Making the inbox spring to life at last
Email has long been left behind when it comes to innovation online, but contributor Len Shneyder says things are looking up.
By all measures, the inbox is dry and boring compared to a mobile app. However, that is starting to change.
Before I get to that, let’s briefly examine the evolutionary process that’s brought us to where we are now. The email inbox as we know it today really sprang to life around 1993. That year, users went from reading pure text emails, using something that looked more like Zork, to emails incorporating HTML and resembling what we’re used to seeing in our inboxes today.
The jump from text-only to HTML, coupled with the massively expanding personal computer market where clones multiplied like so many Stormtroopers, was a significant turning point. Now, more people were actively joining the internet age and communicating through email, which had already been around for 20+ years at that point.
In the years that followed, the fervor driving everyone to get email accounts transitioned more toward pitched battles to ensure the safety of the inbox. You see, while everyone was busy getting online and opening email accounts, criminals were equally busy finding ways to exploit the new communication landscape.
Despite this ongoing battle against botnets, malware, ransomware, trojans and other sundry exploits, innovation and change have been slowly creeping into our inboxes.
The rise of mobile has allowed mailbox providers to introduce proprietary mailbox apps with features designed to help us sort through tidal waves of correspondence. These inboxes are smart. They know everything from the last time we’ve read an email to accurately predicting which lists and senders we don’t find useful and may want to unsubscribe from.
The addition of the list-unsubscribe header has given recipients a clean, UI-driven way to tell a sender they don’t want to receive email. It has also given them increased punitive powers to both tell a sender they don’t want an email and to punish unscrupulous senders for overzealous messaging.
None of these things existed 10 years ago, when we were just starting to get comfortable with the idea that filtering could happen on a user-by-user basis through sophisticated machine learning algorithms. Keyword filters were still quite popular, as well as Bayesian models designed to weigh good vs. bad elements and language in an email. Platforms like Gmail and Outlook have come a long way since those early days.
The modern email header is awash with information about where an email came from, the points it traversed and the kind of email authentication that was used and imbued into the sending domain.
This kind of transparency has helped keep email viable — it’s also a necessary tool for a platform that, unlike SMS and push notifications, is an open standard that no one could have imagined would be as exploited by cybercriminals as it is today.
Improved transparency & security
The battle for the soul of your inbox is far from over. Almost every data breach you read about has, at its heart, email as an initial attack and penetration vector. Socially engineered phishing attacks have been on the rise for years. Now, new standards are being tested to give recipients more confidence that the emails they receive and open are actually from the purported senders of those emails.
Today’s inbox trust symbols are small notices and flags that most users gloss over without giving them much attention or thought. No wonder so many recipients click on links and respond to fraudulent messages. We are becoming an increasingly visual society, so our trust indicators should follow suit.
Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) is a new proposed standard that will deploy a sender’s logo in the inbox if they have aligned their SPF, DKIM and DMARC records and published that logo in DNS. The idea is to encourage all senders to use all forms of email authentication to stop phishing attacks.
Here’s an image by some of the folks pushing for this standard, which illustrates how it could look:
By implementing this, the senders are given an added bonus of increased visibility in the inbox. What CMO wouldn’t want more brand impressions for what is already their most lucrative and far-reaching channel? And, at the same time, a brand could do its part to protect their customers’ inboxes.
Shopping in the inbox
Email templates have become more dynamic over the years, with unique design variations appearing depending on the device that renders them. The mobile version of an email won’t necessarily look identical to the tablet version and may be wholly different from what displays on a desktop or laptop. CSS3 and HTML5 have been at the heart of the portability and multiplatform renderability of email.
Recent innovations have led to the construction of micro-apps that allow recipients to choose from a small selection of items, put them in a cart and transact directly inside their inboxes. This represents some seriously advanced coding and design; however, it may become easier to achieve in the not-so-distant future.
A great example of this push toward a more interactive inbox experience is Google’s recent AMP for Email announcement. AMP for Email decreases the friction between leaving an inbox and loading a mobile app or site. Imagine how many times you’ve abandoned an intended action because the deep link wasn’t built correctly and, instead of loading the app, your phone loaded the mobile site that forced you to log in. AMP for Email will allow users to take actions in their email without leaving the inbox, such as RSVPing to an event, scheduling an appointment or responding to questionnaires.
Another exciting feature of the AMP for Email project is the ability to keep content fresh and up to date. Brands often send time-sensitive offers or notifications, and the disappointment of opening an email and discovering that a sale has ended or that items are now unavailable can lead to recipient disengagement.
Companies like eBay solved this problem with proprietary technology, ensuring that the body content of messages updates upon opening. AMP for Email will give senders the ability to refresh the content and ensure offers are relevant and useful when the email is actually opened versus when it’s sent.
Email’s evolution hinges on interactivity
Email is one of the top activities on smartphones, according to research from the Pew Research Center. Before the mobile phone changed the entire rendering and design aesthetic of email, brands often sent large, three-column designs to recipients.
These designs were bulky, but they had something of a touchstone to them: They looked like the web pages we were all accustomed to seeing. When mobile devices began ascending, the three-column layout was replaced with a single-column layout to take better advantage of smaller screens. AMP and similar functions have the potential to make the mobile inbox look more like an app with carousel-like functions and other dynamic, engaging elements.
For example, Gmail has a unique advantage in creating increasingly interactive experiences directly in the inbox. For one, they have a natural linkage with YouTube, allowing for true video in email. It stands to reason that in the near future, we will see even greater interactive video experiences in the inbox, in addition to pure commerce functionality.
Email’s long life has been underpinned by the relatively slow pace of change of the user experience. Achieving a globally interactive experience involves an incredible number of dependencies. Chief among the barriers to true and expansive interactive inboxes is the sheer breadth and functionality among the various webmail, desktop and mobile inbox providers and how they render and support HTML, CSS and new extensions like AMP for Email.
The inbox is highly fractured and is only now beginning to be tied together through functions like media queries that allow for flexible templates that will work across platforms and devices. We are bound to see a great disparity between the mailbox providers that invest in creating an enhanced, interactive inbox and those that choose to rest on their laurels, assuming that the status quo is good enough to keep people happy and invested in email.