Did Google Kill Email Marketing?

I thought about titling this “Is the Sky Falling?”, but decided to be more direct (for SEO purposes, of course). In truth, this is also one of those things that early data shows may actually be worth worrying about. The new format for Gmail Inbox has already been shown to impact open rates, and we are only a few weeks in.

Before we dive into data, a quick overview of what has happened. Over the last few weeks, Google has rolled out their new Inbox format to their individual users (not the corporate app customers as of yet). This new format is preset with 5 “Tabs” into which Google then auto-magically sorts your email. You can adjust what goes where, but the first time in, Google does it for you.

You can see what my Tabs look like as an example.

My Gmail Tabs


As you can see, the Tabs are: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums. Any Tab you do not enable will cause those items to move back in to Primary. So, if you wanted to merge everything back into one giant inbox, you certainly can do so. As a user, I love the new format. It let’s me see quickly whether I have an email from Mom amongst all the daily deal sites. But, when I have a few minutes and want to check out the Groupon today, I can find that easily.

However, as a marketer, this is a whole new kind of challenge. According to MailChimp on their blog, they have seen a demonstrable drop in email open rates already.

Mailchimp didn’t stop at assumptions, they used their database and specified that only the 1.5 billion emails delivered to Gmail accounts over the course of the prior weeks be the sample size. Not an insignificant sample pool! What they saw was that the open rate in that pool had been steady at about 13% for 15 weeks excluding significant holidays. They also excluded the week immediately following the actual roll out (given that everyone was playing with the new look and feel). After that point, they show a small, but statistically valid, drop in open rates. (see the chart below for specifics).

Mailchimp gmail open rate data
Chart via MailChimp Blog 7/23/2013

What are the immediate things we should take away from this data? Content is king. It is king when you are examining SEO on a website, and it is just as important in email. Not because I think you will be able to finagle your way back into the Primary Tab with some sort of sneaky content manipulation (and for sure if you do it won’t last long, Google is good at what they do), but because your success now depends on someone proactively choosing to go look for your email. I am certainly going to go seek out Seth Godin’s blog in my Updates Tab each day as I always do (because I have now subscribed via email since the demise of Google Reader – wait – is that a full blown conspiracy I smell?) In other words, you have to be sure you are providing valuable content if you want to keep your open rate high.

Of course, the other thing to keep in mind, is that despite their outward popularity, Gmail is still not the market leader in email. That honor goes to Apple’s iPhone who own 24% followed by Outlook at 18% (according to Litmus, in June 2013). In fact, the Gmail email client only had a 3.78% market share. Businesses who buy lists will certainly begin seeking out those that are heavier on these technologies as a mitigation strategy.

So, is the sky falling? Did Google kill email marketing? Obviously, at this point it is too soon to tell. But when combined with their retirement of Google Reader, it does make me wonder. All a ploy to move us to Google+? Or are they doing as they claim and simply eliminating a product they didn’t see as promising and improving user experience?

Maybe we should head over to Google+ and discuss?


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