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.

What color is your (Hot)mail?

E-mail deliverability folk are all abuzz this week about the roll-out of major changes to Hotmail that began Tuesday. It’s hard to accurately predict what impact they’ll have on senders, but we can make some early, educated guesses.

The feature that’s receiving the lion’s share of attention is the one Hotmail has dubbed “Sweep”. Sweep helps recipients to move what Hotmail calls “gray mail” – mail that is not spam, but that may no longer be relevant to the recipient – out of the inbox. Like an inbox janitor, sweep declutters the inbox by automatically moving gray mail to the trash or to another folder for later action.

What makes Sweep different from existing user level filtering tools is ease of use. Recipients won’t need to build cumbersome filtering rules to manage gray mail; Hotmail presents a simplified button interface to set and apply sweep preferences.

That’s good news and bad news for senders. The good news is that recipients will have an alternative to reporting permissioned mail as spam. Senders have long bemoaned that lazy recipients  all too often use the “This is spam” button as a sort of malformed unsubscribe request from permission-based mail. Sweep will move gray mail out of users’ inboxes without a hit to sender reputation. The bad news is that Sweep remembers user preferences, so if a user sweeps a sender’s mail once, Hotmail is likely to continue to sweep that sender’s mail until the user intervenes.

If the recipient deletes a particular sender’s mail unopened several times, Hotmail will eventually prompt them to unsubscribe with a new feature called (appropriately enough) Prompted Unsubscribe. Again, a mixed bag for senders: it will undoubtedly reduce list size by some amount; however, it removes recipients who are no longer engaged anyhow, which should actually improve open and conversion rates.

One final feature of note from a deliverability standpoint is Time Traveling Filters. Hotmail will retroactively filter unopened mail that had already made it to the inbox if the sender’s reputation later tanks. That means there’s no longer a guarantee that a message delivered to the inbox will actually stay there until the recipient can act on it.

Hotmail’s changes emphasize the growing importance that reputation and engagement will play in the e-mail universe. The take-away for senders: don’t send gray mail. Keep your recipients engaged with relevant, compelling content, so that what gets to the inbox stays in the inbox.