I’ve been on a crusade against my gmail inbox and am happy to report deleting over 100k unread emails in just a month. 100k unread emails… something is wrong with the state of email marketing when that happens.
Gmail provides a bunch of really good tools for managing email:
- Unsubscribe link: If the sender has an unsub link in the footer you will likely see a handy link that Gmail inserts in the header. Use it.
- Filters: Wow, where to start? Is:unread is a favorite.
- Search Terms: Searching on terms like “casino” and “viagra” yields a massive number of emails I never wanted. Think about terms you never use in conversation and you will be amazed at how prevalent they are in email. Search on names other than your own, in my case Judy, James, John, Jennifer Nolan all resulted in hundreds of unwanted emails. Search on punctuated forms of your email that you don’t use, e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org. Search on phrases like “media briefing” and “embargo” will result in thousands if you are on PR lists. “Webinar” is another solid term to search on.
- Search on sender. By far the biggest offender in email is notification email. Fortunately, they are easy to identifier based on subject verbage, but also sender. For example, “from:email@example.com” will yield all notif emails from YouTube.
- Block. If a sender isn’t behaving well on email, e.g. bestbuy.ca, then block them. Now, nothing gets through.
Now here’s a couple of annoying email behaviors that marketers should be aware of:
- Unsubscribe takes 10 business days… it takes a company just seconds to subscribe me, it should not take them longer than seconds to unsubscribe me. This is annoying because it reminds me how antiquated your infrastructure is.
- Long messages. If your email exceeds the display length for Gmail, don’t send it.
- No unsubscribe. For a reason I cannot explain, PR agencies in Europe and Australia don’t use marketing automation to send emails, while U.S. based agencies do. The result is that U.S. agencies have unsub while the others get blocked.
- Multi-click unsubscribe. Systems like Mailchimp and Constant Contact have really well constructed unsubscribe features. One click, maybe two and I’m out. If you unsubscribe requires more than 2 clicks, entering your email, or confirming and then sending another message to me after I unsubscribed telling me that I unsubscribed… you blew it.
I used all of the above to pare down my inbox. It didn’t happen quickly but now I’m in a rhythm and just 15 minutes every morning cleans things up. I target deleting a couple hundred email each day, which is more than I get each day so my inbox continues to shrink.
Like many Gmail users I have adopted the new tabbed interface that started rolling out in June. I like the organization model and find their categorization remarkably accurate, which in light of the ongoing government data privacy scandals only makes me more concerned about the machine processing of communications. However, it is useful and I only wish I could create my own tabs.
However, not all is rosy and I have noticed with particular interest that a number of prominent email marketers are sending out “helpful” messages about moving their messages from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab.
There are a couple of outcomes here that are interesting to consider. First and foremost is that a subset of marketers will be successful in moving to the Primary tab, based on the appeal they present to their customers. This will create a two-tier model where preferred marketers are valued disproportionately based on their customer appeal while the blunt force trauma marketers will be forced to change tactics as more email systems, presumably, adopt the Gmail tabbed interface (which for the record is not a new idea, AOL’s Altomail service had this well before Gmail).
The impact on email marketers is being felt and several studies are now coming out that quantify that impact. Email marketing analytics firm Litmus has published some stats showing a significant decline in Gmail open rates. However, their data is more complicated than a single stat would suggest and what they are questioning is how many Gmail web users actually open email in general in the web interface and in alternative apps, such as iPhone’s integrated email app.
ReturnPath has a different study that states that delivery rates are up but open rates are down. My own experience aligns with the ReturnPath data, which is that consolidating marketing email in one tab has increased its visibility to me, and for the merchants I care about I actually read their content more regularly. This aligns with the 2 tier model I suggested in the intro, open rates in my inbox are down overall but for the select vendors that target well and present offers I care about, my open rates are up.
I actually like email marketing but find the vast majority of merchants doing it really poorly. They clearly don’t connect with me on the basis of what I care about and will respond to, it is for the most part dumb marketing. Email marketers will have to deal with the new UX controls that email providers are building in by presenting more utility in their marketing campaigns, which means knowing more about me at an interest level, not just my demographics.
I just had a great conversation with a friend that covered, among many things, email marketing and how broken it really is. Then I come home and open up my email, finding this.
Email marketing is so fundamentally broken that it defies the imagination. Single digit response rates are considered a great success and not pissing off your market is a good day. Companies in all market segments turn to email marketing knowing full well it is not an optimal solution, meanwhile email service providers and software companies actively develop solutions that defeat email marketing. Users have been conditioned to avoid “unsubscribe” links because they serve primarily to validate email addresses purchased from lists, while legitimate unsubscribe links often do not work or take up to 30 days to remove you from a list that took a nanosecond to add you to.
Obviously the biggest problem with email marketing is the lack of effective targeting technology. Current generation solutions use blunt force instruments for targeting and the result is that prospects are rarely matched with information and offers that appeal to them. This also explains why the takeup rate is so low.
There simply has to be a better way to do this, whether it be tapping into activity streams and feeds, affiliate arrangements, or location based services. Something… anything has to be better than what we have today.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Whenever I complain about email I am reminded of that quote from the eminently quotable Sir Winston Churchill. Think about it for a second, what would you do without email? The power of email lies in it’s complete pervasiveness and total interoperability, which is far more than anything one could say about any other communication tool except the telephone.
Having said that, the inbox is certainly not without faults. I don’t think anyone would ever say that they don’t get enough email or that it’s even close to be efficient for high volumes. Products have been promised for this but I doubt it’s anything that is solvable within the current email model. Sam Lawrence notices that a lot of social software seems destined for the same problems that plague email, overload:
Even the people who develop email software like Microsoft, Google and IBM know that the inbox sucks. We don’t need a new email inbox we need something completely new. The problem is that Social Software seems to headed into the same problems as email and we certainly don’t need another dump zone.
[From Go Big Always – We need a social software inbox]
It’s hard to disagree with Sam but at the same time to throw the “baby out with the bath water” would be equally hazardous. Part of the solution will be found in our human ability to adapt and filter, which at the end of the day outstrips any software by light years, and the other part will be enhancing the venerable inbox with social graph features the serve to collapse down all the networks we participate in.
FriendFeed has done this to some degree and while it is not email it is also not a stretch to consider that email is just another lifestream that can get pumped into FriendFeed based on predetermined qualifiers. Companies like Xobni are working on unlocking the social graph that is represented in everyone’s inbox, something that a great many of us are anxious to do.
Bringing application function to the lowly email is something else that is really interesting. I’m tempted to say this would be like the old Firedrop stuff or even Zimbra’s email widgets, but I think it’s something different, maybe adding semantic tags and/or microformats with handler apps to email messages. I saw the potential for this when I upgraded to Leopard and saw how email, ical, and address book could be integrated at the message level by simply interpreting that “next wednesday” meant a date that was a week from this wednesday in ical, or that a phone number in a message could be added to the address book with a simple drop down. It’s startling how much you come to rely on this functionality when you have it.
So while Sam isn’t wrong in suggesting that the inbox paradigm is wrong for social software, I think the answer is found in enhancing the social features in email and building interoperability to non-email systems. Inboxes are here to stay, let’s figure out how to get the most of them, I say.
I’m not a fan of email signatures that use images, fancy fonts, have legal disclaimers, and overshoot while attempting to achieve cleverness. But having said that, this is a pretty valuable piece of real estate that can be used effectively to not only communicate key details but reinforce brand messages.
Email signatures come in all shapes and sizes – those that are non-existent, those with a name and title, those with a name, title and phone number, those with a quote, etc – the list can go on and on.
[From Business in General: What shape and size is your email signature?]
UPDATE: It was commented to me yesterday that I should have posted my sig. I didn’t do that because it’s really short, but here goes (I stripped out my mobile number for obvious reasons):
“In today’s ecosystem of news, the greatest sin is to cut oneself off from the conversation.”
– John Batelle, The Searh (p. 174)
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