How much email do people really get? The hidden potential in the tranquil inbox

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email tranquilityA lot of thought goes into working out how to increase email response. One option is to send more email.

Ah, but wait.

We live in fear of the frequency increase. Nobody wants to send the straw that breaks the inbox camel’s back and find themselves labelled a spammer.

So we look for segments and situations that let us increase frequency safely. Like when:

  • seasonal demand rises, such as around the Q4 holiday shopping season
  • you identify your “best” customers, who respond regularly to your messages
  • subscribers opt-in to a special series of emails, like a “12 days of Xmas” promotion
  • subscribers take some kind of action that lets you send them a highly-relevant “extra” message: the trigger mail approach

One group of subscribers where frequency increases might also lift response is commonly ignored, because we don’t believe it exists: those individuals who are not suffering from too much email.

Yeah, right…like there’s anybody out there not getting enough email.

The “tranquil inbox” is up there with the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster: more people probably believe in the Tooth Fairy.

The search for the empty inbox

We all “know” that inboxes are groaning under the weight of (commercial) email.

It’s not hard to dig up articles about email overload, email bankruptcy or the astonishing volume of spam.

And who hasn’t bragged about their five-figure inbox, where reaching Gmail’s storage limit is top of the “things to do before I’m 30 40 50″ list?

The People have had enough. The People scan through their inbox like five year-olds with a TV remote. Zap, zap, move on, zap, zap…their fingers permanently poised over the “mark as spam” button.

It’s email hell out there.

And this apparent reality pervades a lot of email marketing advice.

You need to stand out in the inbox. You need to ensure your discount is deep enough and your message loud enough to compete. Don’t lift frequency!

There’s a lot of truth in there, especially since “too many emails” is often cited as a reason for unsubscribing or marking emails as spam. But that whole inbox perception is largely driven by people with cluttered inboxes. People like me and (probably) you. IT professionals, email professionals, tech journalists, marketers, office workers etc…mostly in professions and working environments with a big email burden.

It’s not the same for everyone, though.

You rarely hear about people like my sister, whose Hotmail inbox is indeed an ocean of tranquility. Who wishes her favorite retailer would send more email. Or about the huge number of people who do not use email significantly as part of their job.

How much email do people really get?

Nobody can tell you exactly how many emails are sent or delivered to every inbox around the world. But we can make some educated guesses.

Back in 2010, Hotmail revealed they were delivering a mammoth 2.5 billion emails to customer inboxes each day. The numbers suggest they had around 350 million active accounts at the time.

That works out at 7.14 emails per account per day.

Based on more recent inbox profiles, half of those are deals and newsletters.

So an average Hotmail inbox would get between 3 and 4 marketing emails a day.

Yahoo! recently put up a tool displaying how many emails they’re currently delivering each second.

I’ve been watching it to get some idea of typical email volume. At least during the European working day, it looks like the figure jumps around 60,000 a second.

If we took that number as an average, it would mean an equally mammoth 2,592 billion per day. (If anybody wants to check the tool over 24 hours and give me a more accurate figure, I’d be happy to update the numbers.)

The tool also claims around 302 million unique users, giving us a figure of 8.6 emails per user per day.

A recent end-user survey by the UK’s DMA found half getting less than 20 emails a week from trusted brands or under three a day.

Merkle’s Digital Inbox report suggests the average number of companies in a recipient’s “inner circle” is 11.3.

The Retail Email Blog tracks the emailing frequency of the top retailers. At the moment, we’re looking at around 3.2/week. Putting the two numbers together would give us just over five marketing emails a day for the average recipient.

Now there are lots of flaws and assumptions in all the above calculations, and you can find numbers that suggest busier inboxes. For example…

  • Hotmail conducted a survey of 500 Hotmail users which found an average 200 emails per week or about four times the amount the earlier calculation suggests.
  • Forrester even predict a typical consumer will get an average 9000 commercial emails per year by 2014, which is around 25 commercial messages a day.
  • And in 2009, the Radicati Group put the number of global email users at over 1.4 billion, getting 247 billion messages per day: 176 emails a day.

Consider, also, that people often have multiple email accounts. Nor is email volume a perfect indicator of how full or cluttered an inbox is: low email volume with infrequent checking can mean a full inbox, high volume with frequent email management can mean an empty inbox.

Plus we can assume that people who subscribe to commercial emails are probably heavier email users than average.

Basically we have a mess of conflicting numbers. But that’s kind of the point: your inbox is not my inbox is not your subscriber’s inbox. Common sense alone tells us that there is no single inbox reality. And we are not the only ones mistaking our experience or our working community’s experience for reality.

As Harrison Kratz puts it when talking about social media experts:

“Are we so entrenched in this bubble that we’re forgetting what the “norm” really is?”

There is no single inbox reality

We are quite happy to accept that our lists are made up of individuals and segments that differ in terms of tastes, preferences, demographics, buying propensity, fashion sense, eye color and favorite football team…yet we often act as if their inboxes are all the same: full.

Those numbers may be messy, but some of the averages provide strong evidence that that missing segment does exist: the tranquil inbox.

Its size depends, of course, on your list. If you’re marketing to people like me, then good luck finding it. But if you’re marketing to people like my sister, a stay-at-home mum, then it’s a different scenario.

So how do we exploit this segment?

That’s a real challenge, because you can’t really segment by how full or active a recipient’s inbox is.

Two ideas I’d like to throw out for your consideration.

1. Can you ask subscribers if they’d like more emails?

Our (often justified) concern about sending too much means we commonly talk about “opting down”: giving people the chance to get less email, rather than unsubscribe.

What about opting-up? Is that an option to put in a preference center or as a secondary call to action in emails?

“Like our deals? Get even more.”

2. Is it worth testing increases in email frequency to see if that tranquil segment is larger than you think?

Remember, there are plenty of senders keeping subscribers happy with daily emails, and they’re not all daily deals either. Not that I’m suggesting you go daily: when people say they get too much email they really mean they get too much useless email: frequency thresholds are as much about the value you deliver as anything else.

If every email you send me makes me $1000, you can send as many as you like. If they’re a waste of my time, then once a month is too many.

What do you think?

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7 comments on “How much email do people really get? The hidden potential in the tranquil inbox”

  1. Mark,

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. I agree there are a lot of conflicting numbers out there and so I will add a few more figures from a study I did with ExactTarget last year. These numbers are based on self reported data from consumers in the US.

    Avg emails received/day = 44
    Avg commercial emails/day = 12

    Median emails received/day = 25
    Median commercial emails/day = 6

    This information tells us that the averages are really skewed by the people that get a lot of email. People, like you and I, who work in online marketing and get 100+ emails per day tend to be the one’s who write about this stuff. So, as the “experts”, we need to remember that our reality is not representative of the norm.

    That said, 12 (or even 6) commercial emails per day may be overwhelming to some consumers. Still, most consumers don’t seem to feel overwhelmed by their inboxes. In fact, most believe they have learned to manage their inboxes fairly comfortably.

    You can get the full study from ExactTarget that has these figures here:

  2. Mark Brownlow says:

    Super Morgan – thanks for posting up those stats.

    I love “as the “experts”, we need to remember that our reality is not representative of the norm

  3. Properly qualified quality will always work better than blind quantity

  4. Tim Roe says:

    Great article Mark. A few thoughts spring to mind.
    Do we really care how much email someone has in their inbox? Let’s face it, avid online shoppers are likely to sign up to lots of emails, and be regular openers and clicker to boot! Does it not matter more what the people, who we send our emails too, actually do with them?
    The ideal frequency is going to be different for each person at different times; some people want more emails than others. One thing I do believe happens when you have the frequency too high is that people stop opening or clicking as they are no longer interested.
    Would a good start be, sending emails to people who show they are interested in them? If you send emails to unresponsive recipients, you certainly won’t need to worry about how many emails they get in the inbox, because thanks to the Priority Inbox (or whatever each ISP’s equivalent product is called) you won’t be there.
    I took away from your article that you felt recipients should be treated as individuals, and to make the most out of the email channel, you need to suit the frequency as much as possible to the individual.
    Tim Roe

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Some great thoughts there Tim.

      I would say we should care in a macro sense, but only because I think many are reluctant to send more email even to highly responsive subscribers…because we worry about overload. Yet overload might not be the issue we think it is. Not saying it’s a non-issue, mind.

      But yes, my whole thinking is toward a list as a group of individuals and not an individual group. Recognizing that when you change something on the whole list, it moves different individuals in different directions – we only see the net outcome.

      So I get tied up in a contradiction. On the one hand, suggesting broad-brush changes at a broadcast level still have potential (which Derek Harding speaks to). But also looking for solutions that let the emails sent be a response to individual needs (the trigger/behavioural direction).

      Long-term I think we’ll see senders splitting into the two camps. High-input / high-output email senders and low input – medium output senders. Both work well, but the latter group will find it tougher.

      Not sure if that all makes sense – just writing as a I think!

  5. Tim Roe says:

    Makes total sense, although I think the split out into the different camps is already very much underway. In fact the previous UK DMA email benchmark report concluded “two classes of email marketer; those sending simple campaigns and those splitting lists into multiple segments” concluding ”A major divide has opened”.

    I think the answer is a happy medium between the two camps, and we come closer to the result when we start looking at Customer Lifecycle as the driver for relevant emails. At certain stages customers might want behavioural emails, sometimes broader brush campaign emails. The trouble is, most email marketing plans are on a campaign basis, so we start off by planning for a “broadcast” strategy. And because some email marketers are still talking about overall list size and pushing for the greatest “broadcast” volume as KPI’s, they find it hard to move forward.

    I think that it is starting to become easier to plan and deliver “mass customisation” in email marketing. But this is only because some email companies are finding the right data is becoming easier to use and more clients are seeing these programs deliver great ROI. But setting up the whole email strategy around lifecycle marketing is a big job; but like eating the proverbial Elephant, needs to be done one chunk at a time.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Yes, definitely think the big win is using both approaches intelligently. And agree that the split is already actually happening (I wrote that DMA report). But I might have to steal some of the hybrid concepts for the next one!