Gmail’s Changes Threaten Opt-In Email Results

Note: This is the first of two posts on Gmail’s new changes. Tomorrow our Director of Product Development, Michelle Paul, will weigh in with a contrary point of view.

If you use Gmail, you may be in for a somewhat rude surprise. Google is rolling out its latest and greatest “improvement” to the email overload problem.

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, Gmail will soon replace your current inbox format, with three inboxes, in tabbed format: one that Google labels “Primary,” another “Social,” and the third “Promotions.” Using its own algorithm, Gmail sorts your email into three categories, forcing you to check all three inboxes to see all your new mail. Though you can “teach” Gmail to rearrange where it puts your mail, you have to do it manually, and I can’t imagine most users will do much of that. You can also disable the whole shebang, but it’s not easy, which means most Gmail users won’t do that either. And within the Promotions tab, you’ll begin to see a few emails at the top clearly marked as advertisements, courtesy of Gmail.

Many of us who have spent years preaching “opt-in” as the best way to acquire email addresses are appalled by and fearful of this supposed innovation. What it does is reduce the likelihood that you will see the opt-in emails you are accustomed to seeing in your inbox, by requiring you to hunt for them in a “second-tier” inbox.

I think that’s wrong-headed and contrary to the basic tenets of email marketing, set years ago in 1999 by Seth Godin’s seminal book, Permission Marketing. Look, if I feel that the New York Philharmonic’s email is as important to me as mail from my friends, then I want it to come into my inbox along with my most important mail. If I don’t want it there, I can delete it, archive it, or unsubscribe to the list. But having Google decide for me (or expecting me to teach Gmail otherwise) is infuriating.

Most marketers are understandably worried that this will reduce email open rates dramatically, and many of our colleagues in the email world have started measuring this and writing about it. Here is a great blog post about that.

It’s too soon to know the long-term impact of this change, but it is not too soon to surmise why Google is doing it. It seems obvious — if Google can marginalize your opt-in email so that you don’t see it anymore, and open rates go down for marketers, then what’s a marketer to do? You got it — buy Google AdWords so their messages appear in the advertising section on the right of each message within Gmail, or within promotions which appear to be emails at the top of the Promotions tab.

It seems that Google has figured out a clever way to devalue promotional email, cloaked in an “improvement.” It’s a way for them to bury promotional messages… and force organizations to pay for visibility. For a company that once said it would “do no evil,” this seems pretty evil to me. Time will tell. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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