Gmail, Promotions, and the death of Email Marketing

Sam Gold

Google just single-handedly destroyed email marketing. No, seriously.


File 26438
Gmail's new Inbox


First, let's identify an important fact: what Google does, others do. Gmail in particular has arguably always been ahead of its competitors, although they do make attempts to replicate and often blatantly recopy new features. Take, for example, storage. Gmail launched in 2004 with the promise of 1 gigabyte of free storage. Although that may seem miniscule in comparison to the 15 gigabytes offered today, at the time Hotmail offered 0.2% of that, and Yahoo 0.4%. Needless to say, people were shocked, but not too shocked to prevent them from switching. Very quickly, both major players upgraded their storage space to the point where both currently offer unlimited space at no charge.

So what did Google do that just killed email marketing? Very simple: tabbed browsing. With their new update, you’ll see 3 tabs by default at the top of the web interface: Primary, Social, and Interface.  Primary is where all of your normal email will go—think emails from family, work, and other personal communications. Social takes all of the emails you get from social providers like Facebook and Twitter. Finally, promotions. Anything from an ecommerce website or with a promotional call-to-action seems to unfailingly be filtered into this folder. Even emails that I might have otherwise clicked (for example, an email letting me know of a $25 account credit at Gilt) were dropped into this folder by default.

While all of this doesn’t prevent the user from reading your emails about sales and special deals, it certainly makes it far less likely they will. Why would anyone click on the promotions tab if they know all of their important mail was automatically filtered for them? They won’t; if they do check on their promotions tab, it will be less frequently and after checking the primary tab. You’ll also lose impressions—even if they didn’t click on your link before, users were still thinking about your brand after seeing your email in their inbox.

At least at the moment, it’s not all bad news. Google's update has yet to roll out to 100% of its users, and it doesn’t affect desktop or mobile clients like Mail or Outlook. Additionally, Google is the only major provider to have currently adopted this. .

But, due to the percentage of users Google has rolled out to and the obvious usefulness of having important emails weeded out from the rest, I believe tabbed browsing is here to stay. Undoubtedly this will start in Gmail and spread outward, so it’s time for email marketers to get a new plan. No longer will sellers be able to capture emails in exchange for an e-book, nor can they advertise their products in an email blast. Will we see an increase in personal communications from seller to potential customer? A return to the proliferation in phone and direct mail marketing from the past decade? Watch this space.


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Igor Polevoy
Sam, you followed Andy Crestodina's advice to pick title that stirs emotion (good or bad :)), and it worked! As a founder of an ESP, I do not see any change in open rates for Gmail yet. It might be even get higher, since people could allocate time to go through promotional emails, instead of deleting them from Inbox because they are getting in a way. Email marketing is not just a “buy this now” cry. It is also great advice to interested crowd, timely transactional emails, email marketing automation, etc – too much to list. Besides, this change is rolled out only to private individual, requires opt-in, and is not available currently to users of Google Apps. Additionally, many people use email clients other than browser, and this tab is not available on Outlook, Thunderbird, IPhone, OSX, Android, etc, etc.. So.... to paraphrase Mark Twain, I'd say that “The reports of email marketing death have been greatly exaggerated.” ***Email Marketing is Dead, Long Live Email Marketing!!!***
Kelley Starr
I think this change for Google is incremental and a nice addition to Gmail's email platform. It's incremental because Gmail users have had other features preventing unwanted marketing emails getting to the inbox. Start with old line "junk" and "spam" folders. Then three years ago Gmail added "Priority Inbox" which allowed a user to promote important senders to a top of the fold "priority inbox", with other emails grouped below. It also "learns" which emails senders you have interest in and elevates its priority. As an example, if I want to see Amazon's promotions, I could promote it as a priority sender. Gmail also has filtering and tagging to allow a user to organize incoming mail without touching it. Your subscribed promotions can be put in a folder for viewing later. Tabbed browsing is another twist on organizing email. As Andy mentions in his comments "white hat marketers" want to interact with engaged subscribers - and clean their list if not wanted. Subscribers want new ways to filter and follow marketing promotions of their favorite brands. Tabbed browsing will help, but I'd suggest you try Priority Inbox also. You have to chose one or the other.
Sandy Jackiewicz
Funny. I got to this post through the Built in Chicago email, which was in my promotions tab.
Matt Gibbs
since the switch I actually notice/read more promo emails than before. I used to just delete every single one as they came in since they got in the way. Now I check that tab when I have time and read the ones that interest me.
Scott Washburn
From a personal standpoint, I actually disagree with your position. I have a select number of brands/companies (Bonobos, Tretorn, TastingTable, Airbnb, Inc.) that I really enjoy receiving promotional and informational emails from. I always like checking these emails out anyways, and this just gives me a more organized way to do so. As for the ones that I don't enjoy, I simply unsubscribe from the email list. Also, people can tag email campaigns that they would like to have show up in their "Primary" folder if they would prefer that. With that being said, I'm not certain that most people know how to unsubscribe from an email list, or even know whether or not they are able to. Either way, the best thing a company can do is to create engaging content that customers/followers WANT to receive. The customers will continue to seek those emails out if that's the case.
Alex Fedotov
I think Groupon and LivingSocial will suffer most.
J. A.  Ginsburg
Fascinating. Entrepreneurs Unpluggd's last event focused on email marketing. Great presentation by Andy Crestodina or Orbit Media Studios and Mana Ionescu from Lightspan. Would LOVE to hear their take on all this... Thanks for the post.
Andy Crestodina
Sure! Happy to give my $.02.... First, "Death" makes a great headline, but this isn't as serious as it seems. This is an overreaction. As you can tell from the other comments, people actually WANT email marketing. That's why they subscribed! It's permission-based marketing and people are always welcome to unsub. When I heard this news, I was excited. I thought "Great! My inbox is a mess." A few minutes later, I pondered the effect on email marketing. Here's what I think: this will spread out the timing of opens and clickthroughs. People will get to that tab and those emails when the timing is good for them. So fussing with email timing will be less important than it used to be. Great. In the end, the challenge is the same: produce and promote better content than your competition. Do this and people will seek out your emails, tweets, articles, posts and eventually, your products and services. A little tab could never come between a hardcore fan and great piece of content...
Sam Gold
Hi Andy, I agree-- people DO "want" email marketing-- but not nearly to the extent they get it. I, for example, really enjoy reading emails from AppSumo, but that's it. Therefore I will move AppSumo emails to my Primary folder. I'll then check the promotions tab, but maybe only twice a month. When I do check it, that will only be to make sure I haven't missed anything important and marketers will lose traditional impressions. I also think that you and many of the other commentors are looking at this from a unique position. You guys are email marketers, and are hyper-aware of the messages you receive. The average recipient might not know how to unsubscribe or want to go through the hassle of weeding good emails out from bad. I doubt many will take the time to go through this tab even semi-regularly.
Andy Crestodina
Good point, Sam. I recommend unsub-ing from any newsletter that you're not reading. By staying on people's lists, you're just bringing down their stats and adding noise to your inbox. I unsub from emails almost every day. As an email marketer, I welcome unsubs! Ideally, email lists clean themselves...
Eric Marden
I couldn't agree more. The sky is not falling and compelling content will carry the day as it always does.
Peter Bruce
One way to get past this would be for a company to partner with Google, maybe more ads mean more emails get through? Or even better they could pay Google straight up to have their emails go to the correct tab. Also, if companies are owned or get bought by Google they could get through to a better tab also.
Cyprian Francis
I totally agree with you on this one. I would how the big dogs, like GroupOn are feeling the affects only days after the switch.
Adam Calica
Nice post. Do know what makes it flag something as a promotion / how it can be beat?
Richard Kim
i think people can figure it out. for example, anything from mailchimp or any email mass program are auto-categorized into promotions. i've seen some that try to use in-house programs that are getting by it right now. wondering if you google / programers will play cat and mouse game moving ip adds and different tricks constantly. for us, at reppio, we sent our weekly finds email to our recently acquired 3500 users 1 week before and after; interestingly, metrics haven't really been impacted but long-term implications... we shall see. lots of people may be opening via smart phone (non gmail app). gmail is definitely rolling this out fast.
Sam Gold
I believe users can relabel promotions into their primary folder. (If a customer loves getting emails from Groupon, they can get them in their regular inbox.) Beyond that, I haven't found any way to get past it through email blasts. Purchase receipts, registration confirmations, and personal emails from brands go to the main inbox.
Bryce Anderson
I am curious as to how to get past it, but do think it brings up the more important question, "What is a better way to get in contact with a potential customer than email?"

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