At noon on a cold, rainy Saturday my family and I entered the mall through the food court. Five years ago we would have been greeted by a very different scene. Rather than a sea of open tables, we would have had to squeeze past tote-laden shoppers grabbing a quick bite between stores. The mall scene has changed substantially as more and more shoppers turn to online shopping to spruce up their wardrobes, pick up a gift or redecorate a room.
While web traffic has replaced a considerable amount of foot traffic at malls and other brick-and-mortar stores, one thing remains constant: consumers still crave a great shopping experience. Whether shopping with intention or just looking for some retail therapy, consumers still want the excitement and validation of that perfect purchase. They also want variety and a chance to scope out the best deals but many want to be able to do so from their own homes.
As email marketers, we have the opportunity to collectively offer the “mall experience” in the inbox. We just have to prove to subscribers that it’s a pleasant place to kick off their shopping.
Many of the marketers I work with are laser focused on their success metrics and performance goals; and rightly so. These numbers drive our bottom lines and help us understand which way our performance is trending. Unfortunately, we can get so focused on the numbers, we lose sight of the context in which subscribers are experiencing our content.
The inbox is jam packed with offers and incentives from a whole slew of brands. There’s a reason big mailbox providers like Gmail, Outlook.com, and others have introduced a tabbed inbox. Subscribers are increasingly demanding a separate and unique place to go to interact with commercial mail. While this can be a headache for marketers who find their mail routed to a new folder, it’s a step in the right direction for subscribers. If we shift our perception of the inbox to be more aligned with subscribers, we have the opportunity to create a more vibrant, customer-centric alternative to physical malls.
One of the most apparent challenges to the “inbox as the new mall” concept is that window shopping can be a less than pleasant experience. Rows and rows of text heavy “from” addresses, subject lines, and preheader text hardly create an inspiring consumer experience. Gmail’s exciting but ill-fated Grid View was the first major attempt to remedy this challenge but it may have been a bit ahead of its time. Both marketers and subscribers need to adopt new technology, and in 2015, we weren't quite there yet. Will things be different in 2019?
Gmail is back with a new way to create a splash in the Promotions tab. Late last year, they introduced Gmail Annotations, a way to add more attention capturing elements into the inbox. While more subtle than Grid View, marketers can use Annotations to add images, logos, deal badges, and expiration dates to give their inbox presence a boost. My guess is that this time it will stick.
As more brands begin implementing Annotations, the inbox will take on a more visual browsing experience and allow subscribers to quickly review new looks, featured products, and offer details. In Gmail’s own words, “Adding images to your annotations help bring your promotions to life and make them more discoverable and inspiring.” In addition to creating a more appealing and attention grabbing digital store-front, marketers who leverage Annotations may drive additional engagement and help land their messages in the coveted “Top Deals” section of the Promotions tab.
While Gmail users will be the only subscribers who can see this inbox content, I would be surprised if other top mailbox providers don’t follow suit. As covered in one of my previous articles, "Trouble at Gmail? Humanize Before You Optimize", mailbox providers want to provide their users with the best experience possible. As more shopping goes digital, they have to keep up and create better and more rewarding browsing experiences. Microsoft mailboxes (like Outlook.com and Hotmail) have already started displaying brand logos in the inbox. Will they be the next provider to embrace a more visual experience?
If you’re interested in learning more about Gmail Annotations and how to put them to work for your brand, check out this great blog post by Andrew Bennett.
One major advantage that email has over physical stores is that we can get to know our customers deeply and tailor our content to fit their needs and wants. Rather than a single window display and set of offers for every person that wanders by the store-front, we can create curated, relevant experiences.
In Salesforce’s recent report, The State of the Connected Customer, 84 percent of customers surveyed stated that “being treated like a person, not a number, is very important to winning their business.” Even more telling, “76 percent of consumers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations.”
By sending more relevant, targeted mail that directly speaks to the interests and desires of our subscribers, we play the role of the personal shopper, serving up the products and offers that most appeal to them. With the increasing prevalence of brands like StitchFix, Trunk Club, and Le Tote, there is a clear desire for more curation and shopping assistance from brands.
In addition to driving more immediate engagement with messages, the more we’re able to prove the value and relevance of our program, the more likely our subscribers are to seek out our mail.
What do you think? Can the inbox become the new mall?
As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”