Gmail's Redesign Not the End of Email Marketing

Impact Negligible Among Marketers' More Active Subscribers

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On Friday high-end flash sales site blasted its email subscriber base with the subject line, "Gmail Users: Never Miss a Must-Have Steal!" Despite the message's urgency, some may have missed the missive as it wasn't delivered to their primary Gmail inbox but sequestered to the recently introduced "Promotions" inbox tab.

That was precisely the circumstance Gilt and other email marketers are trying to avoid.

Gilt's email to subscribers
Gilt's email to subscribers

Gmail's new tabbed layout that Google announced in late May and introduces a tab that filters marketing emails from the standard inbox has sent marketers running to their email vendors for answers over its potential impact. What will this do to email open rates? How do brands get back into the regular inbox? Is this the end of email marketing?

The cause for alarm is that for most marketers, Gmail is the number-one or -two email service used by their subscribers.

Despite reports suggesting otherwise, Gmail's redesign has not ushered in email marketing's apocalypse, according to marketers and email vendors canvassed by Ad Age.

"We've found there's been really no impact in our business overall. In fact since the redesign launched, we've seen no change in [email] open rates, and response rates have stayed almost exactly the same," said Jeffrey Lack, director of marketing at Jiffy Lube, whose subscriber base numbers a couple million email addresses.

Jiffy Lube could be an outlier. However marketing services companies like Responsys and Epsilon that manage email marketing campaigns for large swaths of marketers have similarly seen little impact. Google declined to provide any statistics on Gmail open rates comparing before and after the new format's roll-out.

"We're seeing a slight decline in Gmail opens, but we're seeing conversion rates and click-to-open rates staying steady," said Epsilon's VP-customer experience design Shannon Aronson. In other words the people already receptive to marketers' emails continue to be. And while Responsys saw a 0.2% percent dip in open rates from June 2013 to July 2013, the company actually measured a 5% year-over-year increase in open rates last month.

Return Path's study of 1.4 million email accounts
Return Path's study of 1.4 million email accounts

In a study of more than 22 million messages delivered across 1.4 million inboxes, email deliverability service Return Path saw that for the 11% of consumers most likely to read marketers' emails, read rates for the week after the redesign's roll-out improved by 2% to 59.9% compared to the 90 days leading up to the switch. For the 88% of consumers considered moderately engaged with marketers' emails, read rates dipped from 10.6% to 9.8%, and for the 1% of people apathetic to marketers' communications, read rates dropped from 2.2% to 0.4%.

Return Path measured a 17% read rate for July 2012 versus 15.6% for July 2013, but saw that placement rates -- marketing emails making it into users' inboxes instead of their spam folders -- actually improved, said the company's senior director of email research Tom Sather.

Return Path's findings demonstrate that Gmail's redesign has Darwinized email marketers' subscriber lists, improving performance with the more attentive customers and phasing out the least-attentive, said Loren McDonald, VP at marketing software and services company Silverpop. Silverpop surveyed 236 clients, 13% of whom reported seeing a decrease in email opens and 10% of whom experienced a decline in conversions and revenue in the wake of Gmail's new format. "If you're deploying a not-great email program, it may negatively impact you," Mr. McDonald said. "If people are already ignoring your emails, they may ignore them at a higher level."

Responsys exec Kevin Senne described the new layout as positive for Responsys's clients, which include Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods and Lenovo, because it puts marketing emails in front of consumers when they're in the mood to read them rather than interrupting their flow of personal communications or social media notifications. "When folks go to a promotions tab now, it's by choice. They're looking for something specific," he said.

For some marketers, that's not good enough. BuzzFeed reported earlier this week that Gap has emailed subscribers asking to be moved to Gmail's primary inbox, as Gilt did. Mr. McDonald said some of Silverpop's clients are asking to do the same thing, though he disagrees with the strategy. So too does Mr. Senne from Responsys, and Mr. Lack from Jiffy Lube said that the brand doesn't plan to send out such emails though that could change if it finds the redesign hurting its emails' performance.

Other marketers have tried to trick their way into the primary inbox. Welcome emails -- as well as transactional emails like shipping notifications and order receipts -- are delivered to the primary inbox, and Ms. Aronson has seen some brands' messages include keywords like "welcome" in the subject line of non-welcome emails. Those marketers risk catching Google's ire, said Mr. Sather. Ahead of the redesign and likely because of it, the company updated its guidelines for people sending emails in bulk advising them that "the subject of each message should be relevant to the body's content and not be misleading."

So what's an email marketer to do? Here are three tips.

Use evergreen subject lines: Because Gmail users may not check the Promotions tab as often as their primary inbox, messages carrying the subject line "Sale! Today Only!" may sit unread until tomorrow and then be deleted for appearing expired. "Sale! Discounts Up to 50%" is a better option.

Adopt dynamic content: An evergreen subject line doesn't ensure that one-day sale email doesn't still get forwarded to the trash folder, especially if the sale has ended. Companies like Movable Ink specialize in changing the body of an email based on when and where it was opened. If the sale is over, it could swap out the message with one promoting clearance items.

Get smarter at segmenting your subscribers: If you're a big-box retailer emailing your loyalty card members about a new product line for newborns, don't send that to the people purchasing prunes and Polident. Message with relevance and maybe they'll mark you with a "priority" label or even let you into their primary inbox.

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