More Than Just Read and Write | Emailing in the Near Future

A couple of months ago I was on my way to work; it was 8am on a Monday and I was on a busy train heading to Waterloo station. I received an email that read something along the lines of:

"Hi Craig,

Blah blah blah, legal legal legal, please reply to confirm you are ok to go ahead with the searches and approve the payment of £X.”

My response was:

“Please go ahead.”

Although a simple enough email, writing it annoyed me. I had to open the Gmail app, click ‘reply’, type the response and hit ‘send’.

I realise this sounds petty, but we live in a world of speed, and that process isn't fast. Typing on a mobile device isn’t fast. Fast would be clicking a button that says ‘approve’ or ‘confirm’ and not having to type at all. Fast would be an interface like Tinder that lets me answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by swiping left and right or a Google Now style card:

How many of your emails could you answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, assuming Gmail could understand the content? If your email looks anything like mine, it’s quite a lot:

  • Do you know this person? (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Are you attending this event? (Calendar invites, RSVPs)
  • Do you want to download your boarding pass?
  • Was your Amazon packaging satisfactory? (Amazon packaging or product reviews)
  • Did you enjoy your restaurant experience last night?
  • Do you want to unsubscribe from this email list?

In the majority of the cases above, the response is a simple one. But the process can involve leaving the email app, going to external websites and even logging in.

Introducing email markup

Good news: Google recently introduced structured data for email, making many of the example questions above much easier to answer and adding the ability to take action from your inbox. I spoke about this recently: semantic optimization with structured data. Email has traditionally been about read and write, while structured data was about understanding what a thing is. Now, structured data is also about showing what a thing can do, and email is capable of a lot more verbs:

  • Purchase
  • Accept
  • Subscribe
  • Review
  • Tweet
  • Like 

Current capabilities

There are currently two kinds of email markup:

  1. In-app actions

    1. One click actions

      1. Confirm

      2. Save

    2. RSVP

    3. Review

  2. Go-to actions

In-app actions

As the name suggests, these allow you to take actions from within the inbox. These can be used for very simple actions like confirming a friend request, saving a boarding pass, leaving a review or responding to an RSVP. 

Go-to actions

Go-to actions are for more complicated tasks that need the user to visit another website, for example checking in for a flight:

The main advantages of go-to actions are engagement and standing out from the other emails in the inbox.

What does this mean?

The most obvious benefit to users is the speed at which they will now be able to do some tasks. Let’s use the example of leaving a review. Imagine I was out at a restaurant, the next day I get an email asking me if I enjoyed my meal and to leave a review. My process looks like this:

  1. Review my inbox
  2. Open the email
  3. Click through to the website I want to review
  4. Sign in
  5. Leave the review
  6. Return to inbox

This is slow. Structured data in email can reduce this process to only two steps. If I added the review markup to the same email:

<script type="application/ld+json">
{
  "@context": "http://schema.org",
  "@type": "EmailMessage",
  "action": {
    "@type": "ReviewAction",
    "review": {
      "@type": "Review",
      "itemReviewed": {
        "@type": "FoodEstablishment",
        "name": "Joe's Diner"
      },
      "reviewRating": {
        "@type": "Rating",
        "bestRating": "5",
        "worstRating": "1"
      }
    },
    "handler": {
      "@type": "HttpActionHandler",
      "url": "http://reviews.com/review?id=123",
      "requiredProperty": {
        "@type": "Property",
        "name": "review.reviewRating.ratingValue"
      },
      "method": "http://schema.org/HttpRequestMethod/POST"
    }
  },
  "description": "We hope you enjoyed your meal at Joe's Diner. Please rate your experience."
}
</script>

The same process would only be two steps:

Now the user will see a call-to-action to review the restaurant. Clicking on it will bring up the five-star rating system that everyone is familiar with and will also give you the option to leave a comment.

http://www.gfycat.com/FondEasyFairyfly

You can see more examples of markup and try it out for yourself in the Gmail demo here: Apps Script Quickstart

Should you be using this as a marketer?

It’s worth mentioning that this is still in the early stages, so there are some limitations. To start with, this is a Gmail-only feature at the moment, so if a large percentage of your email isn’t using Gmail, it’s probably not worth the effort. There are also some hoops that Google makes you jump through; read more about those on the requirements page.

For the time being, the main benefits of markup are on the consumer's side. I like that this makes a lot of the tasks I do in Gmail much faster. From the business side, the main benefits at the moment are around standing out in the inbox and increasing engagement.

However, a web of APIs opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, some of which are:

Purchasing from the inbox

I get emails like this one all the time from Amazon:

Imagine if instead of “Add to wish list” it was “1-click order” and it would send to my Kindle. If we could send POST requests from the inbox, I think we could potentially see this happen.

Reviews become easier and more trustworthy

Most businesses struggle to get their customers to say nice things about them. Asking people to take time out of their busy lives is hard because, as explained above, the process often involves signing in. If we remove that step, more people will do it, and the reviews will also be more trustworthy since the reviews will all be verified via email and sign in.

More engagement – if they could reply to things like blog comments, tweets and other social shares from within their inbox, I wonder if more people would engage with your content?

The inbox as a digital archive

Right now I have over 500 unread emails in my personal Gmail account; it has nothing to do with being popular and everything to do with having no intention of ever reading most of them. For a large chunk of those emails, everything I need to know is in the subject line. Should I need more details at some point in the future, I’ll go back to my inbox and search. Here are some examples:

These emails are important but require no action. I would be happy for all of these emails to skip my inbox entirely and auto-archive. I don’t think I’m alone – a lot of the emails people receive fall into this category and I suspect this was one of the main insights that motivated the Google Inbox team to introduce the new way to deal with email. I can see a time when I don’t have to archive emails like the ones above manually. My inbox is by default the archive and everything else that has some action will be pushed somewhere else like Google Now.


What do you think? Are you using email markup yet? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And here is my SMX presentation again: semantic optimization with structured data.

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About the author
Craig Bradford

Craig Bradford

Craig moved from Glasgow, Scotland to join Distilled in 2011 as an SEO analyst. Since joining, he has consulted with a range of clients, from start-ups to some of the biggest brands in the world. Specialist areas include technical SEO, analytics and...   read more