Debra Ellis

Gmail Hosted Email: Will the New Inbox Affect Email Marketing?

By: Debra Ellis | July 25, 2013 | 

Email Marketing and GMail

By Debra Ellis

What would have happened to the effectiveness of television advertising if people had to act to see the ads?

Think about TiVo for a minute.

When technology that allowed people to skip advertisements first appeared, marketers feared the medium would lose effectiveness.

Years later there are mixed reviews but nothing that indicates the DVR has significantly reduced the return-on-investment from televisions ads.

Like being able to skip through commercials, Gmail has launched a new inbox that makes it possible for users to skip the promotional messages.

The design concept is similar to that of TiVo. The objective of both concepts is to give the user a better experience.

There is one major difference between how the two work: Skipping advertisements with TiVo requires user action while Gmail does it automatically.

Newton’s Law

Motivating people to act has always been a challenge. Newton’s law of inertia applies to everything that requires people to change what they are doing. It reads, “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”

The pain of sitting through annoying commercials is the force that motivates people to skip. Good marketers create commercials that are entertaining so they don’t trigger action.

Gmail hosted email users will not see promotional messages and updates without overcoming the law of inertia. Marketers have to figure out how to create a force that moves people to open different tabs before their communications will be seen.

The New Inbox

The new inbox interface gives users the option to create five tabs: Primary, Social, Promotional, Updates, and Forums. The Primary tab is mandatory. The remaining four can be turned on or off.

This is a Gmail inbox before opting in:

Email Marketing and GMail

This is it after converting to the new version:

Email Marketing and GMail

Every message, except one, was shifted to another tab. (Interestingly, the one that remained was an update on an order. This suggests that there may be ways to keep company messages from being redirected to secondary tabs.)

Once users have opted into the new interface, incoming messages are routed to the tab that Gmail rules deem appropriate. The Primary tab is designated for “Person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs.”

The tests we ran have EVERY promotional message going to other tabs, even when the Promotions option isn’t used. This means marketers have to figure out how to overcome the law of inertia, for their emails to even have a chance of being seen.

How Will this Affect Email Marketing?

Gmail has become the largest email service provider in the world. Business-to-consumer companies have high percentages of Gmail hosted email addresses in their customer and prospect files. Business-to-business companies tend to have significantly lower percentages of Gmail addresses, but that is misleading.

Google provides email services for government agencies, top universities, and millions of businesses. This makes it very hard to identify users because the addresses in your database may be hosted by Gmail.

There’s another surprise for unwary marketers. Gmail has added advertisements to the inbox that look surprisingly similar to emails:

Email Marketing and GMail

 In addition to overcoming inertia and competing with other emails, marketing messages have to compete with Google ads designed to target the people most likely to buy.

The long-term effect of automatically sorting incoming messages and presenting ads that look like emails is unknown. Waiting to see what happens is risky business. User adaptation to the new options takes time. This gives you the opportunity to prepare.

Here’s what you should do to get started:

  • Segment customers and prospects by email service provider to watch for shifts in marketing metrics. While it is impossible to identify all of the Gmail users, you can see enough to have advance warning before revenue and profitability are adversely affected.
  • Focus on building relationships. If you have been waiting to see if relationship marketing works, time is up. Companies without strong customer relationships will find getting their messages read next to impossible.
  • Test, test, and test again to find the best ways to reach your customers and prospects. Continuous testing will help you find ways to overcome inertia, as well as stay foremost in people’s minds.
  • Optimize your email marketing. The days of successfully generating revenue by sending one promotional message after another are going away. Get your house in order before it becomes mandatory.

What do you think? Will the new Gmail inbox have an affect on email marketing efforts? 

About Debra Ellis

Debra Ellis is a business consultant, author, and speaker, specializing in showing companies how to improve customer acquisition and retention using integrated marketing and service strategies. In 1995 she founded Wilson & Ellis Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in creating strategies that make channels and departments work together to optimize the customer experience. Since then, she has worked with over a hundred distinguished clients such as Costco, Edmund Scientifics, Jacuzzi, Ross-Simons Jewelry, and The Body Shop. She can be reached via email at

  • susancellura

    I think the new Gmail inbox will effect email marketing. You make the strong point that marketers will have to step up and they will/we definitely will have to do so. Yet I think that is a a good thing. Many conversations within this community discuss PR, Marketing, etc., how they are to be defined, what we need to be ready to move forward. Those that don’t accept the challenge – per each client’s project – will continue to do the same things over and over. Evolving can be a fun adventure! Stretching the mind!

    • susancellura I agree completely Susan. The Gmail inbox is designed for users, not
      marketers. The marketers that work to provide value to people will win
      the inbox challenge. Good relationships between company and customer
      have always been important, but they haven’t been mandatory until now.
      If a company had a large enough list, email campaigns would be
      successful without any focus on relationships. I’m excited about seeing
      how the great marketers out there use relationship marketing to deliver

      • Debra_Ellis susancellura I agree I will look for and open businesses that build a relationship with me. And to that small businesses have a huge advantage over big ones there.

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  • This was a good post Debra_Ellis. There really isn’t a whole lot anyone can say yet because so much is unknown. I appreciate the ‘hypothesis’ you came up with, and this is a pretty solid description of what it means in the immediate-time for marketers, or any email marketing program. Like you said and further alluded to, separating the gmail addresses out and test, test, test is the best first step. It will be interesting to read from other “big boys” like ExactTarget what their tests are showing. Thanks for the post Debra!

    • ryancoxThank you Ryan. MailChimp recently posted some results on open rates
      before and after the introduction of the tabs. Using around 1.5 billion
      emails they found that open rates before tabs were consistently above
      13%. After the tabs they dropped to around 12.5%. Considering that the
      tabs are new and people tend to be slow to adapt, this is scary. It’s
      still early so no one should panic but signs are that this will change
      email marketing forever.

  • Great discussion Debra_Ellis I have 2 email addresses both Gmail. One is just for brand emails. anytime I join an email list I give that email. The other is for people. I spend most of my time logged into my people email and only sometimes log into the other one. This was because I was flooded with brand emails which now I mostly mass delete anyway. I have blogged about the email inbox clutter and how hard it is to get read.
    That said as a business if I can a choice between an email address or a Facebook Like I will choose email every time. That is much more intimate and private. In fact 1 email address to me is worth 100 likes. Will be interesting to see how this changes things. And btw Social is also a Tab. I don’t get Facebook alerts but many people do.

    • Howie Goldfarb Thank you Howie. I agree with your choice of an email address over a
      Facebook like. Email allows companies to economically connect with
      people on a 1-to-1 basis. The companies that take advantage of this
      opportunity will improve loyalty and marketing results.

  • Interesting stuff Debra – I’m glad you posted this, I agree with ryancox that it’s pretty early and we’ll need a lot more testing (mailchimp’s is a start).
    Having said that, your points about optimizing and building relationships are huge. For example, I just moved Danny Brown’s post from this a.m. into my social tab where he’ll get more attention from me. Same goes for SpinSucks. The people who are already part of my social network and providing me value, I appreciate having them in one place, away from personal emails. I think one possible read is that great marketers should be trying to get from the promotional to the social tab, which reflects what they should have been doing for the last 5-8 years anyway.

    • JoeCardillo Thank you for making an excellent point: “which reflects what they
      should have been doing for the last 5-8 years anyway.” These changes
      will move marketing to where is should be.

      • Debra_Ellis JoeCardillo Totally, and smart folks like yourself and many here are going to do really well. It sure is easier to do email marketing well if you are working with and not against the user.

        • JoeCardilloWell said – “It sure is easier to do email marketing well if you are working with and not against the user. “

  • A number of email marketers have hit the panic button over this new sorting option and it seems a bit premature to me. Personally, I look at my promotion emails MORE now than I did when they were mixed in with my regular email stream. By filtering everything into a stack that doesn’t interfere with the emails I NEED to see it gives me a sense of freedom – not to mention I’m not pinged every 10 minutes by something that isn’t the least bit pressing. As long as marketers are continuing to provide something of value in their messages I can’t imagine that this new filtering will have a detrimental effect.

    • dave_link
      Panicking is definitely the wrong move. Marketers
      need to work on building relationships (which they should do anyway), monitor
      the effect, and test to find the right solution.

      • Debra_Ellis dave_link If you’re providing value to your people, they will want to get your email right? 
        However, it is hard to say what Gmail might consider a valuable email.
        Also, I really like the idea of segmenting your list. It could lead to better relationships with people.

        • IpjRobson People will want to get your emails if they provide value but that
          doesn’t mean that the messages will be read in a timely manner. Life is
          hectic so out of sight is out of mind unless there is an immediate need.
          The historical advantages of email optimization (like great subject
          lines) is lost when the messages are hidden in a tab. Marketers have to
          figure out how to stay in front of their customers.

          Thank you for your comment.

        • Debra_Ellis IpjRobsonPart of that is creating a relationship with the people you’re trying to target isn’t it?
          However, this isn’t going to make it any easier.

        • Yes, relationships are even more important than before.

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