4 inbox-altering changes to watch for

The email experience is changing. Here's how to plan for it.

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Email marketers are losing ground in the battle for the inbox, thanks to technology changes that give mailbox providers more control over everything from message design to longevity.

Marketers have never had 100% control over how an email message appears in an email client. Right now, I’m tracking four changes that take away even more control over our messages and how our recipients can view and act on them. Some spring from applications of artificial intelligence, while user privacy and inbox decluttering and even climate change, are driving others.

If you are still sending email like it’s 1999 — or 2019 or 2021 — your email program could suffer one way or another until you update your practices.

These changes aren’t all negative. But each is a signal that we must once again understand what’s happening, its implications and how to retool our strategies and programs to accommodate it.  

4 inbox-altering email changes 

Right now, plenty is happening with email, and it does not have to do with generative AI. These are four trends I’m tracking right now.  

1. Upsetting the Apple inbox cart again 

Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) feature, introduced in 2021, was the first shot across the inbox bow, as Apple sought to protect subscribers’ privacy by masking when, where and even whether they opened an email message.

After the initial shock wore off, we email marketers figured out how to compensate for the loss of that data and got back to our regular work of communicating with the subscribers and customers who asked to receive our emails.   

Three years later, Apple Intelligence (yes, “AI”) is coming to the native Apple Mail client with the next system upgrade, iOS 18, on iPhone 15 and later. We need to pay attention to Apple Intelligence’s “Personal Intelligence” capability, which will use AI to sort messages into tabs, similar to Gmail’s Tabs system.

As Apple says, “On-device categorization organizes and sorts incoming email into Primary for personal and time-sensitive emails, Transactions for confirmations and receipts, Updates for news and social notifications and Promotions for marketing emails and coupons. Mail also features a new digest view that pulls together all of the relevant emails from a business, allowing users to quickly scan for what’s important in the moment.”

It’s not all bad as long as you’re sending messages your subscribers requested, opened and acted on. It’s not clear whether Personal Intelligence would reorder messages by sender or date inside each tab, so we will be watching to see how the new system plays out when it goes live later this year.

The specter of a marketing-focused Promotions tab has reignited worries that marketing emails will get lost if they aren’t in the Primary tab or Priority view. We know it’s not a major disadvantage in Gmail, so I’ll categorize this as something to watch. 

One potentially positive development could be grouping messages by sender. As applied to promotional or marketing messages, it could turn up brand emails that subscribers retain for transactions or later action. (See No. 2 and 3 below for trends that could counter that benefit.)

Apple will introduce AI-produced content summaries for messages. This feature has been in Yahoo Mail’s app for years but is inconsistent. Some email summaries are detailed, others just name the sender and some emails, especially image-based ones, have no summaries.

None of these changes will spell the death of email or affect their appearance or functions. They are reminders, however, that we will have even less control over the inbox and how our subscribers can access them. We will need to double down on message relevance and engagement to be confident subscribers can find them in the inbox.

2. Expiring emails

The Email Expiration Date project advocates automatically deleting old emails as a way to reduce the energy and data storage needed to retain them. Reducing email’s carbon footprint is a noble goal, to be sure. But we have to be careful about how we use it.

Mass-deleting marketing emails, which have a bigger carbon footprint than, say, a “Works for me!” reply confirming dinner with friends, sounds like a great idea, but we have to be careful about kill dates in email to make sure we don’t upset one of email’s great advantages.

That advantage is subscribers’ tendency to retain emails from brands they trust or buy from regularly and search for them when they’re in the market to purchase again. 

Many company email services delete emails regularly, regardless of engagement, unless the recipient changes a setting. However, email expiration dates could be a disaster for commercial senders if they become arbitrary limits imposed by mail transfer agents or mailbox providers. This doesn’t appear to be the case, as project supporters say the process needs senders, ESPs and mailbox providers to work together to make it succeed. 

However, senders will need to think strategically when choosing “kill-by” dates so that they don’t eliminate emails your customers are keeping deliberately and disrupt their long-term value.

Dig deeper: 3 keys for better email engagement in Gmail

3. Unsubscribe prompts after 30 days

Do you need a push to start sending emails to new subscribers ASAP instead of whenever you feel like it? Here you go!

Google and Yahoo now require senders to include 30-day list-unsubscribe functions in email headers as a condition of inbox delivery. This disrupts the usual email relationship in three ways:

  • If you don’t send email within 30 days of opt-in, your fresh new subscribers will get prompted to opt out before you send your first email.
  • Although the 30-day opt-out prompt is targeted toward people who haven’t engaged at all in that window, I’ve seen it pop up in emails from senders whose emails I regularly act on.
  • Emails can have a long shelf life. The DMA UK Consumer Email Tracker 2023 lists “Save the email for a later date” as the third most popular action consumers take when receiving an email of interest. This forced opt-out disrupts the habits consumers have built up over the years. 

The list-unsubscribe header function isn’t new. Senders have always been able to insert list-unsubscribe functions into their email headers to help people unsubscribe from messages instead of using the unsubscribe link or button down in the message. That’s not bad if it encourages non-active subscribers to opt out instead of hitting the spam button or simply going silent.

A suggestion from my email colleague Chad S. White (Oracle Digital Experience Agency) to widen the opt-out window prompt from 30 to 90 or 120 days could give you enough time to prove your value. The prompt would still appear in the email (in the inbox and header in Gmail; in the footer in Yahoo) but by then your subscribers might be less likely to act on it.

4. Automatic extraction

You might have noticed that some email client inboxes have a lot going on in them besides showing the sender name, subject line, preheader and date. Some emails now come with graphics, calls to action and even offer codes pulled from email content into the inbox.

Here are two emails that popped into my Gmail inbox recently. One shows the benign application of what Gmail calls “automatic extraction” using annotation (see Gmail’s explanation) and Schema markup, which you can use to add quick actions to inbox views. The other, not so much.

Gmail - automatic extraction

The SmarterTravel inbox image is the first image you see in the email. It relates directly to the subject line and message intent. It enriches the inbox view and could make recipients more interested in opening the message.

The promo code in the Swimsuits for All email comes after the preheader but is not part of it. It appears once in the email, embedded into an image whose alt text reads “Shop Now.” There is no mention of the code. I had to look twice to find it in the email, although it shows up on the brand’s website.

Was that done on purpose? Or did Gmail choose to extract and display that?

I agree with White, who is an especially outspoken opponent of automated extraction because it rewrites emails for its own purposes, which might not reflect what the brand wanted the email to achieve. As he says, it begs the question: Who owns the preview content of the emails — the brand or the inbox provider?

The promo that appeared in the inbox could have been intended as a reward for customers who opened and clicked on the email. With the code pulled into the inbox, a customer could simply copy it and go right to the website, bypassing the email and taking it out of the engagement and attribution equations.

One bypassed email won’t change anything. However, Gmail has a large reach, and Swimsuits for All is a major brand. So that’s potentially thousands on thousands of lost interactions — clicks and opens that Gmail itself uses to measure engagement and which the brand uses to measure both engagement and campaign effectiveness. Yes, the brand gets the sale, but email takes yet another hit.

Dig deeper: New rules for bulk email senders from Google, Yahoo: What you need to know

Don’t ignore the impact of seemingly minor changes

None of the trends I’ve listed here will bring about the death of email. Still, each one alters the landscape enough that marketers could find their email effectiveness slipping if they don’t act.

Email senders have always known they can’t control how email clients display messages. These changes are now affecting the inbox, where marketers once had control over the displayed information. Each of these trends chips away at that control.

It’s not that any of this is new or even unexpected. Email marketers have always had to contend with changes that seemed to be more designed to keep commercial messages out of the inbox, despite mailbox providers’ claims that they were just doing things to satisfy their own customers and users. 



Whenever we email marketers face a roadblock, we complain about it and then roll up our sleeves and either figure out a workaround or collaborate with clever people to turn the problem into an advantage. It’s time to do that again.

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Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.


About the author

Kath Pay
Contributor
Kath Pay is CEO at Holistic Email Marketing and the author of the award-winning Amazon #1 best-seller "Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers."

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