Aug 17 2010

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Last week, my colleague George Bilbrey posted about how (turns out – shocking!) email still isn’t dead yet.

Not only is he right, but the whole premise of defending email from the attackers who call it “legacy” or “uninteresting” is backwards.  The inbox is getting more and more interesting these days, not less.  At Return Path, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of startup activitiy and investment (these two things can go together but don’t have to) in in front end of email in the past couple years.  I’d point to three sub-trends of this theme of “the inbox getting more interesting.”

First, major ISPs and mailbox operators are starting to experiment with more interesting applications inside their inboxes.  As the postmaster of one of the major ISPs said to me recently, “we’ve spent years stripping functionality out of email in the name of security – now that we have security more under control, we would like to start adding functionality back in.”  Google’s recent announcement about allowing third-party developers to access your email with your permission is one example, as is their well-documented experiment with NetFlix’s branded favicon showing up in the inbox starting a few months back.  And Hotmail’s most recent release, which has been well covered online (including this article which George wrote in Mediapost a couple months ago) also includes some trials of web-like functionality in the inbox, as well as other easy ways for users to view and experience their inboxes other than the age-old “last message in on top” method.  Yahoo has done a couple things along these lines as well of late, and one can assume they have other things in the works as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many ISPs roll out a variety of enhanced functionality over the next couple of years, although these systems can take a lot of time to change.  Although some of these changes present challenges for marketers and publishers, these are generally major plusses for end users as well as the companies who send them email – email is probably the only Internet application people spend tons of time in that’s missing most state of the art web functionality.

Second, although Google Wave got a lot of publicity about reinventing the inbox experience before Google shut it down a couple weeks ago, there are probably a dozen startups that are working on richer inboxes as well, either through plug-ins or what I’d call a “web email client overlay” – you can still use your Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, or other address (your own domain, or a POP or IMAP account), but read the mail through one of these new clients.  Regardless of the technology, these companies are all trying, with different angles here or there, to make the inbox experience more interesting, relevant, productive, and in many cases, tied into your “social graph” and/or third-party web content.

The two big ones here in terms of active user base are Xobni, an Outlook plugin that matches social graph to inbox and produces a lot of interesting stats for its users; and Xoopit, which recently got acquired by Yahoo and wraps content indexing and discovery into its mail client.

Gist matches social graph data and third-party content like feeds and blogs into something that’s a hybrid of plugin and stand-alone web application.  That sounds a little like Threadsy, although that’s still in closed beta, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going to surface out of it.  There’s also Zenbe and Kwaga, and Xiant, which focus on creating a more productive inbox experience for power users.

Furthermore, services like OtherInbox and Boxbe aim to help users cut through the clutter of their inboxes and simultaneously create a more effective means for marketers to reach customers (say what you will about that concept, but at least it has a clear revenue model, which some of the other services listed above don’t have).

Finally, a number of services are popping up which give marketers and publishers easy-to-use advanced tools to improve their conversion or add other enhanced functionality to email.  For example, RPost, a company we announced a partnership with a couple months back, provides legal proof of delivery for email with some cool underlying technology.  LiveClicker (also a Return Path partner) provides hosted analytics-enabled email video in lightweight and easy-to-use ways that work in the majority of inboxes.

Sympact (another Return Path partner) dynamically renders content in an email based on factors like time of day and geolocation – so the same email, in the same inbox, will render, for example, Friday’s showtimes for New York when I open it in my office on Friday afternoon but Saturday’s showtimes for San Francisco after I fly out west for the weekend.  And a Belgian company called 8Seconds (you guessed it, another Return Path partner) does on-the-fly multivariate testing of email content in a way that blows away traditional A/B methods.  While these tools require some basic things to be in place to work optimally, like having images on by default or links working, they don’t by and large require special deals with ISPs to make the services function.

While these tools are aimed at marketers, they will also make end users’ email experiences much better by improving relevance or by adding value in other ways.

Some of this makes me wonder whether there’s a trend that will lead to disaggregation of the value chain in consumer email – splitting the front end (what consumers see) from the back end (who runs the mail server).  But that’s probably another topic for another day.  In the meantime, I’ll say three cheers for innovation in the email space.  It’s long overdue and will greatly enrich the environment in the coming years as these services gain adoption.