Much Ado About Email: Raise Your Eyebrow (Slightly) About Gmail’s Changes

When word arose about changes the world’s largest email service made to the way it organizes messages, marketers got nervous. It’s OK to get a little worried about the “Promotions” tab, but the real lesson here? Don’t put all your eggs in a single basket.

It’s both deeply ironic and extremely telling that an email about declining open rates received one of the highest click rates the Associations Now Daily News has ever gotten in its 10 months of existence.

The most-skilled email marketers are effective at turning lemons into lemonade by putting their ears to the ground, adapting to the data they see, and incrementally tuning their approach.

But of the roughly 23 percent of readers that opened Thursday’s email newsletter, 40 percent clicked on a link (an extremely high number for a daily newsletter), and the story that got the most clicks, by a wide margin, was Anita Ferrer’s piece about the effects of Gmail’s “Promotions” tab on marketing messages.

Associations live and breathe email marketing, so the clicks clearly showed a little collective concern. And there are other signs that Gmail’s move has savvy email marketers worried:

  • Chris Brogan, the founder and CEO of Human Business Works (and a genius at writing emails that are at once pitchy and conversational), sent an email to his subscribers in the middle of the week—off his normal Sunday morning schedule—just to tell people how to ensure his emails weren’t getting buried in the promotions folder. “Not too long ago, Gmail decided to help you by creating a ‘promotions’ tab where they like to stuff newsletters and the like,” he wrote. “As a result, you might not have seen newsletters from me over the past few weeks. Believe me, I’m sending them.” For me, the email showed up in the … I don’t even have to say it.
  • Silicon Valley icon Jason Calacanis, whose excellent LAUNCH newsletter is loose in structure and filled with his pointed commentary, suggests that Google’s goal may be to begin charging those who want to give premium play to marketing messages. “A conspiracy theorist would say Google’s new Gmail filtering of marketing messages is their attempt to kill one of the few advertising mediums they don’t control,” he writes. (There’s some evidence to support Calacanis’ argument: Users have complained about ads that suspiciously look like emails inside the “Promotions” tab.)
  • There’s already a counter-narrative in the works. Speaking to MediaPost, email marketing expert Len Shneyder argues that the issue is going to solve itself with the rise of mobile messaging. “Gmail opens will be offset given the number of IMAPed mobile devices that do the opening and bypass the new inbox,” he tells Jordan Cohen. Cohen says that savvy email marketers will start dynamically swapping out content in real time in an effort to outsmart the folders. “Yes, my email marketing brothers and sisters: Our cheese has been moved,” Cohen writes. “The question is, will you move with it?”

Now, is this really something to get stressed over? It depends. You know your members, you know your stats, and you (should) know where your readers are reading your content.

Earlier this year, Associations Now‘s Katie Bascuas spotlighted  Informz’s 2013 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report, and its findings back Shneyder’s statement—more people are reading emails on their mobile devices than they are on desktops.

And to take things a step further, the most-skilled email marketers are effective at turning lemons into lemonade by putting their ears to the ground, adapting to the data they see, and incrementally tuning their approach. That’s why someone who’s had an opportunity to work on an email newsletter for a couple of years is such a natural at it.

But even on mobile, users are already trying to sort through the mishmash of marketing messages. Whether it’s Mailbox or Cloze or some other piece of software, the tension between the need to raise one’s voice and the need to cut one’s noise isn’t going away anytime soon.

Email is our online bread and butter, and it simply works. But if it’s your main way of reaching members, there’s a really good argument to be made for diversifying your approach so that you’re not completely reliant on one medium. Maybe it’s social media. Maybe it’s an app with regular notifications. Maybe you pick up the phone a little more. But nervousnesses over a high-profile change by the world’s largest email service shouldn’t be the catalyst for this. You should be making bandwidth for these alternatives as a general rule.

When major players in the email game like Constant Contact and MailChimp are raising yellow (if not red) flags about the Gmail change, it’s certainly worth taking an Alka-Seltzer over.

But it’s up to you—and your fellow stakeholders—whether you treat it as indigestion or go into panic mode.

By Ernie Smith

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