Email Is a Platform

Annemarie Dooling
Apr 20, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Susan Murtaugh https://flic.kr/p/b8uoW4

For many people, inboxes have become a life organizer. They no longer contain simple business communications, but also long form articles to read later, notes to ourselves, to-do alerts, photo forwards from friends and family, and more. Email as a product has remained largely the same, but our use cases now include everything from interactive calendars to moving images. Yet, with all the flexibility and intimacy the inbox offers, it’s easy for those of us working in media and product to fall into the trap of thinking of email solely as the text within newsletters.

Thinking holistically about device or reader lifestyle is especially important right now, as email becomes a communication method for so many people dealing with changes in their work and life habits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Our Gmail contacts are loaded into other apps, our mobile drafts become notes to ourselves while we are on-the-go, and alerts with important information become screenshots that wind up in text messages and on Twitter. With so many things competing for people’s time and attention, alerts and transactional emails that deliver headlines and brief but important information are going to be more useful than ever in crowded inboxes.

At the Journal, we’ve shifted our thinking to consider the inbox as a platform just like Apple News, Facebook or Instagram. Writing and developing for email is a specialty, just like designing a great email template. And, emails don’t automatically appear in the inbox after sending — as with other platforms, numerous factors influence what is seen. In email, everything from sender address, to volume, to past reputation can impact whether or not someone receives your email and where it lands in the inbox.

Here are some best practices we consider:

A sender’s reputation is affected by a number of things, including their spam score and whether or not subscribers interact with your emails. With a high number of readers ignoring sends, or hitting the spam button, senders run the risk of ending up in the spam folder or being completely blacklisted.

It’s a good idea to understand DKIM and DMARC (related to email authentication) and to take a look at the reputation of your IP address, which indicates where your emails are coming from. If you find that you need to improve your reputation as a sender, a good first step is a list cleaning. Work with your list management team to segment out your list into activity groups based on how often they engage with your sends. Then eliminate sending to readers who have been dormant for a few months (the industry standard is between 3 and 9 months, depending on the volume and type of email you manage). If your list has a high number of inactive accounts, removing those from the list will enhance your reputation by signalling that everyone who receives your email wants it. This not only removes readers who don’t want to be on your list, but is also a way to gain a better understanding of how your audience engages with your email. If you think those dormant subscriber lists are worth saving, you can also perform reengagement campaigns. And of course, you should also be looking at subject line and content testing regularly.

Simply opening an email is not enough to indicate that a reader is interested in what you have to say. If we consider the email open to be akin to a unique visit to a web page, then focusing on opportunities to dive further into discussion with the reader is a good way to create habit and loyalty (i.e. return visits). Here’s a recent example from WSJ’s 10-point newsletter:

Prompts suggesting that readers share pieces of your email and modules that encourage them to add to the discussion, or participate in an interactive element are all great ways to create momentum around your work.

How long your email lives in their inbox is up to you: Is the email useful beyond the first glance or the first read? Does it contain information or an action that a reader would like to save for the future? Will they want to engage with it again? Are they saving, sharing or downloading any element you’ve provided? As an added bonus, many email service providers consider deep engagement to be a direct indication that your email is worthy of a high placement in the inbox.

It’s true that email hasn’t changed much from its creation, but the way we consume it has. Desktop email doesn’t seem to be going anywhere just yet, but a lot of emails are read on multiple devices or on mobile only. At The Wall Street Journal, our readers have multiple devices, and we think a lot about when and how people read email. We ask ourselves questions like: does our email work for someone who is on a wifi-less commute, or waiting in a long line? Does it read well on smaller devices, or is it built for a large screen?

This changes how we design our emails. For instance, too many links may not work for someone who is looking for a quick update while they are moving around, and flashy graphics may not translate to a smaller viewing space in a smart phone inbox. Indeed, according to a 2016 Adestra survey, “emails that display incorrectly on mobile may be deleted within three seconds.”

By considering the totality of the uses of an inbox, we’re working to become a part of readers’ daily schedules and habits. Our goal is for our readers to see our content as a utility that helps them in their day-to-day. There are a number of ways to approach this. One method we’ve used is to investigate what other apps our readers use on a daily basis. For instance, we help readers use their calendars by placing a reminder to our calendar product within emails. Conversely, we promote our newsletters in those calendar products.

We’ve also developed a PDF of the paper sent via email to combat any situation where a print paper may not be delivered, but the feel and tone of print curation is necessary. It’s purely transactional, but fills a great need, and the reader response has been tremendous. Here’s a snapshot of this simple product:

If there is one point to take away from this, it is that you should think beyond the first read. The medium of email is as flexible as the people who use it and the devices they use it on. There is no reason to stick to a basic open and click-rate approach to figuring out how to best serve the people on the receiving end.

WSJ Digital Experience & Strategy

WSJ Digital Experience & Strategy

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