Google scores a win with ‘Priority Inbox’

I’m elbow-deep in editing for  annual Essential Guide to E-mail Marketing, and one of the big topics for consumers and marketers alike remains volume and relevancy. We’re all overwhelmed by the amount of e-mail we receive at work and home and have been since the world caught on to the ease of digital mail, yet we still want to be clued in to our favorite store discounts by way of e-mail or not miss that e-mail from Mom.

There’s no doubt that Outlook’s “rules” and various sorting and search options have helped many of us organize at work, such as making all e-mails from your boss come in the color red or sorting by other priorities. Now Gmail is offering a new mail-sorting feature in an automated fashion for our home and small business e-mails with the introduction of its Priority Inbox.

I tried out Priority Inbox last week, and I have to say that I’m hooked. It allows you to filter your e-mail into specific categories, including “Important and Unread,” “Starred” and “Everything Else.” You can also set up custom filters and add custom tabs. For example, my Gmail inbox now looks like this (in descending order): Important, Starred, Unread, Everything Else. Google says it uses several criteria to determine what should go in each of these boxes, including how often you read and respond to e-mails from the sender. On first try, it did a good job of sorting my inbox into priorities, including moving messages from family members to the top of the heap and relegating marketer messages from the newsletters that I have opted into to the “Everything Else” category. I still want to read these newsletters but I might want to respond to a note from my sister today, while digesting Flavorpill’s list of things to do in the city this weekend a bit later.

(Yahoo and Hotmail both offer some sorting mechanisms, and Hotmail is reportedly implementing similar behavior-based sorting functions.)

Perhaps learning from past mistakes, Google has made the Priority Inbox an “opt-in” and it’s very easy to switch back and forth between seeing your regular inbox and the Priority Inbox. As far as I can tell from my test, the Priority Inbox did not apply to reading Gmail through iPhone. Considering that I read a good chunk of e-mail by mobile, I’d like to see the features rolled over there as well.

Will this hurt click-through rates for marketers whose e-mails now fall further down in the inbox? Perhaps, but if it makes e-mail more manageable for the customer, I think the marketing industry should embrace it as well. It also falls in line with the marketer’s constant refrain of relevancy and personalization. If I can customize my e-mail reading experience, I’m likely a much happier customer, and I might even prioritize specific marketer messages over others if they are of great interest.

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