Implementing schema.org – Why It’s Worth the Effort

The presentation on schema.org was shared between Dr. Conny Junghans, Data Scientist from 1 & 1 Mail & Media on the receiver side, and Magnus En, Deliverability Manager from Westwing on the brand side. 

Dr. Conny Junghans took the floor first, to describe the background to schema.org. She started by explaining that email has evolved as a tool for brands to communicate with their customers. Added to this, digital assistants are becoming THE interface for users to engage with information from digital sources. Given this, she asked, why do we still expect people to read lengthy texts? Customers only want know whether the item is being shipped, whether something has gone wrong, and whether it has been delivered, and where.    


The smart inbox

She explained that with schema.org they are trying to build a “smart inbox” – a digital assistant to help manage emails. Before a machine can assist with an email, it needs to understand what an email is about. The computer can try to interpret what email is about – machine learning has already made some progress in this area, but according to Junghans there is a better way: Letting the email tell us what the purpose is. Junghans commented that brands in particular should be interested in doing this, because the sender is then 100% in control of how the email is interpreted by different machines or smart inboxes.

An email can be explicitly labeled as a “shipping email”, or “delivery email”, etc., which is something that the digital assistant can understand. The explicit information is added using schema.org. Schema.org comprises already agreed upon semantic vocabulary, which adds an extra layer of meaning to text, so that computers know what it’s about. It also incorporates GoodRelations vocabulary for e-commerce, so the use case for shopping emails is clear. Schema.org supports a hybrid approach in that the schema is hidden in the email, so that users can still read the traditional email if they want to, but they can also let their digital assistant do it for them.

Junghans pointed out, however, that schema.org does not take the place of proper authentication. It is still necessary to verify the sender through checking SPF, DKIM, DMARC, etc. 

Annotating emails with schema.org

Dr. Conny Junghans explained that only a minimum of annotations is required. With the example of an order confirmation, the annotations include the schema.org/Order entity, a unique order number, and the delivery state (of which the following were given as possibilities: OrderProcessing, OrderInTransit, OrderDelivered, OrderCancelled, OrderPickupAvailable, OrderPaymentDue, OrderProblem, and OrderReturned).

Of these, the order number most important, because this allows the smart inbox to do “grouping”, to allow all emails relating to this order to be brought together or grouped, and the current state displayed clearly in the inbox.

Junghans went on to say that this approach is good for customer experience, because it gives the customer all the information they need in one place. She explained that customers are often not really aware of which part of the shopping process they are in, evidenced by the fact that they confuse the function of the feedback review opportunities they are given (e.g. reviewing email experience vs. reviewing the product).

While the focus for the presentation was specifically on shopping emails, the functionality can be broadened out for other purposes as well.

Magnus Eén then took the stage, and told the story of Westwing’s experience of implementing schema.org.

He explained that email is still the major revenue-bringing foundation for Westwing. Westwing started implementing after the CSA Summit 2018, Magnus having been inspired by presentations and conversations regarding schema.org. He had decided that it would not be too hard to implement, because most required information is already within the email. Westwing have not yet taken schema.org live, but Eén strongly recommended that senders should spend the time on implementing it because he is convinced it does bring value. There is a trend to make email more useful, and this is a part of that.      

Challenges with implementing schema.org

1. Cons

The first disadvantage that Magnus Eén mentioned was tracking. Westwing is data- driven, and there is the potential with voice assistants and smart inboxes that customers may not physically open emails anymore, which would mean that the sender can no longer track whether information has been consumed. This would have an impact on segmentation, because that action is considered engagement, and if people no longer interact with email in the traditional way, the interaction might not be seen and metrics may be lost.

A second disadvantage he mentioned is display control: The sender is no longer in control of what is being displayed to the customers. Smart inboxes might extract the information and use it differently from the way the brand created it. This could mean lost opportunities for the brand to provide other content or offers and develop new engagements.

Eén also mentioned spam filters, and the idea that content matters to many filters. Adding hidden elements may trigger spam filters, so it is important to monitor deliverability while rolling it out, to see how it goes. He explained that it is still not clear who is supporting schema.org. 

2. Pros

Although display control may be lost, Magnus Eén pointed out that a major advantage is that the sender is in control of the message, because it is specified rather than a bot attempting to interpret it, so there is no guesswork involved.

Furthermore, the schema.org annotation highlights key purpose of an email, meaning that the relevance is better for customer and therefore for brands. He commented that a user spends on average 11 seconds reading an email – so the message needs to be clear.

Schema.org also builds trust, according to Eén. Users are not aware of what is part of the inbox, and who is responsible for what. Therefore, the transparency of the message leads to increased trust.

Finally, he is convinced that it will drive higher engagement, even though he has no figures yet to back up his prediction. He mentioned a few added functionalities that it will enable, such as creating calendar entries based on the delivery information, and using smart speakers to read email out to the user. It all boils down to user experience, which will drive engagement, which drives email reputation, and leads to better results. 


What’s holding it back?

Eén sees the greatest challenge as being adoption, because senders do not include schema.org yet. He is of the opinion that senders should add it and monitor it, and see how it goes. There is also the need to convince management: in companies where email is a major revenue channel, a small change in an email can have a huge impact on business, and therefore the approval loops for something like schema.org can be a hindrance. Furthermore, many different departments need to be involved. Not only the technical and marketing departments, but customer care, logistics, etc. The process also encompasses different steps in the shopping journey, related to different processes and systems in the company or partner companies. This all need to be kept in mind when implementing it.

Is it worth it? Magnus Eén admitted he doesn’t know yet, but he’s fairly sure it will be. Adding value and making email more useful takes time for adoption. He mentioned calendar invitations as an example – it took a while to take off, but nowadays, it is the easiest way to book a meeting.

As an outlook for Westwing, he said that after implementing schema.org for shipping, the next step will be to try it for promotions.

He finished with a play on the CSA Summit 2019 motto: Not “Email guessed for you”, but “Email made for you”.