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The social inbox: What’s next for e-mail

A number of changes across the e-mail landscape over the last six months are adding up to a seismic shift in how we think about e-mail, communications and marketing.

First, Google introduced Wave, a radical new way to organize the inbox. This was followed several months later by the announcement that MySpace introduced a new mail system that opens up the network to outside messages. And most recently, Yahoo rolled out changes to its e-mail interface that make it more social and give new precedence to messages from contacts and connections.

With that as a backdrop, here are three trends I think marketers need to watch to keep pace with the evolution of e-mail.

More social networks will open up e-mail and more e-mail providers will get social. Both social networks and e-mail providers are fighting for their share of attention. This means that more social networks will follow the lead of MySpace and open up their messaging platforms to outside messages to make their sites stickier. Sound familiar? It should. It was a strategy employed by a lot of content and community sites back in the late ’90s, with mixed success.

IVillage, for example, offered e-mail for awhile but found it too expensive to maintain. However, these new networks are largely predicated on messaging, so the chance for success is better. Still, the marketplace is getting crowded — some inevitably won’t survive in the evolving environment.

The inbox experience will be much more diversified. It’s unlikely that the big mailbox providers will look as similar in the future as they have in the past. In their efforts to attract niche audiences they will focus on different types of experiences.

Add to this the fact that new messaging platforms will continue to be introduced and will have experiences that are different from what we are used to (think Twitter). Taken together, this could have interesting consequences for marketing messages. What works for the new Yahoo social inbox may fall flat in Google Wave and vice versa. Marketers that have the ability and the willingness to segment by mailbox provider and tailor messages to those experiences will have a powerful competitive advantage.

Consumers will have radically different reactions to the new inbox experiences. Some people are going to love the new social inbox. Others, not so much. Also, some consumers will like having their social networks opened up and will appreciate the opportunity to consolidate messages onto one platform. But some will very much resent any intrusion of marketing into social space. The concept of permission is going to get ramped up. Marketers who don’t currently offer their customers choices around messaging — including content, frequency and channel — will fall even further behind the curve and see their response rates erode.

Matt Blumberg is CEO of Return Path. Reach him at [email protected]

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