Why the email inbox is the new DVR

DVRs are one of my favorite inventions of all time. The ability to time shift my program viewing and at the same time fast forward through the commercials has greatly increased both my viewing satisfaction as well as the number of hours I spend viewing television. TV networks that initially fought back against the idea of time-shifted viewing -- we want you to watch the shows when we air them! -- finally saw the futility in fighting and began to offer many of their hottest shows in an on-demand format. This, more than anything else, will be their best weapon against the DVR. But I digress. The reason I'm talking about DVR's today is because I've come to see several parallels between how we use our DVRs and how many people today treat their inboxes.

Believe it or not, there was a time when if you didn't hear the words "you've got mail" when you logged into AOL, you were actually disappointed. You eagerly read each email as it showed up in your inbox. Those days are but a distant memory. Now when we log on, we're greeted with a crowded mailbox of email vying for our attention. If, as a marketer, one of your emails is there, one of several things could happen. Best-case scenario is that your email gets opened right away. Worst-case scenario is that it gets deleted without being opened. But there is another possible fate for your email.

Just because you want someone to open and read your email on your schedule doesn't mean the subscriber is going to comply with those wishes. Like that television user recording a show to watch at a later time, your email subscriber might note your email in his inbox but choose to open it later. This, depending on the contents of your email message, might or might not be a good thing. Of course, if you're announcing a 24-hour sale, maybe you should have thought about sending a text alert in the first place.

This phenomenon is more extensive than just something we see in marketing emails. Transactional confirmation emails might end up in a separate folder, unopened unless or until the product doesn't arrive as expected, or the trip is imminent and details must be remembered. This can be weeks or even months down the road from when you sent the original email. This tendency is more pronounced among younger people. From their perspective, if you want immediate attention, you text them. If it can wait, you email them. And while that is a broad generalization, it does have a real impact on their engagement with emails.

I am not going to take a right turn here and launch into an "email is dead" speech. It's not. And young people won't kill it, as email-friendly smartphones combined with young folks' entrance into the work force have together reinforced the value of email communications to the younger generation. But just as television viewing habits evolve over time, so do email behaviors.

Let's take a look at three examples of instances where an email was neither opened nor deleted upon first exposure:

See it, remember it, and return later to open
Many email marketers see a long tail in email open and clicks. That's these folks. They might ignore your email for a few days before deciding to check it out. While you might prefer they open it right away, unless you have some sort of short-term offer, there's really no down side for you if they open it at a later time. (At least they are opening the email at all.)

However, if you are sending out a short-term offer or discount, you better put that in the subject line very clearly. That will increase the likelihood that they won't wait to open. And if they do wait to open, they'll only have themselves to blame.

See it, remember it, search Google for it
There is a very interesting phenomenon that I've seen, particularly in the retail space. In some instances, we see an uptick in search around a particular brand in the days following a large email send. I don't believe in coincidence, so what is likely happening here is that someone notes your email, and then decides it's easier to search your brand than it is to go back and find the email.

While it certainly is easier to do attribution to the email channel if these people click through the email, it's important to note that the email played a crucial role in that customer's engagement with you. No email, no search. And possibly no transaction. Beware of giving all the credit to the search team in these instances. If you reduce your email budget and move more money into search, you're likely to see a drop in searches on your brand.

See it, drop it in a folder, retrieve later
This is a common fate for confirmation and transactional emails. Unless you're someone who likes to double-check that everything is correct, you might ignore or move these types of emails to another folder. I have a travel folder in my inbox. All reservation confirmations get dropped into it unopened until the trip is coming up. Then I check the email to get hotel location, flight times, etc. The downside of doing this is that any dynamic offers related to my purchase or my trip don't get viewed by me when I'm most likely to respond.

The simple solution to all three of these scenarios is to make your subject line so compelling that your recipient can't wait to open the email and act upon it immediately -- or to make the content of the last email opened so relevant that the recipient eagerly anticipates your next email. Both of these tactics are on the short list of best practices in email marketing.

However, some of your emails are still going to be "time shifted" by your recipients. So if your message has a short shelf life, you might want to combine your email with other channels like text and display. Or perhaps go one step further and send a direct mail piece letting the recipient know an important email is on the way.

Excuse me now -- I have some episodes of "Modern Family" to catch up on.

Chris Marriott is VP of agency services at StrongMail.

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