The elusive inbox has fragmented again, with the introduction this month of Gmail “tabs” which segment messages and give Google most of the control over what messages appear where.   The email marketing community has been buzzing about it, particularly the Promotions Tab which creates a new advertising channel for Google.  Frantic questions abound:   Is it legal under CAN SPAM?    Has it created a “marketing ghetto” for promotional messages?  Will it train subscribers to ignore marketing messages?  Will it actually increase engagement among some audiences?

While Gmail rolls out this new feature, it’s certainly a good idea to track opens and engagement among your Gmail subscribers.  Return Path created an email intelligence tool to help you assess the impact on your domain.   There’s been a lot written about how to react – with advice ranging from panic to complacency.  My picks of the best of these early assessments are below.

The bottom line is that Google is in the targeted advertising business and they’ve woken up to the power of the inbox to create incredibly targeted advertisements.  This definitely changes the game for how consumers will behave in their Gmail accounts.  Email marketers are used to change.  Frankly, the mailbox providers have been adjusting and tweaking the game for a decade.  Inbox management tools from Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have been out for nearly five years.   Experienced email marketers know that the inbox is elusive, and increasingly fragmented.  Consider not just that people have personal and business email inboxes, but often multiples of both.  They also have an inbox on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In and dozens of other social networks.  While mobile devices have made it easier to keep up with all these inboxes, our ability to focus and act on email marketing is still restricted to a few interactions per day or week.  Marketers compete heavily for that precious attention.

What the introduction of Tabs reminds us is that email marketing is about one thing:  Creating amazing subscriber experiences. The fact that advanced technology allows us to make those experiences more custom, repeatable and automated doesn’t change the core objective.  This is not a game of frequency, but one of relevancy.  Send as often as you have something interesting to say – and no more.  Technology has advanced to empower digital marketers to use the data we have, respect the permission grants we receive and interact throughout a lifecycle.   Broadcast messages still have a role to play, but increasingly, the value – and what subscribers are going to seek out in any inbox – are the messages that are truly helpful.

Take a look at some of this good advice from a few thought leaders in the industry, and make your own plans for what to do – if anything – about the new tabs.  I encourage you to do so with the ultimate goal in mind:  Subscriber delight and satisfaction.  That is what data-driven marketing is all about.

  1. Return Path’s Tom Sather and his team have been prolific on this subject, releasing the first availalable research results and a series of blog posts, including this one, Handling Gmail Tabs the Right Way and specific advice on whether to send a message to ask subscribers to move you to the Primary Tab, Dealing with Gmail Tabs: Just How Effective Are Dedicated Gmail Campaigns? 
  2. Jordan Cohen and Moveable Ink published a great roundup of articles and blog posts on top considerations for marketers.
  3. Loren McDonald of Silverpop has written a monster of a blog post (2,600 words!) that is actually quite approachable and chock full of good advice.   Gmail Tabs: How They’re Impacting Email Marketing So Far (Blog Part 1), Your 9-Step Marketing Game Plan for Gmail Tabs (Blog Part 2), and samples to share Gmail Tabs Promotions to Primary Tab Sample Emails (SlideShare PPT)
  4. A different but compelling take on this issue from the uniquely insightful  Alchemy Worx CEO Dela Quist in this MarketingProfs column, ” Google Is Rewriting the Rules of Email Marketing in Its War With Facebook. What Can Marketers Do?”
  5. Three email insider columnists at Mediapost have published on this topic this month – Chad White with Why You Shouldn’t Ask Your Gmail Subscribers To Re-Tab Your Emails; George Bilbrey with Gmail Tabs: Don’t Panic Or Cheat, Just Focus On Engaged User Base; and Kara Trivunovic with “Can We All Please Stop Freaking Out About Gmail Tabs.”

Please comment below with other articles or advice you find helpful.


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For more good advice, I am happy to be moderating a webinar on Wednesday, September 4, 2013  on this topic with the DMA Email Experience Council – check out “The No Hype, Get to the Root of It, Everything You Need to Know About Gmail’s Tabbed Inbox” webinar.

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