Now is the customary time to make predictions about the trends that will have the greatest impact on the email industry in the coming year. Only this year I’d like to focus not just on the trends, but also on how they should affect what we do as email marketers. Knowing what is going on is only useful if we adjust our tactics because of it (kind of like email metrics themselves).
Here are the trends I’m paying the most attention to, and the evidence that we email marketers are responding to them:
Engagement metrics’ impact on deliverability: A few years ago, the concept of dead weight was finally introduced into email, when the major ISPs began incorporating engagement metrics into deliverability. The key (ultrasimplified) upshot is that the more people you have on your list who are unresponsive, the more likely ISPs are to regard your messages in general as spammy. This means there’s little justification for continuing to send to all those people who have done nothing with your emails in the past forever months. In the past year I have seen a lot of evidence that marketers are taking this trend seriously, with many discussions about reactivation programs and targeting subscribers based on engagement levels. My favorite anecdote is from one of the daily deal sites that is able to predict which subscribers will become inactive within a few days of their original signup, and proactively kicks them to the curb before they drag down metrics. But overall, the trend may be getting the best of us. Return Path recently reported that Inbox Placement Rates are down a sharp 5% from the previous quarter.
Mobile and the call-to-action: Mobile consumption is way up, with reports that 45% of opens are now on mobile devices, and that the iPhone is now the leading email client. So far the marketing reaction to mobile has been limited largely to design: make sure your message renders, you pad your buttons to avoid fat-fingered errors, and you include a link to a Web version. Is 2013 the year we start to see calls-to-action modified as well? We know that mobile visitors do not convert as readily as Web visitors, so shouldn’t “Buy Now” be replaced with something easier to do on a phone? I look forward to some mobile-optimized CTAs like “Order by Phone Here” or “TXT us to hold your spot for 2 hours” or “Download our app.” Mobile should force marketers to stop thinking about converting with email, and move more toward using each message to bring people closer to conversion.
Inbox management’s role in relevance: I’m placing my big bet for 2013 on inbox management applications. These are the tools like AOL Alto and PhilterIt and many others that disrupt the marketer’s access to the principal inbox by helping consumers sort, suspend, filter and otherwise triage email so that managing the inbox becomes more a proactive than reactive process. As email volume increases (which I boldly predict will happen again next year), the need for inbox management rises with it. I think the long-term outcome of inbox management will be a growing rift between preferred senders and merely permitted senders. Marketers will need to move past permission and even attention all the way to anticipation in order to continue to thrive in a managed inbox. Those that don’t may find that filtering does not just suppress their engagement metrics, but cuts them off at the knees.
Marketing automation and average-sized data: Label me a Luddite, but I don’t see a lot of email marketers in a position to integrate Big Data, despite how trendy it is to talk about. What I do see is a spike in enthusiasm for marketing automation – starting with highly effective triggered messages and working up to larger behavior-based workflows. For marketing automation to expand in usage, marketers will need to be as proactive about setting up their email programs as consumers are about managing their inboxes. And they will also need to identify the triggers, data and content that will power automated messages. The good news is that the performance of these messages is so superior to business-as-usual email, that a small test should hook us all. Nothing frees up resources like results.
Larger lists and smaller audiences: When email rose to prominence, it was touted as the holy grail of 1-to-1 marketing. It wasn’t then, of course. But it is now — at least for Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and some other highly progressive brands whose entire email program consists of sending messages created expressly for an individual recipient. We can’t all do that yet, but we should all aspire to increasingly smaller segments that allow more targeted messages and increased relevance, even as our total subscriber bases continue to grow. Our objective for 2013 should not be to send more messages to more people, but to send more accurate messages to the right people.