Published May 16-18 2021
The 15% Inbox
85%. That is the percentage of emails sent by brands to their customers that are ignored. This means 6 out of 7 emails are not opened. That email is still such a powerful and critical communications channel despite this waste is because of the low cost of sending emails. The return on investment (RoI) is the best as compared to all other channels.
The question I have been thinking about is: what would it take to bring the 85% down to 0? How can every brand email be opened by customers? It would mean not just increasing the numerator (the number of emails opened) but also reducing the denominator (the number of emails sent). What would a new world of 100% opens and therefore 0% waste look like? Is it worth striving to create such a world?
Email inboxes are a free-for-all. Anyone with your email ID can send you a message. At times, it becomes difficult to distinguish fake messages from real ones leading to loss of trust – and in some cases, money. Email lists get sold as is evident in the rise of incoming spam. Gmail and other email service providers have worked hard to create algorithms to maintain a clean inbox but many irrelevant and spurious emails still get through and some good emails get re-routed to other folders.
If we look at our email inboxes, we will all agree that much can be done to improve the inflow. Gmail has now created multiple folders to automatically redirect emails based on its assessment of the importance and our previous actions. This makes it harder for brand communications to make it to the primary inbox folder – which is a lose-lose scenario for both brands and customers. Customers may miss out on relevant information and brands miss out on their communication and potentially future transactions.
Consumer attention has also moved away from the cluttered inbox to other channels – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp and other social channels. Brands are also moving to these platforms and devoting some of their serious attention there. Many businesses are making WhatsApp their primary mode of communication; there are many instances of businesses run solely on Instagram. Innovation on email has also slowed – its simplicity and openness which helped widespread adoption has also meant that there isn’t much to be done. A few ideas in recent years (BIMI and AMP) have come up but not yet been adopted widely.
The other big change in recent times has been the shift to mobile and the reduction in our attention span. Most emails tend to be viewed on the small screen yet brand marketers tend to design them for the desktop. Customers too have adapted by reducing the time they take to decide whether to open or ignore – 2-3 seconds is all that we take to make that call.
It is against this backdrop that I have been thinking about the idea of microns – micro newsletters (or nudges / nuggets). Making emails short, informational, subscription-led, story-format, sent once daily to create a habit, and identified are some of the starting ideas which can create a better inbox experience and higher open rates. But microns will still compete with all the other emails that are being sent. Is it possible to move from the current state to a new future state which makes for happy brands and customers? In other words, what will it take to bring this new micron-verse to life? That is the roadmap I will lay out next.
A series of technologies and actions can bring the micron-verse to life in the coming years.
The first building block is a micron publishing platform. Most email campaign management platforms tend to be quite complicated because emails themselves have become complex to create over time. Microns are simple: short and with a single element (text or image or an interactive component). The publishing platform also enables “story microns” – a sequenced set of microns where every subscription starts with the first in the series. This contrasts to the “daily fresh” microns where all subscribers get the same micron on any given day. Every micron should have an ‘AMPlet’ – an AMP-enabled element which converts static content into dynamic interaction. This also brings in that extra surprise and excitement in every micron – making it more likely that every micron gets opened.
The second complementary block is subscription management. This will typically happen via the brand – an email address is what is needed to activate the subscription. Every micron also has a clearly visible “Unsubscribe” option putting the control with the recipient. Email addresses can also be added automatically by brands via an API – thus logged in users don’t have to re-enter email addresses.
The pubsub (publish-subscribe) blocks are what get the micron system going for both brands and their subscribers. The next set of blocks improve on both publishing and consumption.
The third block is a toolkit to improve micron making. Microns can be automatically created from existing content which can be serialised. Microns can also be made by humans – connected to brand managers via a marketplace. What’s needed is a content factory that keeps the microns coming. An added touch can be a no-code AMP publishing system that simplifies the creation of standard AMP elements like quizzes, surveys and feedback.
The fourth block is a rewards system. As we saw earlier, just 1 in 7 brand emails are opened. Our objective with microns is to eliminate waste (unopened emails). Gamifying the process wherein every micron is opened and each action earns points which can then be encashed for rewards is a way to incentivise the right customer behaviour (from a brand’s perspective). Additional points can be given for ‘streaks’ – consistently opening brand mails daily without a break.
The fifth block is the micronbox, a custom inbox for viewing and engaging with microns. Brands should be able to directly publish to this micronbox – as long as they have permission to do so. Customers can get a significantly upgraded viewing experience than the conventional email inbox with its linear list of incoming emails. The micronbox has the potential to transform brand-customer engagement the way WhatsApp upgraded person-to-person mobile communications from the SMS inbox.
The sixth and final block is the profile sharing system. Every individual can maintain a catalogue of personal information which they can selectively share with brands based on trust and rewards. The more the profile sharing, the better will be the incoming microns. At a basic level, it could just be age, gender and location. At the next level, it could be static preferences. At an even higher level, it could be my current requirements – where the brand gets to know that there is a near-term product or service need they can fulfil.
These six building blocks offer a significant and mutually beneficial upgrade to the brand-customer relationship and bring the full power of the micron-verse to life. They also offer new opportunities for entrepreneurs to construct the different components. There are many more ideas from our current world that we can re-imagine in this new micron-powered future: paid microns (where content creators become the ‘brands’ and offer microcontent for a fee rather than free), affiliates (who can provide a smoother middle layer for connecting buyers and sellers), game developers (who can fill those gaps with puzzles and creative interludes) and product-led agencies (who can offer micron publishing for free in return for a success fee for specific outcomes like reactivation of a dormant subscriber base).
For Employees Eyes
Brands want to build deep and engaged relationships with their customers. As businesses, they also have another type of customer – their employees. Microns can play a very positive role in enhancing the business-employee relationship also. The same building blocks can be used by businesses to communicate, engage and interact with their internal ‘customers’.
Here are some ideas to improve the business-employee engagement:
- A daily micron can be sent with some news – a new order won, profile of a new hire, an exciting development in an employee’s personal life, new product features launched, key milestones achieved, and so on. Of course, all of this can be via newsletters but they tend to be too long and therefore take a lot of time to create – sometimes causing a number of newsworthy items to be bunched together in a single mail. Think of microns as sending WhatsApp or Slack messages – we do it so easily. (A daily micron which takes 15 minutes to create leaves no reason to postpone such information to be shared only once a week or month. The idea then becomes to share information in almost real-time or at least with no more than 24-hour lag – rather than waiting for the end of the week or end of the month.) In a future hybrid workplace where in-person interactions of all the team members will be rare, microns can become the equivalent of the pantry or water-cooler – for sharing but in a controlled manner so one is overwhelmed with the inflow.
- The daily micron can also have an interactive component like a quiz or survey. A quiz can help the HR department get insights into what employees know about the company. A survey can help gauge mood. Because these interactions take 10-15 seconds only, they are more likely to get acted on than long multi-question surveys which become chores and are therefore ignored until repeatedly reminded.
- Microns can also be used to reinforce company or team targets through the year. Everyone starts the year with big goals (like New Year Resolutions) but the routine soon takes over and the big objectives are forgotten – and therefore may end up not getting done. A short reminder every so often can help keep everyone on track and aligned.
- Microns can be used to educate new hires about the company history. While most companies have induction programmes, they tend to cram in a lot in a few hours or days. Instead, microcontent sent daily can help build the story in a manner that is more likely to be remembered. (An equivalent idea can be used for new customer onboarding.)
- The same idea can be used for pre-joining: employees who have accepted the offer but not yet joined as they have to serve their notice period at the previous company. The HR department of the company that has just hired them is always worried whether they will join or not. In this period, daily microns about the company they are joining can create a bond with the employee telling stories about the company’s history, its culture and its vision for the future.
There can be many more such ideas. The simple point is this: microns can have widespread usage because of their simplicity and brevity. They take 15 minutes to create and 15 seconds to consume. They come right into the inbox – which we all check many times during a day. When we think of emails, we think long, boring, never-ending newsletters, with lots of scrolling. When we think of microns, we should think short, exciting, fun, interactive content, available on a single mobile screen (no scrolling required). This is what will take the 15% open rate of emails to 100%. Whether for customers or employees, microns can help brands and businesses open a richer world of greater engagement and interaction. Welcome to the micron-verse and the 100% opens movement!