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Stupid Media Watch: Motley Fool Lives Up to its Name

7/23/13

By Ken Magill

Whenever the concept of death and email are expressed in the same sentence, it’s a good bet something stupid will follow.

And sure enough, such was the case with a Motley Fool article published last week headlined: “Did Google Just Kill Email Marketing?”

The article was supposed to provide some level-headed analysis of what effects Gmail’s recent automatic transition to a three-part inbox—divided into primary, social and promotional folders—might have on commercial email.

“Gmail’s new features take advertising right out of a user’s inbox, placing ads a click away in the ‘promotions’ category. That view is only available to desktop users,” said the article by Jordan Wathen.

“When I access my Gmail through my Android phone app, I can only access my primary inbox. Anything in my ‘promotions’ category is out of sight unless I use Gmail on a desktop or tablet that has enough screen space to display the fully-featured inbox.

“This change is huge. First, it takes promotions out of the line of sight, so fewer people are likely to see email campaigns. Secondly, it reduces the impact of email marketing on mobile phones, since promotional campaigns are hidden entirely.”

That’s funny. When I accessed my Gmail account on my Android app, it displayed the old inbox, even though I’m getting the new inbox on my Mac laptop and my PC desktop.

Cynthia Boris writing at Marketing Pilgrim said she got the new Gmail inbox on her mobile device and was able to access her promotional email, but with a little extra navigation.

Three different people, three different mobile Gmail experiences. As with all things marketing, never make assumptions about email based solely on your own experience.

Wathen’s experience with Gmail on his Android could end up being the default experience. Then again, maybe not.

Then there’s the implied assumption that people don’t value their commercial email and if it’s not right in their faces they will ignore it.

A Microsoft Hotmail executive told me several years ago that email had evolved into a channel consumers primarily use to manage commercial relationships.

In a recent survey by consulting firm Infosys, 78 percent of consumers surveyed said they would share their email addresses with retailers, making it the No. 1 piece of information they would give out.

No. 2 was ZIP codes, at 64 percent. And just 38 percent said they’d give their postal addresses to retailers.

Think about it: How do you want merchants to contact you? With a phone call? Nope. Email. It’s the most convenient commercial communications channel we have.

Moreover, when new email appears in one of the Gmail categories, a highlighted tab appears letting the address holder know there is email in that folder that has yet to be seen. On the promotional folder, the tab is green, at least in my inbox. That feature alone may act as a call to action of sorts.

Coincidentally, as I’m writing this on Friday, the green tab just appeared on my promotional email folder letting me know the Weber-Stephen grilling recipe-of-the-week email just arrived, a message I always open looking for ideas on what to cook on Saturday. As soon as I finish this column, I will open the email and see if the recipe is something I want to grill.

[Update: I opened it. The recipe was for turkey-burger-and-Swiss-cheese melts. They were great.]

So one possible scenario is that the address holder sees there are new, unread messages in her promotional folder and deals with them when she’s ready.

And she’ll deal with them in an environment uncluttered by social-media emails, which are now delivered under another tab.

If anyone’s email is going to take an engagement hit, it will be social-media email, the most ignorable messaging hitting people’s inboxes.

So while I believe Gmail made a needless change to attack a non-problem, I do not think it’s a commercial email killer. The change might even be positive for commercial emailers.

Wathen also made a head-scratcher of a prediction on how Gmail’s change might affect small-business email service provider Constant Contact if the other inbox providers follow Gmail’s lead.

“Perhaps, the most concerning issue for Constant Contact is that 67% of its business is derived from small businesses with fewer than 10 employees,” he wrote.

“Its customers are most likely to stop email campaigns from lower conversions -- they don’t have the scale to leverage email marketing at lower ROIs. Email marketing has high fixed costs (setting up campaigns, managing the list) and almost no variable costs. Thus, smaller businesses operate on a thin margin of profitability.”

As my 10-year-old son would say: “Wha Wha What?”

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