Google Pony Express“Pony Express” — an online game and Google “doodle” foreshadows a potential digital mailbox service launch under the same name.  Image: Google

Earlier this year Google commemorated the 155th anniversary of the Pony Express with an interactive Doodle game, noting that “the Pony Express felt like a great game concept.” Shortly before the celebratory doodle debuted, tech analysts broke the story that Pony Express is much more than a game to Google. It may be the digital mailbox innovation that transforms the way that millions of people pay bills and even make donations.

While several early digital mailbox startups failed to reach scale, it is easy to imagine how a Google-backed service would fare differently. Online giving rates increased a combined 22% between 2012 and 2014, according to Blackbaud. Donors are voting with their dollars for new multichannel giving platforms that integrate intelligently with everyday life.

A digital mail service that integrates seamlessly with Gmail would put new transaction services in the hands of some 900 million monthly users and the organizations they do business with.

“Welcome to the Future of Paper Mail”

So reads the tagline of the digital mailbox service currently in development at Google, according to screenshots and analysis originally published by re/code. A U.S. mail-themed interface promises to let Google users pay bills directly from within Gmail.

As the speculative launch date of “fourth quarter 2015” fades into history, will 2016 be the year that the world’s largest email provider triggers an avalanche shift toward digital mail? Or, will Pony Express join a slate of troubled and lackluster digital mailbox ventures?

Learning from a rocky past

Digital mailbox (not to be confused with email) is the magical concept of merging digital and paper mail into an entirely online environment. In its most dramatic incarnation, it would mean the end of paper in the mailbox as an unrelated PR spoof video for “Smartbox by Inbox by Gmail” hinted back on April Fool’s day.  Google Digital Mail Spoof VideoGoogle has mocked the idea of a totally paperless mailbox, as seen in this cheeky April Fool’s promo video for the Gmail Inbox app.  Image: Google

There have been several real startups in the digital mailbox space, ranging from completely paperless mail apps that physically redirect your entire household postal haul, to “bill consolidation” services that work with only a predefined list of billers such as banks, utilities, and department stores.

Failed digital mailbox attempts include Manilla from Hearst Corporation and startup Zumbox. These early market entrants suffered from a chicken-egg dilemma of delayed adoption by billers and customers. Without a wide range of billers on a platform, customers will not sign up. Without a critical mass of customers, billers are not interested. It is unclear just how much traction a digital mailbox service needs in order to succeed. Hearst’s Manilla platform boasted “over 4,000 companies” before shutting down.  

Still alive and well is Canada Post’s ePost. It launched back in the year 2000 with a substantial relaunch in 2012 that brought mobile apps and new features. Today, ePost has over 100 participating billers and about 8 million users. Australia Post’s MyPost is another active bill consolidation service. These state-related services fall short of where Google’s vision appears to be headed.

Why Gmail feels like the right place for a digital mailbox launch

  • Massive, unparalleled, trusted connectivity with Gmail’s 900 million monthly active users. You can remember your email account password but probably not your login for some obscure standalone service that you visit once a month to pay a bill or two. An analysis of Canada’s ePost system by InfoTrends notes the challenge of attracting users and keeping them active on a standalone platform. At least a quarter of Gmail users are active on Gmail during the workday.
  • Email is where bills, charitable solicitations, and important online communications still go to get read. Your mortgage bank, energy utility, and tax collector are not using Facebook Messenger or Twitter to communicate.  
  • With a smartphone digital wallet war waging between Apple, Amazon, Google, Square, PayPal, and others, Google can make its mark on mobile payments by leveraging its relative monopoly on email.

Futuristic implications for fundraisers

The buzz around digital mailbox offerings has, until now, left nonprofits out of the conversation. For example, 15 years into its launch, Canada’s ePost system fails to offer any tools of value to nonprofits.

There are several ways the fundraising landscape could evolve in response to a rollout of Google’s Pony Express or a similar Gmail-integrated digital mailbox. Three of the biggest include:

1. Managing recurring giving relationships will become easier for donors and nonprofits. The U.S. lags way behind European countries in monthly giving adoption. A digital mailbox gives donors more control over recurring donations by placing them right alongside other recurring household transactions.

2. Lower transaction costs for nonprofits and donors. Forking over up to 5% for giving platform or credit card transaction fees eats into charitable impact. If a digital mailbox works like many existing bill pay systems, it will reduce transaction costs by bypassing credit cards altogether using a direct banking link.

3. New data sources for Google, but also for nonprofits. Where other digital mailbox companies failed to turn a profit, Google might not need to at least directly. Gmail is free. Like many Google services, the data behind user transactions is valuable. Google uses data to create new services and make others, like search and ads, more relevant. Nonprofits could benefit from better targeting of online campaigns based on a brand new mega database of charitable transaction activity.

Future-ready innovations from Innovairre

Digital mailbox is just one of many futuristic insights Innovairre is tracking. Every day we are building new solutions to help nonprofits prosper from changing technology.

In 2015 Innovairre introduced nonprofits to eReceipts, a revolutionary way of thanking and receipting donors in a digital environment regardless of where gifts originate direct mail, social media, email, or mobile web.

Innovairre’s Interconnect of Things is a breakthrough in donor conversion from social media sources. Our IoT solution helps nonprofits obtain valuable contact information and multichannel opt-ins from previously anonymous social media followers. We create a value exchange using automated mobile web technology, personalized digital and physical premium offers, and seamless, mission-oriented creative content.  

Matt Graham is Chief Technology Officer at Innovairre Communications, which supports more than 500 nonprofit organizations around the world. To discuss getting your nonprofit future-ready with e-Receipts, the Interconnect of Things, or the digital mailbox of tomorrow, contact us at Answers@Innovairre.com, subscribe to our newsletter here, and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.