What Are Stores Even Thinking With All These Emails?

Your inbox is now a shopping mall.

A computer screen is bombarded with pop-up advertisements.
Getty ; The Atlantic

It feels like every company and organization I’ve ever transacted with sends me email every week. Some every day, even. Some multiple times a day. My mortgage broker emails on my birthday and holidays. So does my dentist. Certain retailers email much more often. The home-furnishings company Room & Board is one of them, hoping I’ll upgrade to a lounge-worthy sectional or entreating me to meet artisanal glassblowers from Minnesota. In the past week alone, the clothing retailer Bonobos messaged me nine times, hawking Riviera shorts, trending shirts, and even a chino they promise will “bring out your best self.”

It’s ridiculous. Technically, I asked for these emails. I wrote loans with my mortgage broker. I’ve bought furniture from Room & Board and pants from Bonobos. And, yes, I’m aware that I can unsubscribe or block them at any time. But why so many emails? How is it possible that customers would find this appealing?

To state the obvious: Companies want you to buy their stuff, and email is a good way to get it in front of you. Even so, the reason you see those emails in the first place is far more convoluted than you might think, involving layers of wonkily interoperating technology and unseen struggles for power and control in the email business. The result—more missives about “Pants Tailored to Your Busy Schedule”—isn’t an intentional strategy so much as the exhaust of a grotesque contraption. And we’re all caught in the gears.

The first thing you have to understand about your inbox is that the things you do with emails have a direct impact on whether you’ll even see the next one. The three major companies behind the email platforms used by most Americans—Google (Gmail), Microsoft (Outlook and Hotmail), and Verizon (AOL and Yahoo Mail)—all have designed their products to protect your inbox with software that suppresses messages you don’t want. Opening an email and clicking on a link inside it might tell the software’s algorithms that you want more like it. So might scrolling down the body of an email, or spending a certain amount of time reading it, or starring it, or filing it into a folder. Ignoring other messages, meanwhile, can lead the mailbox software to start junking them, or even blocking the senders.

Email is one of the few ways companies can reach their customers directly. In fact, people overwhelmingly say that the way they want to hear from brands is by email, Chad S. White, the head of research for Oracle Marketing Consulting, told me. That’s why the mailbox software started suppressing messages—to protect people from companies’ temptation to send too many emails. In response, email marketers obsess over “deliverability,” or how the content and frequency of their emails might help those messages actually hit your inbox in the first place. But that process has created new and weird feedback loops, in which some companies and certain messages might be able to reach your inbox more readily than before, while others get junked—condemned to spam, deleted, or the like—before you see them.

As a result, your personal inbox gradually has become less like a mailbox and more like a wormhole into every business relationship you maintain: your bank; your utility provider; your supermarket; your favorite boutiques, restaurants, housewares providers, and all the rest. It’s your own digital commercial district: Opening up email is akin to visiting a little mall in your browser or on your phone, where every shop is right next to every other. A few years ago, Gmail made that metaphor concrete by introducing the promotions folder, recasting spam as marketing. When you’re in the mood to shop, just drop into promotions and see what’s on offer (or search for a favorite brand to see the latest wares).

If businesses and tech companies were on the same page, this would be the end of the story. The algorithms churn until you’ve interacted with enough promotional emails that every store you like delivers perfectly timed messages that cater to your every need and desire. Fulfilled, happy, you purchase every item advertised to you. Of course, this is not actually what happens. The irony of people’s supposed desire to receive emails from their favorite companies is that more than half of consumers in the United States and Canada say they receive too much promotional email. Personalization is supposed to make relevant messages get through and irrelevant ones falter. But what “relevance” means is constantly changing. If I need new pants, an apparel ad might be welcome. If I don’t, it’s just annoying.

The second thing you have to understand about your inbox is that it’s not just your individual choices that dictate which emails the algorithms let in. Gmail and others also aggregate the behavior of all email users when deciding which messages get through to your inbox. If enough people don’t engage, then many or all of a sender’s messages might not reach their recipients. If many people do, it can override individual preferences. Your inbox is like a shopping mall, yes, but one that’s constantly shape-shifting as it tries to erect the right stores for the shoppers currently inside. Consumer email is a collective affair, one orchestrated by computers making hidden choices few people can see directly, including businesses themselves.

That can have catastrophic results for senders. April Mullen, a director of strategy at the email-sending firm SparkPost, told me about a financial-services firm that had millions of statement notices blocked by a major email provider, resulting in an expensive print backup to meet regulatory requirements. Stories like this one explain why a whole sector of consulting and software services, known as email service providers, has sprung up to address deliverability. Marketers send emails, sure, but they do so in the context of trying to understand and tame the weird, unknowable machinery of the Gmails and Yahoo Mails that, ultimately, decide whether their messages ever get through. Brands such as Bonobos adjust their email-marketing campaigns in accordance with the limited signals they are able to extract from the messages that get delivered (or, in some cases, the preferences their customers set explicitly on an app or a website).

Given all that machinery, email-marketing experts such as White and Mullen feel like it’s the consumers who have all the control. They argue that people like me receive emails because we want them. That’s partly true. Even if I sense that I’m getting too many ads for shorts from Bonobos or end tables from Room & Board, enough other folks must be fine with it, or the emails wouldn’t arrive. (Room & Board declined to be interviewed for this story. Helena Tse, the vice president of marketing at Bonobos, told me the company’s unsubscribe rate is “extremely low compared to the industry standard,” but did not provide specific numbers.) I can help change that equation at any time by junking or unsubscribing. As measured by the machinery that measures my interest, I’m still interested.

But also, that is absurd. The fundamental reason marketing emails are clogging up everyone’s inboxes is that email marketing represents the collective outcome of a company’s interactions with its customers and the mailbox services; it does not, in other words, represent me.

Many email-sending brands seem to have become so obsessed with the professional gamesmanship of email marketing that they have decoupled it from the customer’s experience. When I asked Tse to explain the process by which I, personally, might receive so many Bonobos emails, she cited KPIs, a type of performance indicator used to run businesses and, in many cases, judge employee performance. She also told me that the company “continuously explores how to better our toolkit to automate and optimize the frequency business rules.” A professional proclamation such as this might elicit nods at an industry conference, but it casts me in the role of a generator of data rather than a paying customer—let alone a living person who doesn’t need so many invitations to partake of Riviera shorts.

Oracle’s Chad White has a slightly more humane way of talking about email, calling it a conversation. Opening an email, he says, is like a conversational nod. “You’re talking to someone, and if you see someone nodding, it indicates that they are paying attention. It doesn’t mean they like it, but it shows that they are paying attention.” That makes sense, but a conversation is a two-way street. I doubt that ordinary folks understand that the “gestures” they make in their email client are read as signals of interest by the senders—especially in the way that marketers, email service providers, and mailbox providers interpret them.

White disagreed with me on that point, but he did admit that marketers sometimes become overly wed to the “golden paths” they hope customers will follow. An email marketer might intend a message to be opened and clicked, leading directly to a sale. But consumer behavior is a lot more chaotic than that. Just like the email from my mortgage broker reminds me that he exists, and that maybe I should keep my eye on mortgage rates in case a refinance is appealing, so an email from a brand might simply remind me that I meant to buy pants at some point. Some people, White tells me, receive an email from a retailer and go to the store instead. Dad might receive a Mother’s Day marketing message from a florist and remind the kids to send a card to their grandmother. Others might just hoard messages in their Gmail promotions folder and dip in when they feel like shopping, turning the inbox into a shopping excursion in its own right. The mailbox providers can’t look for those kinds of interactions.

Email isn’t a sign of what you want. Not really. It represents the traces of what technology companies think you want, as imposed upon the brands who have no choice but to adopt that rationale lest they lose access to you entirely. When a marketing email is effective, it feels great to receive. But getting it right requires an unlikely alignment of the stars: your shifting desires, the mailbox providers’ changing data and algorithms, the email-sending companies’ ability to cut through that murk on behalf of brands, and the brands’ ability to target you with relevant messages at the optimal moment.

The best way to manage this situation might be to stop believing that it can or should be managed. Just as the email marketers are too obsessed with incentives and the email service providers with deliverability, perhaps email recipients are too preoccupied with sense and relevance. Who cares why you got one marketing email, or 10? Like you do with snail-mail ads, maybe you should think about this as little as possible. The marketers aren’t listening, anyway. They can only hear you when you click.