Has Google destroyed email?

August 28, 2013

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Google has slowly been rolling out a tabbed feature for Gmail – ostensibly to help users prioritize their more important emails by moving promotional and social emails to separate tabs. As with all changes Google makes to their products, users will grow accustomed to this and move along, quickly forgetting what the “old” Gmail looked like. Marketers, on the other hand, are hesitant to be so accommodating.

Some marketers have considered this a “Chicken Little” moment for email marketing. The sky is falling, their emails will get lost, no one with a Gmail email address will ever see their communications again, and email is once again on the chopping block. Dramatic? Perhaps. But that hasn’t stopped marketers from worrying about that very scenario. Some claim that they’ve seen a drop-off in open and click rates since the tabbed feature has been rolled out; others say that there’s no discernable difference and likely will never be.

Another interesting element to the new inbox is that Gmail has started including “inbox ads.” The ads are only on the promotions tab, and are labeled as ads (though some argue the labels are not very clear). Since the inbox ads appear at the top of the promotions tab, Gmail users see those before they see the emails from marketers – so there is a greater risk that users won’t get to the emails because of the ads.

So is there good news in all of this? Of course. Here are two bright spots:

1. According to one study, over 40% of all emails sent were opened on mobile devices. And of those, 80% were opened on either an iPhone or an iPad. The tabbed feature in Gmail doesn’t apply on iOS devices. If your customers are using the mail feature of their phones, your emails are appearing alongside the rest. So make your message relevant to them, and you’ve got just as good of a chance of having your email opened as before the Gmail change.

2. Regarding the inbox ads, this seems similar to Google including more ads and Google products in organic search results, so that the truly organic results now sometimes don’t begin until the bottom of the first page, or even the top of the second. It’s not ideal, to say the least. It’s more clutter for Gmail users to sort through, and it creates more noise for marketers. But, as marketers, our job is to create compelling, powerful campaigns that don’t get lost. We should consider this a challenge, to design better emails, to write stronger subject lines, to do more A/B testing on the ideal day and time to reach our audience via email.

As of yet, digital innovations – many concepted by Google – have not killed the email star. Social hasn’t destroyed it. Mobile hasn’t done it in. Video hasn’t sounded the death knell. Email works in concert with these innovations as one of many ways for brands to connect with consumers. Know your audience, develop relevant content, listen to your consumer, and you shouldn’t have to worry about the ever-changing inbox design.