‘Tis the season when emails are competing for your attention in the inbox and brands become hyper aware of what their competitors are sending.

All brands sign up for their competition’s emails, but with retailers becoming more sophisticated with their email marketing programs, are you really seeing everything? And even if you are, so what? Just because the competition did something, doesn’t mean you should, too. The good news is that help is on the way. Inbox Insight, a new product released this fall by Return Path, is bringing competitive tracking to an entirely new level.

At DEG we are always hungry for innovative technologies that make our clients more successful, so I was excited to kick the tires on this new product.


How it Works

About a year ago Return Path, a software company offering services to increase email deliverability, acquired OtherInbox, and then just a few months ago also acquired Context.IO. For those who aren’t already users, OtherInbox is a plugin that integrates with a subscriber’s Gmail, Yahoo or AOL account, providing a way to help organize their ever-full inbox. Context.IO, on the other hand, is an API service that grants senders access to details about a subscriber’s inbox – including contacts, files, messages and threads, which can then be presented in alternate interfaces (think intranet or CRM) or again organized in a different manner that is more relevant to the end users. When leveraging either of these services, end users are agreeing to share data about their email interactions as a subscriber with Return Path, so through these key acquisitions Return Path has gained access to key subscriber data, and with it an unprecedented level of intelligence about what’s landing in inboxes around the world.


About the Data

With its access to this detailed level of subscriber data within an ISP email interface, Return Path knows more than ever about subscriber behavior. Accuracy of the reporting depends on the quality of the data, so the first question I had was “how many subscribers does this include?” There are more than 2 million subscribers in the panel (panelists), which is significant enough considering other competitive intelligence leaders in the digital space like Compete and ComScore have set an industry precedent with panels of similar size. It is also important to note that this is much larger than the data population used by any other competitive intelligence tool in the email space.

The next question I had was about the demographic representation of the data. You want the data to be an accurate representation of your (and your competitors’) email subscribers, not skewed towards one gender, age, income status, etc. It is also important to know how the panel’s growth occurs over time, to remain an accurate representation of subscribers. For example, if the growth is viral, meaning a user of an Inbox plugin needs to send invitations to all of his or her friends in order to use the tool, the resulting data set will become skewed towards a certain type of demographic.

Return Path has performed a complete demographic analysis of the panelists via a third party and found that the resulting data is a comparable breakdown to the US Online Consumer population in regards to age, family status, spending habits, etc. The OtherInbox growth comes from direct opt-in participation with various ISPs.


You’re Missing Most Emails

Why would you use Inbox Insight? Most retailers sign up to receive their competition’s emails to monitor what they are sending. But with the advances in email sophistication, a retailer simply isn’t going to receive every version of every one of its competitors’ emails just by signing up directly; you can’t be on every segment. For example, clicking on emails your competition sends you indicates that you are engaged, but if you haven’t made a purchase you could land in a segment with messaging targeting you for a first-time purchase. If you don’t open and click emails you could land in an unengaged segment, meaning that smart senders will target you with a win-back campaign or, worse, fewer sends. But by using Inbox Insight you can easily see all of the emails another brand is sending.


New Engagement Metrics

Inbox Insight also offers new engagement metrics not offered through ESPs. Two of these include read rate and deleted unread. As the industry has matured, marketers have relied on standard email metrics, including stalwarts like delivered, open rate, click-through rate, and unsubscribed rate. These metrics are inherently flawed. For instance, opens are only recorded if images are downloaded, meaning your click-through rate could include subscribers your open rate does not. I won’t dive deep into the issues with these metrics here, but what is important to understand is that metrics that ISPs (Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, etc.) are able to report on are very different than those that ESPs (ExactTarget, Responsys, Cheetahmail, etc.) have available in that they give more robust insights regarding the behavior or the recipient. Inbox Insight garners this kind of valuable data directly from the ISPs via its plugin tool.

Read rate (ISP data) is more accurate than open rate (ESP data). Senders can understand that the email they created was digested after a user clicks on the email and the status in the inbox changes from unread to read. This is a significant difference from simply being opened. Deleted unread (ISP data) indicates a subscriber took action to delete the email without reading/opening it, an important distinction for senders because they can know that the subscriber saw the email and explicitly chose NOT to read it, compared with not knowing if it was even seen at all. Finally, Inbox Insight also reports a metric for ISP spam, which specifically indicates if the email was sent directly to the spam folder by the ISP (a common practice, and a situation that is wholesale different than having an unengaged subscriber). This metric is also available through other Return Path deliverability tools, but it’s nice to have joined with these other new insightful email engagement metrics.


List Size Benchmarking

Finally, Inbox Insight indicates how many subscribers each email campaign reached. Want to know how many subscribers your competition has? Now you know. Want to know what kind of segmentation strategies your competition is using? It’s a little easier to decipher now.


Why It’s Important

Inbox Insight enables you to tag the emails with a keyword of your choice, allowing you to organize this volume of email. For example, you could tag your competitor’s transactional emails, monthly newsletters, campaigns to credit card holders, etc., and get a better feel for their campaign structure and cadence, not to mention experiment with how they react to the actions you take.

Further, the search feature makes it easy to seek out emails sent during a specific time period. Want to see what your competitor sent for Black Friday and Cyber Monday last year? Now you can. It becomes easy to (surprisingly) see how retailers repeat promotions during the same timeframe year-over-year, and by seeing what they switch out on these repeats, you can get a feel for where their areas of emphasis might be. Those kinds of insights can help you to anticipate your competition’s next campaign, offer, and frequency – and to put strategies in place in your own organization to out maneuver them.


Key Insights

Even if you don’t have issues tracking your competitor’s emails you can learn a lot about your email program and how it stacks up to your competition with the new engagement metrics available via the ISPs. In addition to delivering the engagement metrics, Inbox Insight provides a green/yellow/red light status indication of how this metric compares against the average.

With all of your extra time and new engagement metrics, you can now make decisions based on the data:

  • Identify gaps in sending (day of week, time of day)
  • Identify segments your competition is, or is not, marketing to and easily see their level of engagement
  • See if your competition did an A/B test and what the results were
  • Identify if a subject line, promotion, or new creative for a brand performed well or not
  • More easily identify ways to stand out in the inbox and look different from the competition
  • Understand how your list size compares to your competition
  • Benchmark your engagement metrics compared to your competition
  • When management suggest mimicking the competition, possess the data to know if it is or isn’t a good idea

Remember the Context

Context is important to program evaluation. While Inbox Insight is providing a green/yellow/red light status of the brand’s engagement metrics, it is all relative. Just as 50 degrees seems cold after it has been 90 for weeks on end, an email program’s engagement metrics are affected by what has or has not happened recently. Perhaps a brand’s engagement metrics were much higher a year ago than now because the unengaged subscriber population has grown over time. Perhaps a brand unwisely bought a list and their engagement metrics dropped suddenly. Maybe their subscriber reach was recently lowered because they removed a group of unengaged subscribers. And even though a metric may be reported by Inbox Insight as “yellow” it could be a much improved metric for the brand compared to historical data. The point is, these metrics provide a new dimension for evaluating email campaigns and programs, however, it is all relative to what is happening within and immediately around that program, which you will still not be privy to.

Also, just because the competition is doing it doesn’t mean you should. Your subscribers may or may not be signed up for these other email programs. But having these new insights can shed light on whether you should seriously consider any of their marketing tactics for your own program.


What’s the Verdict?

If you send a large volume of email and track several large competitors, this tool is worth the investment in time savings. The additional insights from new engagement metrics are also very valuable, by either allowing you to identify opportunities for improvements in your email program, or data to promote your email program’s success within your organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


  • Cindy


    9 years
    Interesting stuff! One (naïve?) question - why would an end user be motivated to share their email interaction info?
  • 9 years
    Users signing up for OtherInbox are doing so to help organize their email. I also tried this tool while reviewing Inbox Insight. OtherInbox categorizes your emails automatically as they arrive in your inbox and tags them. For example, retailer emails are automatically tagged as Shopping, emails from Facebook and Twitter are automatically tagged as Social, etc. To answer your question, subscribers are signing up as a benefit to help organize their inbox, rather than specifically signing up to share this information, which is a side effect in this case. Also, as a user of the Inbox Insight tool you see aggregate data, not subscriber-specific data.