Changes Coming to AOL and Yahoo! Inboxes, Too

Much has been written in the last few weeks about big changes to the free e-mail offerings from Google and Microsoft. Hotmail rolled out Wave 4, with Sweep and Time-Traveling Filters that penalize “gray mail” by sweeping it out of the inbox. Gmail’s Priority Inbox now rewards messages that it deems most relevant to the recipient with preferred positioning in the inbox.

In the meantime, AOL and Yahoo! have been working quietly on their own major inbox releases. However, early glimpses at new features hint at altogether different strategies for capturing and holding users’ attention – important changes that may influence how recipients interact with your e-mail and help propagate your message.

It’s been about 20 years since AOL and e-mail became nearly synonymous (“You’ve got mail!”). Today, comScore ranks AOL mail dead last in market share behind Yahoo!, MSN and Google. AOL will attempt to rise from the ashes when they take the wraps off “Project Pheonix” later this year. Few details about specific changes to the user interface have been confirmed, but insiders say we should expect tighter integration with AOL Instant Messenger, SMS messaging and MapQuest. They’re planning a Gmail-like archive feature and enhanced search across users’ e-mail folders. AOL say they will present fewer ads at entry points, but will serve up more targeted advertising when users drill down into AOL’s content sites.

A recent interview with AOL Mail Ops President Brad Garlinghouse also hints at a larger effort to deliver an integrated messaging platform for all of the users’ various inboxes – be they traditional e-mail inboxes at Yahoo!, Gmail or MSN, as well as IM, SMS or social media inboxes. He notes that Internet users now manage an average of 2.4 e-mail addresses, up from 1.9 five years ago. Garlinghouse intimates that Phoenix will position the AOL mail site as a hub for users to manage them all.

Yahoo! has been far less cagey in discussing new features in its upcoming mail release, dubbed “Minty”. Users will be able to update their Facebook status from within their Yahoo! inbox. Earlier this year, Yahoo! made a few other social media moves, announcing partnerships with Twitter and social media game giant Zynga, and the acquisition of location-based social network Koprol.

But the most noticeable changes will be to the user interface. Yahoo! is promising a leaner, faster-loading site that more closely resembles the mobile apps (read: iPad) versions of its offerings. The interface changes are designed to increase market share in non-US markets, where consumer broadband is not as common, and load times can still be an issue for larger percentages of the user base.

It doesn’t appear that either AOL or Yahoo! are planning any major changes to the way it filters or delivers inbound mail in these releases. The message for senders is that social media and e-mail are converging quickly: Google’s abortive attempt to socialize e-mail with Buzz did not spell the end of other efforts, and it’s possible that more than one will succeed. If that happens, senders may have the chance to turn their recipients’ entire social networks into prospects.

Reply-All: Three Day Weekend Edition

  • From all the coverage of Gmail Priority Inbox, you’d think nothing else happened in the e-mail deliverability world this week. Well, actually, not much else did, but we’ll get to that later.
  • MSN/Live/Hotmail, hot on the heels of their own re-tooling of “hands free” inbox management
    tools, announces (or re-announces) that they, too, are using engagement metrics to make delivery decisions – and furthermore, user level preferences will override server-level filtering policies. Proof that one man’s trash may truly be another’s treasure.
  • Not everyone is happy about these developments: E-mail marketing agency CEO and “thought leader” Dela Quist asserts in a rambling screed that “interfering with someone’s email [sic] infringes on their rights”, and doing so invites a class action suit. It’s plain to me (and others, judging from the comments on the piece) that he’s actually arguing for senders’ right of unfettered access to their recipients’ inboxes. No such right exists, of course: courts in the US have considered and rejected the notion on at least two occasions – once as early as 1996 (AOL v. Cyberpromo). And of course, there’s both the CDA and CAN SPAM, both of which hold ISPs harmless for filtering mail.

Gmail Priority Inbox: Sort by Relevance

If there were any lingering doubts about the rising primacy of relevance and engagement in successful e-mail deliverability, Gmail has just banished them in a fell swoop.

Google this week announced the incremental roll-out of its latest Gmail feature, dubbed “Priority Inbox”, which as the name suggests, presents the contents of recipients’ inboxes sorted automatically in order of importance. Priority Inbox divides the interface into three broad categories – Important & Unread, Starred and Everything Else – and places what it deems to be the most important mail nearest to the top of the pile.

Gmail is the second major free inbox provider to roll out advanced inbox management tools this year. Later this year, AOL is expected to take the wraps off of “Project Phoenix”, a total rebuild of its free and subscription-based e-mail offerings. Earlier this summer, MSN/Live/Hotmail released a completely revamped interface, which included vastly improved mail filtering and management capabilities, like Sweep, Time-Travelling Filters and Prompted Unsubscribe.

I like to refer to new mail management features like these as “hands free” tools, because unlike traditional e-mail clients, they require little or no user intervention to implement. There are no rules to build, no boxes to tick, no regular expressions to, uh, express in order to sort and filter mail – unless the recipient cares to peek under the hood, where vastly simplified interfaces await to fine-tune the experience.

Google has released only very broad guidance about how, exactly, Priority Inbox makes decisions about what mail is most important, but early reports from users indicate that it is remarkably accurate. And it “learns” user preferences and habits as the recipient continues to interact with more mail.  If the user takes the trouble to dig mail from a particular sender out of the junk folder, Gmail will now remember that, and award future mail from that sender higher placement in the inbox. If the user typically archives or deletes a particular newsletter unread, Gmail will now remember that, too, and will de-prioritize (or automatically archive or delete) future issues.

The message for senders is not new, just more strident than ever: permission on its own is simply not enough to ensure high deliverability. It can be revoked any time your message fails to engage intended recipients.

Permission gets your foot in the door; relevance lets you stay in the room.