Econsultancy’s Email Marketing Industry Census, sponsored by Adestra, has for the past five years been assessing how companies and agencies are adapting to meet the challenges and opportunities present in the email marketing channel.

With email being rated very highly as a channel for return on investment (second only to SEO), but the effectiveness of ‘batch and blast’ techniques decreasing, it is important that marketers stay ahead of the game to maintain its effectiveness.

Each year, the Email Census looks to introduce some new questions to reflect the constant change within email marketing.

This year we asked companies the question, “Have you adapted your email marketing campaigns on account of priority inbox features now available to consumers?” The results were interesting. 

Only 3% of companies said they had adapted their marketing campaigns, whilst 26% did not know whether they had made any changes.

What do we know about the priority inbox?

As the priority inbox lies within the email interface itself, it is not known how consumers are using it in order to effectively filter out their email. This information is only known by the recipient and the email provider.

What we do know to a certain degree however, is how the priority inbox feature works. In a paper published by Google engineers Douglas Aberdeen, Ondrej Pacovsky, and Andrew Slater, it was revealed that the ranking mechanism behind the priority inbox feature in Gmail was “highly personal”. 

As different people value certain emails differently (e.g. some may love daily deals email, whereas others find them spam), the priority inbox attempts to “learn” what the email user values as important and not-so-important through a per-user statistical model. This learning is performed with how the user interacts with the email after delivery.

As the paper details, there are hundreds of features involved in how mail is assessed, but they fall into a few categories. 

  • Social features assess the degree of interaction between the sender and the recipient. One of these features includes the proportion of mail that is actually read by the recipient.
  • Content features assess the relationship between headers and recent terms, and how the recipient acts on the email. 
  • Thread features assess how the user has interacted with the email thread, for example, whether they started or replied to a thread.
  • Label features examine how the user applies labels to email they receive.

Whilst the above features provide a good framework for improving one’s email efforts (for example, by creating relevant and timely headers and encouraging the user to reply directly to the email), they boil down to one core concept – email that encourages engagement and interaction with the recipient is more important than email which results in no recipient action.

Is the priority inbox placement important?

One reason that so many companies said they have not adapted their campaigns to the priority inbox feature is that, in isolation, priority inbox placement is an arbitrary goal that cannot be measured.

Only the email provider and the recipient know whether the email received has ended up in the priority inbox. Furthermore, the variations of priority inbox on the market differ between email providers. 

However, the factors that work behind the priority inbox are far from arbitrary, can be measured, and can be improved upon.

What action should companies take?

A few suggestions that email marketers should consider include:

  • Encourage replies - one of the key factors involved in priority inbox placement is whether or not the recipient replies to your email. If you have the resources to deal with the replies (and do not have a 'no-reply' sending account), encourage recipients to communicate with your company by replying directly to the email. Regardless of the priority inbox, getting your customers to engage with your company is likely to improve your return on investment.
  • Encourage forwarding - for newsletters, encourage your recipients to forward the email on to their friends.
  • Use time-sensitive headlines - one other factor involved with priority inbox is how quickly the recipient acts upon the email. A perfect opportunity to do this is within a welcome email, to encourage recipients to take advantage of company services when they have already recently demonstrated interest. Unfortunately, not many companies take advantage of this, with only 31% of responding companies saying they used welcome programmes.
  • Test your email for engagement - those companies who test regularly are more than twice as likely to report an "excellent" or "good" return on investment than those who do not test. Identify the metrics that assess engagement, and modify your communications to see what practices are most effective.

Further methods for optimising email marketing campaigns are discussed in depth in our Email Marketing Best Practice Guide.

All marketers should look to create email that is useful and relevant to their customers, and encourages the recipient to engage with the company. The main incentive for this is shown in the email census - marketers that put more effort into their campaigns report higher returns on investment

What are your thoughts?

Have you adapted your campaigns based on priority inbox features? Is it a cause for concern that so few companies have adapted? How are you making your email more relevant for your customers? Join the debate and share your thoughts below.

Andrew Warren-Payne

Published 19 March, 2012 by Andrew Warren-Payne

Andrew Warren-Payne is a former analyst at Econsultancy and is now Managing Director at Market2Marketers. Follow him on Twitter or Google+

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Comments (6)

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Douglas Simms

Andrew you list 4 things taken from your best practice guidelines that people can do to optimise for priority inbox placement:

- Encourage replies
- Encourage forwarding
- Use time-sensitive headlines
- Test your email for engagement

So I thought it would be fun to see whether Daily Pulse your newsletter followed your own advice.

Encourage replies – nope from address is

Encourage forwarding – nope I can follow you on twitter, join you on linkedin - unsubscribe even but no forward

Use-time sensitive headlines – not that I can tell

Test your email for engagement – I’d like to, hear more about the tests you do and what the results tell you, but I suspect you don’t do any

Despite that I bet that Daily Pulse is one of the most cost effective and significant drivers of traffic to your site and that you have not noticed any drop off from Google addresses

So the answer to your question “Is priority inbox placement important” would clearly be, not very important at all (at least not to E-Consultancy)!

over 6 years ago

Benoit Droulez

Benoit Droulez, Chief Strategy Officer at IPMG Digital

Very valid point Douglas!

over 6 years ago

Andrew Warren-Payne

Andrew Warren-Payne, Senior Research Analyst at Econsultancy

Thanks for your comments Douglas, and we should be doing more to apply the best practice we talk about to our own email campaigns.

The Daily Pulse is a fairly new email for us which we have been testing in terms of timing, content and layout.

Some things are easier to implement than others, for example encouraging forwarding of the newsletter and following social networks through calls to action, but other methods need more consideration.

Opening a newsletter to replies can, in the words of one email marketer I have spoken to, open a "Pandora's Inbox". The internal implications of having a large influx of email from customers needs to be weighed up with the benefits of increasing engagement and warming a potential customer.

I have passed your comments on to our marketing team. Thanks for keeping us on our toes.

over 6 years ago


Steve Ford, Deliverability Specialist, CheetahMail

Although some marketers may see new tools such as priority inbox as a potential hindrance to the overall delivery of a campaign, in reality it is a positive opportunity to refresh the approach of your email marketing techniques without changing the tried and tested methods of good marketing. Marketers need to take this opportunity to re-evaluate the content and relevance of their emails, making them more specific to their customers and therefore avoiding the ‘spam’ folder.

Marketers should remember important factors such as timing, frequency, and above all personalised and engaging content, when implementing email marketing campaigns – if such basic elements are not used to optimise each email sent, then marketers run the risk of falling under the radar. Customers are demanding more relevant and engaging content and marketers need to ensure they are delivering on this.

over 6 years ago


Jennifer Balogh, Vigorate Digital Solutions

Andrew, would you recommend subscribers rely on the forward functionality within their email client, or build in a forward to a friend type of functionality? I usually recommend the FTAF approach which allows for better control around the rendering/display of the email when forwarded, and also allows you to track activity.

But would this also contribute to your priority inbox placement?

over 6 years ago



Great comments by Andrew. I love Douglas' rebuttal - shows how easy it is not to do the things we preach about.

over 6 years ago

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