Three 2011 developments that changed your inbox forever

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I’ve never been comfortable with so-called predictions, and would rather stick to analysing concrete developments to pave the way for the future. Nobody ever said that email was an easy game. Keeping up with new trends in this very dynamic field can be tough and 2011 certainly delivered its own share of challenges that might well re-define the act of emailing, even for the everyday non-commercial sender.

1. The rise of the Priority Inbox

The battle for the inbox is something that we fight over every day of our professional lives and it’s getting even harder to be heard among all the noise with the number of brands sending emails over-frequently.

For the well-wired, inboxes are slammed with dozens or sometimes hundreds of messages a day making it time-consuming to figure out what needs to be read and replied.

To help curb the inundation, some service providers have introduced tools that allow for the removal of low-priority, or non-urgent emails into a separate folder to view at a later time, or simply to remove them from the inbox altogether (even without unsubscribing or marking as spam).

This year, webmail clients Gmail and Hotmail added a Priority Inbox. This feature automatically identifies important emails and separates them from everything else to help users focus on the content that (just about as well as any algorithm can determine) matters to them the most. You can also mark certain senders as priority by teaching Google to interpret your mail properly by clicking the “mark as important” or “mark as not important” buttons.

The Priority Inbox is like a personal assistant, helping you see and read the messages that are important without requiring you to set up their own complex filtering rules.

While this has brought relief to overburdened users, those running email campaigns felt some uncertainty in the face of the Priority Inbox. Many a campaign saw dips in its open rates for Gmail and Hotmail and had to try new tactics to improve their relevancy and personalisation — helping ensure that their emails stayed in the “urgent” section.

The Priority Inbox has ultimately, however, been a benefit; ensuring that prime position goes only to those who can really touch their subscribers and effectively encourage them to continue reading and interacting with their email campaigns.

2. Forget Santa… HTML5 video came to town

Christmas came early as HTML5 video rendering made its way to email, with Hotmail being the first major webmail provider to allow video displays in emails as a part of its 2011 beta client.

Before Hotmail’s support for HTML5 video, we could only deliver HTML5 videos in email to iOS devices and some other less prominent email clients, which made for an unimpressive email video penetration rate.

The HTML5 breakthrough has been big news. Incorporating video into emails — a simple enough concept — wasn’t even possible two years ago.
According to a Forrester report, promotions via embedded videos improves click-through rates by two to three times.

Promising as this sounds, there’s a catch. Proper rendering of HTML5 videos is dependent on the web browser used by a subscriber. More recent versions of Chrome and Firefox, and Internet Explorer 9 support HTML5. Earlier versions do not.

For now the impact of HTML5 video rendering remains limited. Despite the difficulties in achieving extensive inbox penetration; MarketingVOX has reported on studies suggesting that demand for more effective video email marketing technologies is on the upswing.

The key challenge is that most email clients do not have the rendering capabilities to handle HTML5 videos yet, as these are largely built on text-based software engines. Hotmail, on the other hand, is a browser client, and has created the scripting environment that can handle the basic rendering and audio needs.

The result is that in-email videos are still more of a prospect than a practice, but one promising thought is that we can certainly expect other major webmail clients to warm up to this feature if it does prove to be more than just an experiment for Hotmail.

3. The (slow) descent of Spam

If you want any chance of delivering a worthwhile return on investment, you need to take a solid shot at your end-reader; and nothing shrouds the road to success quite as much having your mailer marked as spam.

This year it was reported that the July 2010 to June 2011 period saw an 82.22% decrease in global spam, down from about 225 billion to 40 billion junk emails sent in circulation each day — according to Symantec Intelligence. Efforts by security experts with help from internet service providers (ISPs) delivered significant drops in spam levels when investigators brought down numerous major spam networks, such as “Rustock“, which is said to have been responsible for 40% of all junk email worldwide.

Even though ISPs and online watch-dogs achieved notable victories in this on-going battle, we are as unlikely as ever to see a complete eradication of spam from the inbox trusted zone.

Let’s face it: spam doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Bad email begins with bad senders, and so 2011 saw the emergence of two new major pieces of anti-spam legislation; the first being the South African Consumer Protection Act (CPA) — demanding that all local email marketing communications must be opt-in based (which is has yet to be solidly enforced, but is certainly a step in the right direction) — and the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL) — which has yet to come into effect, but is the most restrictive anti-spam law in the world.

The new rules will require express opt-in consent from recipients. Exemptions to the opt-in requirement exist under certain circumstances of implied consent — if, for instance there is an existing business relationship or legitimate non-business relationship, such as family.

Taking into effect as of early 2012, CASL will be forcing marketers to apply rigorous opt-in based systems, or face substantial penalties. CASL aims at imposing significant charges for offenses regarding the use of false or misleading subject lines and illegitimate email address gathering; including slapping offenders with monetary penalties of up to US$10 000 000 for corporations and US$1 000 000 for individuals.

This is no small matter for the international sender community as the implementation of CASL marks the first time US email marketers could be punished under another country’s anti-spam legislation. CASL is so strict that businesses which are just barely operating under the USA’s CAN-SPAM requirements are certainly going to have to do an overhaul of their policies and make a few definite changes to comply.

CASL’s anti-spam provisions looks set to have pronounced effects on next year’s marketing strategies since it extends to various forms of electronic communication; such as text messages, instant messaging and social media messaging – unlike the CAN-SPAM Act which applies only to email marketing.

That said, the most important filter of all is always the human being at the end of the line. Providing subscribers with genuinely relevant, genuinely valuable content is still the best tactic to avoid being flagged as a spammer. So no matter how stringent the law, developing near-cliché authentic relationships with consumers will always be the best strategy.

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