Priority Inbox and learning to love creating relevant email

Gmail - Priority InboxA bit has been written here and there about Gmail’s Priority Inbox. In online terms, the feature is hardly new, having been unveiled in August, 2010.

For a while now, email marketers have been discussing the value of segmentation, relevance and only sending subscribers what they want. Word to the Wise, which blogs on email deliverability issues, recently had a great quote on the “perfect” email:

The perfect email is no longer measured in how perfectly correct the technology is. The perfect email is now measured by how perfect it is for the recipient.

Nonprofits have largely steered clear of the conversation. But Priority Inbox and other systems are entering your recipient’s inboxes and may radically change the way subscribers interact with your messages.

As inbox placement becomes increasingly complicated (going way beyond a reverse chronological list) with spam filters and both automated and manual “priority” filters largely driven by relevance, organizations can’t assume that delivered email is being shown to the recipient.

Gmail Priority Inbox and other options

Gmail Priority Inbox and other options are becoming more visible to users - and more likely to be used. Click image for larger version.

The Algorithmic Inbox

Certainly the biggest player in the inbox game is Gmail’s Priority Inbox. At Google, algorithms trump assumptions and Priority Inbox is built to look at how your subscribers are actually interacting with your messages when making decisions about where to place your messages.

No big deal, you say. While nonprofit open and click rates still tend to be on the higher side of email messages in general these numbers aren’t rising and it isn’t wise to assume that list quality is great. In our experience, most organizations spend little time cleansing their lists aside from the automatic purging of hard bounces and unsubscribes by their provider.

Priority Inbox looks at what users read and prioritizes those. In time, if users skip a couple of your messages will end up further down on the screen where they are less likely to be seen, much less read. Basically, Google is recognizing that people don’t unsubscribe but they also don’t like sorting through messages they don’t read (and don’t use tags and filters much). Priority Inbox, if turned on by the user, does the heavy lifting for them.

A recent article on the Inc.Tech blog takes a look at some results:

Google has said that the average Priority Inbox user reads 43 percent more important mail compared to unimportant, and spends 15 percent less time reading email overall as compared to Gmail users who do not use Priority Inbox.

Priority Inbox Meets the Masses

Until recently, Priority Inbox (and other automatic email filtering) wasn’t readily available to all users. But Google has been pushing it and other inbox management options to the fore so they’re more available to the general user.

So what does this mean to nonprofits? You need to look at your stats but Gmail addresses are probably not a huge chunk of your list and even then it is up to the user to turn on Priority Inbox and other filtering tools. And people are, well, lazy when it comes to managing email settings. Just as users don’t often unsubscribe to lists they no longer read it has been said that only around 10% of users adjust email settings.

The short-term implications may still be few but these changes are part of a larger trend by email service providers and ISPs to whip the email marketing world into shape. Ken Magill wrote about this a few months back:

However, the development is part of a larger trend in which ISPs are taking steps to punish emailers who send largely irrelevant offers to massive files of mostly unengaged recipients.

Nonprofits can’t escape this and now is the time to start thinking strategically about what this means for email programs and resources.

Segmentation. And then Some.

Many organizations have had some level of basic segmentation for a while: activists, donors, general subscribers and/or sending action alerts to people in targeted states or congressional districts. This is great and it is probably helping organizations send relevant messages.

But fundraising, newsletters, and general national/international messaging streams are rarely well segmented. The reality is that segmentation is hard, often staff and time intensive and just not easy to do or manage with the tools that nonprofits have available to them. What to do, then? For starters:

  1. Track: Actively record the issue, action or ask that leads a user to subscribe. Track the issues that they’re acting on over time. Aggregate, report and track these. Look for trends.
  2. Test: Nobody can (or should) change their approach, staffing and strategy based on hunches or trends. Email systems are data rich environments. Actively generate actionable data by testing. If people are joining off a certain issue make an effort to test follow-up messaging about that issue. Are open and click rates better than the general messaging stream?
  3. Cleanse: Stop sending to people that don’t respond. Identify people that aren’t opening messages, clicking or otherwise acting on your email. Test some alternate messaging to this group and focus it on interaction – giving you some signal that they are there. Strongly consider dropping continued inactives from your list. You will be better off focusing messaging strategy and tone on those that are interacting.
  4. Go where the people are: If you’re like many organizations you recruited your subscribers on Care2 or Change.org. Be active on these networks because your readers have proven they’re there. Same with Facebook and Twitter. You can try to move people from being fans/followers to email subscribers (and you should) but people active on those networks are active on those networks. Communicate with them there in a style appropriate to the network.

All in all, we’re talking about doing what you should be doing already – sending people what is relevant and interesting to them. Don’t assume that it’s happening and realize that it takes planning and resources to do it well.

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  • Eric Bliven

    Helpful post. Currently migrating onto a new ESP platform and have been warming the promotional email IP address for 50+ days now. Was not informed prior to implementation by ESP that 100% of messages would be going to spam for our Gmail list. Still experiencing bulking issues today- any other rec’s on how to get inbox placement with these guys outside of suppressing the unengaged? Know of some good text only emails to send to the unengaged list?