While I was at O’Hare Airport the other week, attempting to work from my phone, looking to resurrect an email from 2014, I was starting to get frustrated with the lack of what I consider ‘basic’ email features within the native iPhone Mail app. It made me think about what other options are available, how email apps are evolving, and how might that affect mobile engagement.
Before we dig into what else is available and what the future holds for mobile email apps, let’s assess the current landscape and see what most mobile consumers are using today to engage with email.
For a native application, Apple's Mail app really doesn't offer much, in comparison to what else is available through the Apple Store. All you get here is email, with no extra features. Unlike 3rd party apps that are updated nearly every week, Apple updates the native Mail App at a snail pace, so don’t expect this updated anytime soon. However, the app’s simplicity and performance likely beat out any other email apps for iPhone.
Google's Gmail comes as the default email option on most Android devices and is very well-equipped for a native app. It can support multiple accounts, while also offering handy tools for organizing emails. Gmail Tabs can sort social notifications and promotions and allows users to fully manage their experience by setting up rules for tagging incoming mail by sender and automatically pushing them into a designated folder. In addition to Gmail, the app also supports a variety of IMAP and POP email accounts as well as Exchange.
Microsoft's email app for iOS and Android is packed with perks for users, especially if you already use Outlook to manage your work inbox. Outlook is fully integrated with the desktop Outlook/Exchange calendar, so you can send and accept meeting invitations via email and receive alerts when it's time to meet. You can also access your full calendar right from the app to review appointments and schedule new ones. The app includes a feature called Focused Inbox; it essentially divides your inbox into tabs – Focused and Other. The app does a great job of detecting which emails are most important, but it does not take complete control over this task. If an important email ends up in the Other tab, you can easily move it to the Focused Inbox.
While Google continues to tweak the functionality of its core Gmail app, it's also begun experimenting with another email app by the Gmail team called Inbox.
Inbox is Google's attempt at a smarter email system with a "bundles" framework that automatically groups related messages such as purchases and travel details together into convenient tabs. This framework also offers a "highlights" view that brings up important details in a message thread (such as photos, order updates, etc.) without needing to open that message. Other additions include a “swipe to snooze” function, as well as the ability to add reminders and pin messages to the top of your inbox.
Boxer is a gesture-powered email app that allows you to quickly sort, archive or reply to your emails. Swipes throw your mail into archives, trash or spam, while a tap menu provides more options, such as adding stars, labels, marking as read, or saving an email to Evernote. Other cool features include the ability to create canned responses and integrate with your Calendar and contacts.
As I was reading reviews, blogs and company websites to research these apps, I realized that all of them shared a common theme – efficiency. Each and every available email app has the ability to delete, label, move, highlight, or open messages by either swiping left/right or simply touching and holding. It seems that the days of including additional icons and functionalities are a thing of the past. For example, with some of the capabilities of newer generation phones, you don’t even need to ‘open’ a message. You can simply preview it by holding your thumb down. It’s only a matter of time until these apps rely exclusively on swipes and gestures to get their users engaged with email.
Another increasingly available feature in a variety of email apps is the capability to differentiate and filter between types of messages. Gmail first introduced this functionality with the release of Gmail Tabs in 2013. Since then the concept has gotten interest from other major ISPs with Microsoft Outlook releasing the Focused Inbox feature just this past year. I suspect more apps will release a similar feature in upcoming versions.
We’re all aware, that year after year mobile email engagement continues to outperform desktop engagement. By now, marketers should be well-informed of the evolution of email apps. Advanced filtering technology, in particular, could affect open rates if it becomes more of a standard feature for all email apps. So marketers need to adjust the way they engage with their audience and develop content for audience segments with high mobile email usage. Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to avoid or bypass advanced filtering systems, such as Outlook’s Focused Inbox or Gmail’s Tabs. However, by providing more personalized content and thus maintaining a more engaged audience, marketers will have a better chance of reaching their mobile subscribers.
Something to keep in mind is that, when it comes to new email app features, consumers’ personal preference will define their success. It’s possible that this type of filtering options will not agree with users and that they would revert to what they know or prefer. Regardless of whether they adopt new email app features or shun them, it's essential to research your audience, understand how often they open and interact with your messages, and whether they prefer mobile or the traditional desktop devices.
Having this information may be essential to understanding a possible decline in open rates, or rethinking your engagement strategies for the increasingly mobile audience.