Inbox Marketing and Content Targeting

Author: Luc Malcorps

Emakina’s partner Selligent invited Emakina’s digital strategist Michel Demoor to share his views on Inbox Marketing and Content Targeting, for their latest white paper. His article here below makes for some refreshing reading…  And if you’re interested to read even more, we invite you to download the full Selligent white paper on Direct Marketing.


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Pauline, 8.30 Tuesday morning

Pauline has a spring in her step as she leaves the meeting room. Being a courteous and efficient sort of person, she now switches off the flight mode of her smartphone. As she walks along the corridor, her phone goes into overdrive. She gets a text message from Proximus to say she has three missed calls, including a new voice-mail message. Pauline decides to listen to it when she’s in the car.

As soon as the 3G network is activated, Pauline opens her notifications. She notices right away that she has six unopened emails, that her latest tweet has been retweeted by two followers and that some friends have started a discussion group on Facebook about plans for a weekend in the countryside. Her son has sent her a text message via Whatsapp, and Pinterest has just made an update available of her favorite Android app.

Pauline has learned how she should set priorities. She logs onto her email application and scans the senders. She is expecting word of a decision from the board of directors of her company and a reply to an offer to a pros- pective client, but she’s received neither.

At the reception desk she picks up her mail, a medium- sized parcel from Coolblue and a colorful A4 envelope for the announcement of the 26th Vlerick Alumni Marketing Colloquium.

In the car she hears that the new client wants to work with her. She calls back right away to say she’s got the message and to discuss the next stage. All in all, a good start to the day.



The example above outlines how in the space of just a few minutes the young upwardly mobile mother Pauline gets various messages through no fewer than nine different communication channels, not to mention the morning meeting and the small talk with the receptionist.


On her smartphone she receives (1) a text message from Proximus, (2) a WhatsApp text from her son, (3) a voicemail from her prospective customer, (4) six new emails, (5) a social update from her followers on Twitter and (6) from friends on Facebook, plus (7) a software update from Pinterest. For simplicity’s sake, all this is combined into (8) “notifications”. Eventually she receives via (9) the traditional postal service an e-commerce delivery and a print mail with a commercial message.


For many the example may seem a slightly exaggerated accumulation of events, while for others it is the daily reality, the new normal. And for those who are already using their smartphone, this inflow of information is certainly not unusual.


Below you can see how Android now integrates all the messages from different channels in the “notifications” app (installed by default). In this way the user can scan all the incoming info at a glance. It should be pointed out that integration in one contact profile on different platforms still has a long way to go (i.e. the same person, different profile photographs).



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New marketing challenges

In the near future, this type of multichannel scenario will be the rule rather than the exception.

We should not expect to see a time when conventional mail will be replaced by email. But don’t get me wrong: conventional paper mail and email both have a guaranteed future, although as yet unknown systems may emerge. We certainly don’t expect to see a linear transition from one medium to the next big thing, but a genuine combination of channels.


As marketers, we must be ready for the synchronization of all sorts of media and message types: fast and slow, long and short, simple and complex, textual and visual, informative and action-oriented, generic and personal, etc. And above all, we should expect to see a healthy mix of all this applied to the context, the needs of the cus- tomer and the company’s marketing objectives. We will discuss this under “inbox marketing”.


“We certainly don’t expect to see a linear transition from one medium to the next big thing, but a genuine combination of channels.”


Since customers and prospective customers come in contact with a brand or company via different channels, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to surprise the addressee with content. It’s becoming a real challenge to keep the interaction going on all the channels. Of course, what we don’t want to do is give the same user the same information several times through different channels!


Therefore, in addition to channel integration we need to see genuine “content targeting” coupled with user tracking. We will also discuss this point in more detail.


Inbox marketing

In principle, this trend boils down to a deepening and diversification of the term “inbox”. Whereas in the past the consumer had one or two inboxes, he now has many more (notifications on his smartphone, his social inbox, the email inbox for his job, his personal mail and email, etc.).


“Digital marketers should have the courage to present themselves as experts in the total channel mix; they can- not continue to be one-trick ponies.”


We must take the decision to let go of terms such as email expert, direct mail expertise, etc. and replace them with a sort of general expertise that brings together all types of communication. Marketing requires an approach where- by the customer comes first rather than focusing on the communication channels. And the inbox has now become the meeting point of our messages and strategies with the end customer. So this is a perfect place to start making our case.


The good news for the (direct) marketers among us is that the philosophy, the experience and the benchmarks of traditional channels can be applied to the emerging channels and to a combination of them. Digital marketers should have the courage to present themselves as experts in the total channel mix; they cannot continue to be one- trick ponies.


The medium is the message? Bullshit.

An old marketing adage says: “the medium is the message”. If we want to be consistent with our customer-centric philosophy, the main task is to allow the customer (and therefore the measured performance) to decide which channels he wants to use. Forcing the issue by sending a message through the company’s preferred channels is really a no-no! And we should definitely not expect the medium to be the message.


In this regard, we would advise against sudden use of the most innovative channels without good reason. On the contrary, the most practical and innovative approach is a mix of old (familiar) and new (not so familiar) channels. In this way, existing routines will be enriched with new opportunities. This is often more surprising than simply introducing a new stand-alone (and sometimes even unmanned) channel.


Content is king. Distribution is queen.

Recent studies reveal that content marketing remains a hot topic (especially in B2B). In fact, 45% of the B2B operators surveyed intend to increase their budgets for this in the next 12 months.


“We’re already bewildered by the dizzying array of social media channels on which B2B companies now distribute content.”


An additional challenge for marketers is the need to ensure correct distribution of this content on the different chan- nels. We’re already bewildered by the dizzying array of social media channels on which B2B companies now dis- tribute content (see the figure below).




Content targeting

A typical example is spreading a blog post via the website (I mean the blog), Twitter, LinkedIn and a company newsletter. Today companies circulate a totally identical link to an article simultaneously to their entire network of fans, prospects, customers and newsletter subscribers.


We can ask ourselves whether companies realize that there may be duplicates in all this. As a result, these people (who want to follow different channels) are being more or less stalked with the same news. So they may sometimes be tempted to decide to opt out (perhaps permanently). The consequences could be disastrous: the investment in the opt-in is lost, and the company is denied any future communication via this channel and runs the risk of damaging its image by coming across as intrusive and chaotic.



Just as a great future is in store for the cross-channel marketer, the (software) solutions that meet these requirements will be more and more successful. We will briefly discuss below a number of trends affecting the work of direct marketers.



Gmail recently carried out a classification of emails. In the past, there were already “tags” or folders for users who wanted to do this themselves. Gmail is now vigorously promoting the main email classifications and is pushing for their acceptance.

“The consequences of this are enormous. The consumer first gets one-to-one emails, and this is probably a good thing.”


These are the three main classifications:


1. Social emails: emails and updates from social networks, etc.

2. Promotions: bargains, special offers and other marketing emails

3. Primary emails: emails from persons and everything that doesn’t fit in the above categories


The consequences of this are enormous. The consumer first gets one-to-one emails, and this is (probably) a good thing.


However, this presents the marketer with another challenge. On the one hand, marketing emails have less visibility as a whole, because they’re concealed behind the “promotions” tab. In this day and age – given the growing phenomenon of banner fatigue – this isn’t what I would refer to as an appealing call to action, is it?
On the other hand, behind the “promotions” tab it’s becoming even more difficult to differentiate between all the different types of promotional material, because everybody use the same techniques, keywords, etc.


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Recent figures give us some idea of the impact.

Since the “tabbed inbox” was introduced on 29 May 2013, the number of Gmails that get opened has fallen by 7.75%2. Further investigation into the cause of this decline in the Gmail OpenRate (OR) reveals that no direct link can be made with the classifications.

On the one hand, this is because there are many different elements involved and because the Gmail OR has always been volatile, e.g. the seasonal OR, parallel updates and innovations, etc.

On the other hand, because in more than half of the cases the tabbed inbox isn’t supported by the interface, this can’t be having any effect, e.g. if you read your Gmail via iPhone Mail (see figure 3).


Integrated email clients

In 2014, we expect to see the emergence of more email clients who endeavor to integrate different channels into one single inbox.


A few examples are well worth imitating or trying:

  • http://rapportive.com/ enriches the profile data from contacts in Gmail with social data from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype, etc.
  • http://www.uniboxapp.com/ enriches emails with personal data from all kinds of social media
  • http://www.mailboxapp.com/ makes emails easier to read by putting them quickly in the right place and according to priority (from emails to to-do-lists)




Google’s social network, Google Plus, is now adding fun user experiences and interesting functionalities.

(Tip: be sure to check out the “photo cloud”, which automatically makes gif animations of photographs that were taken in quick succession.)


“Google+ might make Gmail an all-inclusive inbox.”



While the media spotlight is on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Google+, which is (for the moment) a relatively minor social media player, bravely carries on.


Google+ might succeed in making Gmail an all-inclusive inbox, incorporating (classified) emails, chat and social media. And with Google’s Android, which is rapidly spreading through Samsung’s global market dominance, text messages and notifications (e.g. updates of mobile apps, Calendar, etc.) will also be added, not to mention the link that can be made with our search and browsing history.

When was the last time you clicked on the notification icon (the bell) in Gmail?


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Summing up, we see that our expertise lies in enriching customer relations using all the channels and in strengthening the underlying database model.


We must have the courage to evolve from “channel marketing” and the correspondingly narrow areas of expertise to the broader field of “inbox marketing”, which is the point of contact between the brand and the end customer, at least in direct marketing.


An additional challenge we face is the need to anticipate the dissemination of content, i.e. “content targeting”. Through rigorous and automated user tracking, we can ensure that our customer or prospective customer sees certain messages but doesn’t see other messages so often.


About the author

Michel @m00rke Demoor is a digital strategist and strategic lead within the Emakina/Direct excellence center. His role at Emakina gives him tremendous insight into the world of digital innovation, and as president of the Vlerick Marketing Alumni he has his finger firmly on the pulse of marketing trends.


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