way below the list average. Why?
  • the open rates for Dec 14th and February 8th were unusually low for Gmail users. Why?
  • open rates dropped faster at Gmail from January 11th than the average and then make an unexpected recovery. Why?

Until we dug deeper into our open rates, we thought everything was pretty stable. Now we know better.

Let’s explore some plausible explanations for fluctuating open rates at this address domain.

Theory 1: Email is not reaching the inbox

Segmenting results by domain is a great way to spot delivery problems with a particular webmail service, as this post describes.

How can we tell if delivery issues are responsible for, say, the December 14th open rate dip?

Remember, email marketing software and ESPs tells you how much email was successfully sent, but not how much was quietly deleted by the receiving organization or diverted to a junk folder.

To discover how much email likely made it to the inbox, you can use seed lists or monitoring tools provided by deliverability services or other techniques outlined here. We can also see if clicks were affected, too (hold that thought).

Theory 2: Image blocking

Another reason for low open rates is that Gmail blocks images from displaying in emails unless certain conditions are satisfied. For example:

  • the recipient elects to view them by clicking an appropriate link
  • the recipient has sent at least two emails to that sender

Since an open is only recorded when a tracking image displays, image blocking will depress open rates. Equally, Gmail has no standard preview pane, so no accidental opens are triggered by scrolling through your inbox, either.

This seems a good explanation for the general open rate malaise, but not the unusual dips.

Let’s check on clicks.

If deliverability issues are a problem, then we would expect clicks from Gmail users to be lower than average, too. You can’t click on an email you don’t receive.

If clicks are not below average, this suggests image blocking is the chief culprit: people are getting the emails and clicking as normal, just not seeing the images in the newsletter that are used to record opens.

What percentage of all Gmail users on the list clicked at least once on an email?

click rates at Gmail


Maybe we should have just stuck to our simple open rate review, closed our eyes and drank more of that tea.

Check the December 28th result.

The open rate at Gmail is way below average, but the clickthrough rate (equivalent to clicks per Gmail subscriber) is completely normal. Clearly image blocking is to blame for much of the below-average open rate results.

This illustrates two things.

First, a lower open rate is sometimes meaningless, especially (as with my newsletter) if images are not a big factor in your email’s ability to drive response

Second, if we just looked at opens, we’d get a completely false picture of how our emails actually perform. My newsletter is designed to drive visitors back to the website: clicks matter more than opens.

OK, but the click graph also tells us that image blocking isn’t the only issue.

On December 14th, for example, the below-average CTR suggests that the poor open rate for that day at Gmail was also down to a delivery problem. Not enough Gmail subscribers saw the email in their inbox.

What about January 11th and after?

Looks like we have deliverability issues again. But is that all?

After all, the open rate drops aren’t as bad as on December 14th, yet the gap between CTR for Gmail users and non-Gmail users is far greater. Is something else going on?

Theory 3: Gmail users are different

On January 12th, Google announced they were progressively switching all Gmail users over to a more secure https interface setting.

One consequence is that many innocent images in HTML email now trigger a security warning popup in Internet Explorer when viewed at Gmail. For the full story on this issue, see this post by robinteractive.

Some of those IE users would previously have elected to display images (triggering opens), but may respond to those security warnings by blocking these images. This is almost certainly contributing to lower open rates for the January 11th newsletter and onwards.

However, as we learnt from the December 28th result, lower open rates doesn’t always imply fewer clicks if image blocking, rather than poor delivery rates, is to blame. So we’d expect clicks to behave like the December 28th result.

Except in the January 11th emails and later, clicks are indeed affected: CTR is rising for the list as a whole, yet dropping for Gmail subscribers.

How can this be?

First, maybe delivery issues are indeed playing some role.

Second, I wonder if the security warnings are having a psychological affect on the reader, making them less likely to trust the sender and less likely to click on links in the sender’s emails.

The growing “click gap” after January 11th is consistent with gradual rollout of the feature.

Further evidence for this interpretation comes from click-to-open rates.

If deliverability is the problem, then the gap in CTO rates between Gmail users and non-users should remain steady.

If more image blocking is happening at Gmail, then CTO should rise for Gmail users relative to other subscribers, as fewer opens are recorded for the same number of clicks.

But if the willingness to click is declining for some Gmail users through these security warnings, then the gap will change to favor non-Gmail users.

Click to open rates at Gmail

Here’s the graph. And it’s very revealing.

click to open rates at Gmail

The difference between Gmail and non-Gmail recipients in terms of CTO is the same for December 14th and December 28th. That fits our theory that delivery problems hurt clicks December 14th.

Now look at the January and February numbers. It seems Gmail users are clicking less than they were before the switch to https, at least relative to non-Gmail users.

So the https switch seems to be having an impact on response.

What do we learn from all this?

All the above has several potential lessons and insights.

First and foremost, it’s clear that a quick look at your email open rates can produce completely misleading conclusions.

By taking a closer look at key segments of your list, and evaluating other, more important metrics, you can gain insights into potential problems and issues that will let you make the changes needed to improve results (assuming the interpretation was correct).

Specifically, by digging deeper into my numbers, I learnt:

1. I have delivery issues at a particular webmail service. I can now look into the particular needs of Gmail (or get outside help) to address those issues and improve deliverability.

2. I’ve discovered an important interface change at Gmail which is potentially hurting my email marketing. Fortunately there is something I can do about this, as robinteractive’s post explains.

3. It makes sense to track feature changes at major webmail services. Both Gmail and Yahoo! Mail, for example, have blogs that announce new functionality and other interface changes.

4. There are many reasons for open rate changes that are nothing to do with subject lines. It’s a mistake to always look at the subject line when open rates change. Here are some more factors that can affect these open rates.

5. Changes to open rates can sometimes be meaningless in practice.

6. Gmail users are generally regarded as more responsive than the average (see, for example, this MailChimp study), but that’s not reflected in my stats.

Remedial action might be to pay more attention to the snippet text that is featured in the Gmail inbox or to work harder to encourage people to submit their more valued work address, rather than generic webmail addresses (see the article on getting the right email address.)

Of course, all this is interpretation. But if nothing else it shows the value of taking some time to look harder and more holistically at those campaign reports.

P.S. Stat fans note that those graphs should be bars and not continuous lines, but continuous lines make it easier to demonstrate patterns.

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Permalink | March 11th, 2010 | 5 Comments »
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videotapeTesting can seem like an unwanted burden when you’re already pressed for time.

For those hesitating about its value, I’ve collated numerous examples of how email tests involving relatively minor effort have a big impact on results and responses.

You’ll find them all here.

If you’ve published any meaningful test results of a seemingly impressive nature, please let me know (or leave a comment here) and I’ll be happy to add them to the list and link to the source.

The article is part of an informal series providing you with the evidence you need to raise more resources for your email marketing efforts. Others are:

Why do email marketing?
Does segmentation work?

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Permalink | March 1st, 2010 | 5 Comments »
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