Gmail, Promotions, and the death of Email Marketing

by Sam Gold
July 23, 2013

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

 

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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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