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.