Google's new default tabs and its own embedded advertising emails could make it harder than ever for businesses to get their external messages across. Here's what you need to know.
2. Monitor Your Open Rates.
Now is a good time to watch your email data -- and specifically your Gmail segment, which is likely considerable for some businesses -- for changes. Start by monitoring open rates to look for any significant variance, particularly during the last several weeks. Goodman said that Constant Contact's own internal monitoring has found "modest changes" but nothing drastic to date. She noted that engaged recipients -- in other words, the people that actually want to hear from your organization -- are still opening their emails, tabs be darned. (See also: Number 3.)
But if your audience includes a significant number of Gmail users, you do need to watch your data closely. Another email service provider, MailChimp, noted in a recent blog post that Gmail open rates -- which typically remain consistent over time -- have ebbed since the widespread rollout of tabs. "The new Gmail inbox is bringing down open rates, but the change isn’t dramatic at this point," the company said. "Time will tell if the trend lasts."
3. People Will Still Read Compelling Emails.
Goodman gave Google points for doing a good job of notifying users when new messages appear behind tabs without being intrusive. As a result, businesses that send email to audiences that actually want to hear from them -- not necessarily a given, unfortunately -- will continue to get their messages across.
"Relevant content wins," Goodman said, noting that relevance varies widely from one organization (a charity, for example) to another (a yoga studio). "If people enjoy your messages because it's relevant to them, [they will still open your email]."
4. This Could Be A Good Thing.
At face value, Gmail's default tabs and their own email-like ads wouldn't appear to favor other businesses and their email communications. It's logical to think: "This makes it harder for people to see, much less read, my email." Again, Goodman said it's too soon to say for certain whether that will prove true. But she offered a happier potential outcome for organizations that rely on external email: Tabs might actually boost engagement with mass email over the long haul while reducing the number of messages that get lost or deleted simply because they're received in the middle of a busy workday.
"Rather than necessarily looking at it during the day in the stream that we all follow, it just may be that I don't go to that [tab] until I have a little more time," Goodman said. "But maybe then I actually do it with more intent."
5. You Can't Control Everything.
You've got plenty of control over your email strategy -- messaging, frequency, scheduling, audience, and so forth. You can't do much, however, about Google's UI, message categorization and other factors. "As an individual business, it's probably out of your hands," Goodman said.
It's worth understanding how Gmail works from a user standpoint -- and how that might play out in your favor over the long run. For example, the new tabs, much like Google's success with keeping spam out of inboxes, really work: they're an effective dragnet for just about any kind of mass-blast email. However, they group together a bunch of messages under, say, "Promotions," that don't necessarily have much in common -- aside from the fact that they were all sent via some type of mass-email service rather than from one individual to another.
A quick sampling of my current Promotions tab includes: A public relations pitch, a newsletter from a local nonprofit organization, the weekly specials at my grocery store, and a daily deal offer. You could make the case that the nonprofit newsletter, for one, belongs under "Updates" -- where most of my other non-sales-y newsletters are now appearing. But the organization probably can't do much about that. (In an unintended coincidence, that particular email was sent via Constant Contact.)
Goodman did note that Google listens to marketers and businesses in aggregate fashion. As the broader industry begins to wrap its collective head around Gmail's changes and offers feedback, Google will likely be receptive.
6. You Can't Control Google's Email Ads.
Your audience is, for better or worse, also Google's audience. Unless Gmail users opt out of the new ads, they're going to start seeing them with increased frequency.
The new email-like ads are, in standard Google fashion, subtly yet eye-catching (although only vaguely relevant, in my experience to date), thanks to the offset background color and the preview-pane text breaking onto a standalone second line, giving the ads more vertical real estate than everything else that follows. It doesn't hurt, either, that the ads I've seen so far are always at the top of the list.
Again, you need to be aware they're there and how they affect the appearance of your own messages -- especially if your emails are of the sales-and-marketing variety and likely to end up in Promotions. But don't expect Google to stop selling ads, even though it will likely to hear from businesses and consumers alike if those ads become a little too visible.
"In terms of [Google] giving themselves preferential treatment in the email inbox, I think that is something they're going to need to be very careful about," Goodman said.
7. Mobile Is The [Much] Bigger Deal.
Significant Gmail updates are no small concern for external email communications. But Goodman notes that email strategies are already undergoing sweeping changes due to mobile consumption -- 40% of emails are now opened on a mobile device, according to Constant Contact. That creates a wide range of content-strategy considerations. Particularly for marketing emails, Goodman said "one topic at a time" is the new golden rule. "The days of the two-column, seven-article newsletter are long gone," she added.
In the Gmail context, the mobile boom means that UI changes such as the new tabs aren't in fact universal. (Reminder: Don't freak out.) "Just because someone has a Gmail address doesn't mean they use a Gmail client to read that email," Goodman said. "They may very well have it going to the Apple native inbox, which will not be tabbed."
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.