The Inbox Experience: 4 Areas of Focus
The inbox can be a crowded place. Those who sign up to receive promotional messages rarely do so for just a single brand. This can result in battle for attention among the rank and file within the inbox. While most brands put a lot of thought and effort into crafting subject lines and preheader content, this work is often “checking off boxes” rather than designing an experience within the context of the environment.
Let’s take a moment to consider the audience and their objectives. The inbox experience is often relegated to a triage process, where recipients are making split-second value judgements that determine whether the message is read, saved for later, deleted or flagged as spam. They are searching for value and relevance, but often do not take the time to carefully consider or internalize content. It’s the marketer’s objective to close the gap between the words within the inbox and the value they convey.
By leveraging the real estate available and focusing on the experience within the context of a crowded inbox, marketers can be more effective in driving opens and clicks.
There are four key aspects of email content and the email program that contribute to this experience:
- The from/friendly from
- The subject line
- The preheader summary
- Messaging frequency/inbox exposure
In this post, I’ll provide recommendations to optimize each aspect that contributes to the inbox experience.
An Introduction to the Inbox and One-Line Storytelling
Before diving into the individual elements that comprise the inbox experience, let’s establish some additional context. Below is a snapshot of the inbox of my promotional email account. I love email offers (and receiving a broad range of content to review) but don’t want it interfering with personal emails from friends and family.
As an email marketer, I have seven different accounts. While this is on the high end, having multiple email accounts has become the norm. In fact, the average email subscriber has two email accounts with one often devoted to personal messages and another designated for marketing and promotional content. Many email users also have dead email accounts that they have abandoned or very rarely log in to.
A recent Return Path study of 199 million messages delivered to 600,000 subscribers found that 24 percent of mailboxes acted as primary accounts. These mailboxes drove the vast majority of reads but also drove half of all complaints.
It’s important to keep in mind that the majority of your subscribers likely have an inbox that looks much like mine: a high volume of marketing messages and offers. As they skim the content in search of value or even your particular brand, it’s important to make a positive impression as subscribers review how you are positioning yourself and your value proposition.
This is where one line storytelling comes into play. Your friendly from, subject line and preheader summary must work together to create a compelling pitch for why your subscribers should take the next step. As marketers craft elements that display within the inbox, it’s important to leverage each section to build on the offer and establish value or interest. Each element should consider and flow into the next as one cohesive proposition. As you craft the one line story, be sure that content isn’t repetitive or disjointed and the value for the subscriber is front and center.
The Friendly From
This inbox element tells subscribers who you are and sometimes provides context for what you are offering. The friendly from replaces your complete sending address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and should be kept short, to the point and contain clear branding. There are character limits for the friendly from so be mindful of truncation.
In most circumstances we recommend consistent branding, but there are some instances where multiple friendly froms provide more clarity and direction. In nearly all circumstances, I advise against using a personal name. I understand the intention, but it often comes across spammy or manipulative.
This is the main focus for most marketers when drafting inbox content, and rightly so. Subject lines are critical when making an impression and driving the open. There are umpteen recommendations on how to optimize subject lines. Rather than digging into these, I’d like to focus on how the subject line ties in with other elements. You can take a look at this helpful review of subject line data if subject line optimization is on your to-do list (which it should be).
Keep in mind how information flows from the friendly from, to the subject line, then the preheader. Also, be mindful of the fact that many inbox visitors do not read the full subject line for each sender. Pay careful attention to the first few words or phrases, frontload key information and avoid repetition of the brand name if it is the focus of the friendly from.
Additionally, be sure that the subscriber benefits and rewards are clear. Don’t assume that subscribers see the value in your messaging. Use the subject line to show them.
The preheader summary should serve a dual purpose. For some mail clients (like Gmail, Outlook.com and Hotmail), the preheader renders in the inbox and can be used to further compel next steps. Within the preview pane, it helps transition to the email body and offers additional insight into content without images enabled.
The preheader summary should seek to tie together the subject line and body content headlines without being too repetitive. Within the inbox, this section of text should continue the trajectory of the subject line or provide additional/new value.
While unrelated to the individual message experience, frequency and inbox presence can factor heavily into the subscriber experience as they triage their inboxes. Overmailing and repetitive content can create a lasting, negative brand impression, drive tune out, and even trigger spam complaints. Unsure of the impact this can have? You can check out the data in Return Path’s study, Frequency Matters.
Be mindful of how often your messages are appearing in the inbox, the value they convey as a whole, and what the collective message strategy looks like. If a subscriber conducts a search for your brand within their inbox, what impression would they take away?
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.”