What’s Inside Consumers’ Inboxes & What That Means For Email Marketing

There’s been a lot of talk about email fatigue lately, but is this fear overblown? Columnist Tom Sather thinks so, and he has the data to prove it.


Ray Tomlinson sent the very first email in 1971 with a simple test message that said, “QWERTYUIOP.”

Email has gone through many transformations since then, from a tool for researchers to communicate to a cheap and fast way for friends and family to correspond.

Today, email is still used to send messages to friends and family, but it has evolved into a primary marketing channel. However, are marketers investing enough in optimizing their email marketing programs?

To profile consumer email usage and engagement during the last three months of 2014, Return Path analyzed the anonymous, aggregated mailbox interactions of a representative sample of 2 million subscribers that received 3.8 billion email messages between October 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014.

Looking at the average consumer’s inbox last quarter, nearly 54% of messages received were promotional in nature and 28% were transactional (emails such as receipts and confirmations). Only 18% of messages received were of a personal nature.

Clearly, the inbox of today has shifted away from a personal communications device – thanks to things like social networks and text messages – and is now the preferred way for consumers to receive promotional email.

What Types of Messages We Receive

Out of the personal messages received, 48.9% were direct messages and 51% were replies. A mere .1% of messages received were forwarded emails from personal contacts.

Personal Emails

Receipts, Statements & Memory Lapses

Ten percent (10%) of all transactional messages were “Welcome” messages notifying users of their email subscription. Thirty-five percent (35%) were simple alert notifications, and 30% were receipts. 5% of transactional emails were password reset notifications, and 3% were statements like bills and and bank statements.

The data suggest that we consumers still love signing up for email lists, purchasing things online, and forgetting our passwords.

Types of Transactional Messages

Email Overload? Not Quite

A near majority (46%) of email users receive fewer than 5 promotional emails per day, and a quarter of people receive between 6 and 10 emails. Only 14% received more 20 messages a day. Despite the calls from media of the avalanche of emails users receive, it seems that the average user has their inbox under control and isn’t being abused by email marketers. This is, if anything, good news for businesses.

Those marketers buying into the hype of inboxes busting at the seams and ignoring investing more in email marketing are making a mistake.

How Many Messages Consumers Receive

In fact, most of the non-personal emails we receive today are social network notifications, comprising 56% of total messages received in the inbox. However, these social network notifications are the least read (6% read rate) of the non-personal categories.

Emails in the shopping category were the second largest group of emails being delivered to the inbox but has one of the higher read rates of all categories, with 20% of all messages being read that were delivered to the inbox. Only Finance (31%), Business (23%), and Entertainment (21%) emails were read more, although combined inbox delivery of these three categories only represented less than 4% of total emails seen in the inbox.

For social networking emails, this observation means it’s likely difficult to attribute email to objectives like driving traffic and usage. Social network email notifications typically have the call-to-action in the subject line, like friend requests, social tagging, and the like. It’s not hard to fathom that people view the subject line and hop on over to the social network without ever opening or clicking on links in the email. Hold out tests or comparing volume of emails sent to website traffic may be necessary to prove the value of email in these cases.

The fact that a quarter of all emails received in the inbox are shopping or promotional emails, which are read at a 20% rate, shows that people do actually enjoy receiving these types of emails. Past surveys have shown that consumers prefer email for promotional notifications far more than any other channel, and gauging how much promotional emails are in our inboxes and read, this is still the case.
Whats delivered to inboxes and read

Invest More In Email

According to a recent survey from Salesforce Marketing Cloud, 59% of marketing departments plan to invest more in email marketing in 2015. However, marketing departments were also found to increase their budgets by 70% for social media marketing and advertising. The increase in social marketing spend isn’t surprising, and is still likely much smaller than the total investment in email marketing. Would it be better to allocate this spend in email marketing instead?

A recent report by Forrester found that US adults were twice as likely to sign up for emails to stay in touch with a brand than to interact with that brand on Facebook. The same report also mentions that brands’ Facebook posts are delivered, or seen, only 2% of the time. Compare that to the recent inbox placement benchmarks of 87% for US marketers — even marketers with poor deliverability have a much higher reach than social posts.

The advantage of email, too, is that it is permanent (unlike social feeds which come and go) and will be seen whenever a user checks their inbox. As Forrester says, “If you have to choose between adding a subscriber to your email list or gaining a new Facebook fan, go for email every time.” And I couldn’t agree more.

About The Author

Tom Sather is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter.

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