Not All E-Mails Are Created Equal; SaneBox Knows the Difference

7/27/12Follow @wroush

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column on ways we can work together to restore e-mail sanity. I argued that e-mail overload has a simple cause that’s often overlooked: we’re all sending each other too many messages. We can try all the time-management tricks and software plugins in the book to deal with the onslaught of incoming messages, I wrote. But the only long-term fix for the problem will be a collective agreement to send fewer outgoing ones.

Well, I stand by that opinion, but it’s not going to help anyone whose inbox is bursting right this second. So I’m still on the lookout for shorter-term technical fixes for e-mail overload. After my e-mail sanity column I got a tweet from a reader who recommended SaneBox, a cloud-based service that helps users filter out important e-mails from those that don’t need immediate attention. I signed up on July 16, and I’ve been using it in conjunction with Gmail for the last 10 days. And I’ve got to say, the results have been amazing.

Now, when I use the phrase “a cloud-based service that helps users filter out important e-mails from those that don’t need immediate attention,” astute readers are going to shout, “Wait! Isn’t that what Gmail’s Priority Inbox does? And didn’t you totally trash Priority Inbox in a column last year?”

Why yes, I did. And that’s why I was initially skeptical about SaneBox, which is the creation of a Boston startup founded by game-industry veteran Stuart Roseman. But at least from my early experiences, it’s looking like the team at SaneBox has found solutions for all three of the big problems that led me to abandon Gmail’s Priority Inbox. It works 100 percent better than Google’s solution. (In fact, Google should probably just buy SaneBox and turn off Priority Inbox. But that’s an article for another day.)

SaneBox's graph of my e-mail traffic this week. Only the green e-mails were important.

I’ll detail what my problems with Priority Inbox were, and how SaneBox has fixed them, in a minute. I’ll also share some tidbits from an interesting conversation with Dmitri Leonov, an executive at the startup. But first, a few words about what SaneBox actually does.

When you sign up for the service, you supply the credentials for your e-mail service. I use Gmail, but it also works with most other services (such as Exchange, Yahoo, and AOL) and clients (Outlook, Apple Mail, etc.). Optionally, you can also connect SaneBox to your social media accounts at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook; if you do, the service will have a better idea of who your important contacts are. Then you let SaneBox go to town on your inbox. It sorts through all of your messages, figures out which ones you’ll want to see right away, and puts the ones that it deems unimportant in a separate folder called @SaneLater. The service costs $4.95 per month, or $55 per year.

That’s all there is to it—except for the training bit. If you find a message in your @SaneLater folder that really deserved to be in your inbox, you can move it back there manually, and SaneBox will learn not to detain future e-mails from that source. It works the other way too—a boring e-mail that stayed in your inbox can be moved to @SaneLater. (And if you never want to see an e-mail from that source ever again, you can banish it to another folder called @SaneBlackHole. It’s like unsubscribing permanently.)

There are other fun features, but the @SaneLater folder (in Gmail it’s a label, technically) is the key one. According to Leonov, 58 percent of the average SaneBox user’s e-mails go straight into @SaneLater. You do have to deal with those messages eventually—that’s why it’s called @SaneLater—but the immediate benefit is to make your inbox feel 58 percent less busy. That’s a huge bonus.

Now, if you’ve tried Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature, you know it follows a similar scheme: it divides your inbox into separate sections for “Important and Unread,” “Important,” and “Everything Else.” Just as with SaneBox, the idea is that most people have better things to do with their time than sorting through rewards card notices from Office Depot and pitches for time-shares in Boca. It’s a nice idea. I used Priority Inbox for almost seven months before giving up on it out of sheer frustration. Here were my problems:

1. Priority Inbox was bad at guessing which e-mails were important to me. Lots of stuff that I would have wanted to see right away got buried in the “Everything Else” bin.

2. Priority Inbox only works when you’re accessing Gmail from a Web browser. I frequently check my e-mail using the Mail app on my iPad and my iPhone. Constantly switching back and forth between the filtered and unfiltered views gave me migraines.

3. The “Everything Else” section grew and grew because I didn’t trust the filtering algorithm. The larger this section got, the more impossible the task of dealing with those e-mails came to seem; I didn’t dare just delete everything, for fear I’d lose something important. So over time, it became harder to zero out my inbox, not easier.

SaneBox neatly sidesteps all three of these problems.

1. It’s really good at filtering out the e-mails that can wait until later. There are virtually no false negatives. Let’s take today as an example. It’s 8:00 pm and there are 156 messages in my @SaneLater folder, all of which came in today (I know because I emptied it before bed last night). I just glanced through the folder and only four of those messages needed to be manually moved back into my inbox. I’ve talked to other people who say they never find anything crucial in @SaneLater.

2. SaneBox works with every e-mail client. In the Mail app on my iOS devices, @SaneLater just shows up as another folder, and I can move messages into it and out of it in the usual way.

3. Because so many of the e-mails in @SaneLater really are unimportant, I can usually delete or archive all of them en masse, after quickly scanning the from: lines and the subject lines. That’s a big time saver. It means I can concentrate on dealing with the messages in my inbox.

If SaneBox were truly magical, it would automatically do something about those messages too. But alas, I got 67 truly important e-mails today, which I’ll have to take care of in the usual way (using The E-Mail Game, of course—read this column for the details).

It’s impressive that SaneBox has gotten so much right, especially given that the founder Stuart Roseman (who is also bankrolling the startup) has his entrepreneurial roots in the game business—he co-founded Gamesville in 1995 and sold it to Lycos in 1999 for $232 million. Leonov, who is SaneBox’s vice president of growth, says the company set out with a simple goal: to build an e-mail filtering system “that doesn’t require the user to download anything or learn a new process.” The system does need a little training to become really accurate, he acknowledges, but that just involves moving e-mails between folders.

Leonov says SaneBox launched a private beta test of its service in June 2010, just two months before Google added the Priority Inbox feature to Gmail. “That day was definitely scary for us, and half of our beta users left immediately,” he says. But then something interesting happened. “Most of them came back. Today, more than half of our users are on Gmail, and they prefer to pay us money rather than use Priority Inbox,” which, like Gmail itself, is free.

Leonov says that my own experience with Priority Inbox was a common one. He’s not sure why Gmail is so bad at judging the importance of e-mails, but he says “our hypothesis is that Gmail is applying a global set of rules to everybody. With our approach, it’s much more personalized. We study your personal e-mail behavior and what you do specifically with each message, and base our algorithms on that.”

The only downside to this approach is that SaneBox’s service is extremely data- and infrastructure-intensive, which is why the startup can’t offer a free version of its service. Leonov says the company isn’t a big fan of free as a price, anyway. “Free services need to monetize somehow, and that usually involves screwing the user,” he says. “Our philosophy has been to offer something of value and charge money for it.”

It’s working so far. After the initial free trial period, which lasts two weeks, 25 percent of users pay up, Leonov says. That’s an astronomical conversion rate compared to most online services. And the more e-mail people get every day, the more desperate they are for something like SaneBox. “If you get 60 or more e-mails a day the conversion rate goes up to 52 percent,” Leonov says.

My free trial expires Monday, and for this sample of one, the conversion rate will be 100 percent. I’d guess that SaneBox is saving me 30 minutes a day, mostly because I can delete the messages in @SaneLater in one fell swoop. But more importantly, my inbox just seems more manageable when it’s not peppered with low-priority messages. As Leonov says, “It’s not just about time saved. It’s also about the mental anguish of dealing with an overflowing inbox.”

One of the reasons people stress out about their inboxes, Leonov believes, is that they make the mistake of thinking that every message is equally important. “Every e-mail client gives the same amount of real estate to every e-mail, so you are trained to think that all of them are the same,” he notes. “But they are not. E-mail is just like any other work: it needs to be prioritized.” And that’s how SaneBox might help all of us stay sane.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • caseyjordan

    frigging hell you weirdo/idiot to want to write such a thung!

  • http://twitter.com/mrtriple5 Peter Adura

    boxbe.com does a similar thing for you for free :)

  • Jack Sparrow

    Fat pigeons’ ability to fly relies on powerful farts!

  • Jack Sparrow

    God knows what they’re eating round our neck of the woods because they are close to breaking the wind barrier!