June 25, 2013, 11:36 AM

A Gmail redesign may pose challenges for some retailers

Consumers may not click on the ‘promotions’ tab where marketing e-mail will land.

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Google Inc. has begun rolling out a redesigned Gmail inbox that organizes consumers’ e-mails into tabs, including a “promotions” tab that groups together marketers’ e-mails. That may force retailers to modify their e-mail marketing practices, especially merchants that offer sales for a limited time.

However, Google says it will be good for consumers. “We get a lot of different types of e-mail: messages from friends, social notifications, deals and offers, confirmations and receipts, and more,” writes Itamar Gilad, Gmail product manager, in a blog post announcing the redesign. “All of these e-mails can compete for our attention and make it harder to focus on the things we need to get done. Sometimes it feels like our inboxes are controlling us, rather than the other way around. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

The redesigned Gmail inbox’s default setting shows consumers person-to-person e-mails in the “primary” tab, which is what a consumer sees when logging in to Gmail. Other tabs include “social,” which gathers together e-mails from social networks and online dating services and “promotions,” which is where marketers’ e-mails land.

The redesigned inbox will likely change the way many consumers interact with marketers’ e-mails, says Kara Trivunovic, vice president of strategic services at e-mail marketing firm BlueHornet Networks Inc. Because Gmail accounts for about 30% BlueHornet’s clients’ e-mail subscribers, those behavior shifts could have broad repercussions, particularly for retailers that use e-mail to promote limited-time promotions, such as flash-sale retailers, she says.

“The majority of our retailer clients see the majority of their click-through activity within the first three hours of an e-mail reaching a recipient’s inbox,” says Trivunovic. But with marketers’ e-mails relegated to a separate tab, that time span will likely grow longer because marketers’ e-mails are not immediately visible to consumers when they sign into Gmail on a computer, she says. The Gmail changes will not impact how consumers view e-mails on mobile devices’ e-mail programs.

That delay in click-through and open rates may mean flash-sale site operators and other retailers , that send e-mails featuring time-sensitive offers may, have to adjust their approaches, she says. For instance, they may want to extend their sales’ time spans, while also increasing their use of other channels like social media to highlight their promotions. 

But the changes aren’t necessarily negative, she says. The redesign may also mean that when consumers click to view the “promotions” tab, they are in a buying mindset and more likely to convert, says Trivunovic.

“Retailers’ e-mails aren’t competing with messages from your mom or the e-newsletter you look forward to reading,” she says. “When you are in the ‘promotions’ tab you’re in a buying mindset and chances are you’re looking for an offer.”

That may boost click-through and conversion rates, she says, although it’s too soon to say because few consumers have the redesigned inbox. 

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