The search giant’s recent app launch could move email triage into the mainstream as consumer behaviour changes.
Anybody unfortunate enough to have been admitted to an accident and emergency department will be familiar with the concept of triage – the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition and the availability of the relevant resources, in order to successfully treat the most patients in the shortest time.
In recent years, many of us will have unconsciously used triage methods to manage our email. We sift our inboxes for priority messages for the day ahead, set aside time on a Saturday or Sunday morning to read through newsletters and promotions, flag emails that require action, or forward emails to ourselves so that they sit at the top of our inboxes. Whatever our strategy, it is clear that many of us find email to be a chore; managing messages is less user-friendly than it should be.
As you would expect, a host of applications have sprung up over the past few years, designed to help simplify, sophisticate, or even automate email triage. The most high-profile had been Mailbox – until Google launched its own app, Inbox, in October.
While Google has positioned Inbox as a “reimagining” of the email experience – rather than a replacement for its existing Gmail mobile or web applications – the search giant clearly believes email has failed to evolve at the same pace as people’s online behaviour. And it should know: as the world’s largest email provider, Google’s Inbox is significant not only for consumers but also for brands and retailers for whom email has become an important marketing channel.
Building on a feature first introduced to the Gmail desktop interface in 2013, Inbox organises emails into ‘Bundles’, such as ‘Social’, ‘Promotions’, or ‘Finance’. Bundles can be ‘snoozed’ until a specified time – ideal for reading newsletters in one go, or for mass-deleting or unsubscribing from unwanted promotions. This will limit the impact of time-of-day engagement data. At the outset, brands will be flying blind as to the times at which consumers are most active – and in any case, the value of targeting could be diminished when the email is just one of many queued up to be viewed at a designated time.
Bundles could prove a double-edged sword. On the one hand, brands’ least engaged customers may drift away: snoozing makes emails easier to ignore, unsubscribe from, or delete, loosening customers’ ties to the brand. More engaged recipients, on the other hand, are probably more likely to open, read, and click through from promotional emails that they have earmarked time to look at, rather than snatching glances while busy and forgetting to return to them. This filtering should ensure that brands focus resources on those most valuable customers that will meaningfully engage with, and act on, an email.
Inbox could also significantly change how brands build marketing emails. The app generates more sophisticated “snippet text” – the message preview a user sees in their inbox – pulling the most useful information from the email directly into the preview window. The real-time delivery status of a package, for instance, the estimated journey time to get to a destination, or even a relevant image. Few brands currently make the most of this space, and it is often filled by a line of code or an uninformative headline. Inbox should make brands think smarter about this element of screen real estate.
Google strikes a blow with Inbox for the “stage bypass” model of email interaction. Rather than opening an email, scrolling through the contents, and clicking on a link, consumers jump straight to a brand page from the message preview. This means that brands will have to re-think how they measure the success of email campaigns, as open-rate – long a key metric in email marketing – will no longer be a reliable indicator of customer engagement.
Another consideration is Inbox’s potential to facilitate cross-device customer engagement. For the time being, Inbox and its ilk are designed for mobile devices (Mailbox’s recently-launched Mac app remains in public beta). Many snoozed messages are being stored up and scheduled for viewing on office or home desktops. This has implications for how brands build emails – adaptive content is key to preventing consumers being put off by seeing “stretched out” mobile design on larger desktop screens.
While it is too early to be sure of the long-term consequences of Inbox for email marketing – as an invitation-only download, take-up is currently relatively low – there will be implications. Fortunately, not all of them will be bad, as the arrival of Inbox will inspire innovation – making email marketing more effective for brands and more satisfying for consumers. It also remains to be seen whether the initial flurry of publicity and early-adopter enthusiasm surrounding Inbox will translate into long-term success – or whether its design and functionality will become industry standards as many Gmail quirks have done.
What is clear, though, is that the way in which consumers manage and interact with email is changing – and that when a company of Google’s scale provides a popular solution to an unpopular problem it is wise to take notice. Inbox may not be the definitive shape of things to come, but brands and retailers will need to keep up with the pace of change to ensure that email marketing remains effective in the new landscape that is forming.