Is Gmail's New Inbox an Email Marketing Killer?

Jul 19, 2013

Article ImageGmail users probably noticed a change in their inbox this week, which was--at least in my opinion--for the better. I'd been thinking about a way to better deal with the dozens of emails I get every day from GAP, Ann Taylor, Petco, Petsmart, Groupon, and on and on. Then Google did it for me by introducing tabs to my inbox: Primary, Social, and Promotions. (You can also add Updates and Forums to your tabs but I haven't. And you can turn them all off if you'd prefer.)

Email from real people goes into my Primary box. Email telling me that I have a new Twitter follower or someone tagged me in a photo goes to Social, and all the aforementioned email from companies selling stuff ends up under the Promotions tab. This represents a win for those of us trying to take our lives back from the monster task that is dealing with email, but a huge blow to email marketers...maybe.

You see, it's not that I want to stop getting emails offering 20% discounts at my favorite stores-if I did I would just unsubscribe. I simply don't want to have to wade through them first thing in the morning to get to my "real" email. The tab actually makes it less likely that I will mass delete promotional emails just to get them out of the way, and I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Apparently some marketers are worried about the mobile version of Gmail and the way the tabs for non-primary emails appear off to the side. Again, I think this is wrongheaded. When those promotional emails pop up on my iPhone I delete them as fast as I can to save precious screen real estate. Besides, I won't be making any impulse purchases of sweaters or dog treats from my phone, it's just not my preferred online shopping experience. (The Amazon app on my iPad is a dangerous thing, though.)

Of course, marketers don't quite see it my way. "While it's still too early to assess the impact of being placed in the Promotions folder on open rates, what is almost certain to change is when consumers open marketers' emails," says Jordan Cohen, vice president of marketing at Movable Ink. "There's been a lot of effort around ‘Send Time Optimization' -- i.e., sending email at the times when consumers are most likely to view and open them -- that Gmail's tabbed inbox really messes with.  Marketers will need to begin thinking about sending offers to Gmail users that remain relevant, regardless of the time they're opened."

So how can email marketers combat the loss of visibility that comes with Gmail's new inbox?

"They key is to make the most of your emails when consumers do check the Promotions tab and keep in mind that when they do check the Promotions tab, they have actively made a decision to do so, so they are more likely to be in a higher intent buying mode - so all hope is certainly not lost," says Cohen. "But marketers do need to account for the greater length of time that will take place between the moment they hit the send button, and the moment the recipient actually opens the email. A marketer's ever-popular ‘One Day Only Sale' email might be expired by the time the recipient gets around to visiting the Promotions tab. Travel and event tickets, and limited availability inventory might be sold out."

Email marketers are going to have to rethink email. With 425 million Gmail users in June of 2012, marketers certainly can't ignore tweaks to the program, but it doesn't have to be a catastrophe. This may be just the kick in the pants marketers need to reimagine new, agile campaigns.