Email is now just another stream

This post was also published on TechCrunch.

Only a couple of years ago, pundits were predicting an end to email. But instead of fading away, there’s been ever-increasing email volume and usage. Rather than being replaced by Facebook and Twitter streams, email is actually becoming a stream itself.

Mail systems are evolving to match the new volume of email, and users will increasingly see only algorithmically vetted emails. Some other emails may be shown below the vetted email, and the rest will flow away into temporal oblivion, just like uninteresting social posts from a few hours ago.

Implications for marketers are significant. The days of the average AOL or Yahoo! mail user scrolling through every email in their inbox are rapidly fading. Email has been especially important in e-commerce sales and customer re-engagement. For e-commerce in particular, email marketing exceeds the performance of social advertising. Large-volume email senders will need to make a greater effort to send emails that are both personalized and interesting to the recipient.

The email tsunami problem is pervasive. Several Silicon Valley folks have already committed the unfortunately termed “email suicide,” where they give up on reading unread email and start anew. Others are adding email auto-responders stating that they will not necessarily see email. New vendors such as SendGrid have helped bring on the deluge by dramatically lowering the price of sending volume email and democratizing access with simplified onboarding and easy developer APIs.

Google has added several features to Gmail in an attempt to add some order to the chaos of email. The changes will effect both email users and marketers. With Gmail features like Priority Inbox, Gmail Tabs, and Circles, users are increasingly engaging only with algorithmically vetted email from senders they know. Priority Inbox is only a satisfactory product and needs to evolve to automatically mark as “important” email from senders that a recipient repeatedly opens, especially if the recipient replies. Next-generation email clients like Inky go as far as sorting email by relevance rather than date.

For marketers, sending a ton of email without any user engagement will soon become counterproductive. For each type of volume sender, a new balance will have to be found between sending numerous emails and still achieving desired “open rates” and “clickthroughs” — mechanisms by which an email provider like Google can detect whether or not the email is of interest to a user. Much like how “edge rank” increases for Facebook posts when the people like, share or comment on it, “mail rank” will be an increasingly important benchmark for email marketers to measure their effectiveness.

At CBS Interactive, we send over 200 million emails a month, ranging from news summaries to personalized fantasy sports updates, to an audience of 270 million unique users. We have corporate standards and systems to ensure that recipients can easily unsubscribe from unwanted emails. However, given these upcoming changes, we will need to look at overall open rates from a particular property and begin to proactively prune users that have no interest in emails we send.

The shift to email as a stream will have personal implications as well. People may have to be introduced via a mutual party rather than sending a cold email, especially if the sender has sent numerous emails that have not entailed or received a response. Even personal emails from people you know may soon be treated like a Facebook or Twitter post, where a user either immediately responds, such as with a Facebook like or comment, or instead lets it flow into the ether. Much like social posts, senders will likely shift toward keeping email messages short and to the point.

Facebook and Twitter both have nascent but unique takes on messaging. Facebook messages that are not from one of your friends go into an “other” folder that is rarely read. Twitter direct messages can only be sent to people who follow the sender, although Twitter is experimenting with opening this up a bit.

Stream-oriented companies like Facebook and Twitter essentially charge brands to target their own customers by allowing brands to purchase promoted posts for their fans and followers. Email providers may soon sell “promoted emails” where a marketer can target a user in their priority inbox. Users may revolt, but in the end they are getting email for free, so it will be hard to complain. Email has become a stream, and as the adage goes, when you’re not paying, you’re the product.