September 30, 2013, 12:59 PM

Google knows best

The founder of automated e-commerce marketing technology platform Sidecar says marketers are over-reacting to the new organization of the Gmail inbox.

Last year, when Google announced that brands and vendors would have to pay for the privilege of participating in Google Shopping, via Product Listing Ads (PLAs), after years of free inclusion in Google Product Search, there was much uproar.  And although the blowback continues (Amazon recently decided to remove its Kindle readers from the platform after having already decided not to play ball in the PLA space at all), all in all, Google Shopping looks to be a success, with retailers already allocating 6% of their marketing budgets to PLAs, and the majority stating that they will continue to spend more in that channel, according to Forrester.

This isn’t the first time Google made an unpopular decision (I still miss Google Reader), but the success of this particular initiative begs the question: can’t the unpopular decision—at least in Google’s case—also be the right one?

I’ve been following the rollout of the new multi-tab Gmail inbox, and the retail world’s reaction to it, ever since the company announced its impending arrival in May, and so far, here’s what I think: we’re making a mountain out of a molehill.  

Timing is everything

When I do my one final e-mail check in the evening before bed, all I want to know is whether there’s something that’s going to keep me from getting there, or something that’s going to get me out of it earlier than expected.  E-mails from my team and my clients are the only things that matter.  If it needs immediate attention, I’ll attend to it; if it can wait, so can I.

Everyone has their own e-mail habits: whether it’s checking first thing in the morning before getting out of bed or not looking at it until arriving at work or setting aside some strict “no-e-mail” time during the day to reduce distractions and amp up productivity.  But one thing we all have in common is that when we’re in work mode—whether at 9:00 in the morning or 9:00 at night—we want to see work e-mails.  All of those industry newsletters and discount offers and product recommendations get in the way of getting things done.

Which isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome.  I need to be in a “break” mode or a “shopping” mode or a “reading” mode to get the most out them.  If a promotional sale is stuck in between two notes from clients, chances are I’ll skip right over it.  But if it’s tucked away somewhere where I can view it when I’m ready to, I’ll actually have the ability to give it a proper look.  By choosing when I get to see the message, it’s more powerful and resonant with me. Therefore, the likelihood that I’ll click-through—and purchase—is higher.  And that seems to be the case with other Gmail users, who are actually engaging with marketing e-mails more than they used to, according to a recent study by e-mail analytics firm Return Path. Just like with the success of Google’s PLAs, the tabbed inbox shows that perhaps Google understands consumer intent better than some marketers—and has created products that align with it.

 The “flash” problem

True, by choosing to wait until I can review these e-mails at my own leisure I might occasionally miss out on a deal.  Sites that open sales up at a very specific time, or that are promoting extremely limited inventories, are perhaps getting the short end of the stick with Gmail’s new tabs.

But Gmail’s classification system is malleable.  A flash retailer’s e-mail needn’t be relegated to a secondary tab forever.  Flash sale sites need to work now to build a strong brand presence so that their customers (and potential customers) see an imperative in moving these e-mails to the main tab.  Some sellers are asking their customers to do this.  And others, perhaps the ones that will be most successful here, don’t necessarily need to. If a consumer knows that she will get great deals from a flash retailer, she’ll make sure she doesn’t miss any, by flagging them to the main inbox.

For flash sellers who still struggle, there is perhaps another option: send your customers something they’ll want to open instead of something they feel they have to open.  If open rates or click-throughs or engagements are consistently weak, even after marketing efforts to establish these deals as “can’t-miss,” perhaps it’s worth considering sending out more personalized and targeted e-mails as soon as customers registered, based on what they have viewed, to increase the chances of them moving these e-mails to the primary inbox. While many flash retailers personalize messages after the first purchase, they may find it helpful to leverage the initial browsing data, immediately, to help improve activation and e-mail engagement.

Don’t panic

The runaway success earlier this year of the mobile e-mail organizer app Mailbox clearly showed that consumers are desperately in search of a way to manage the increasing volume of e-mail they receive.  Google understood this as an imperative—and if it wanted its customers to continue to use Gmail, it needed to do that in a way that would make the experience less frustrating for them.  After all, if consumers were to abandon Gmail, it’s not just bad for Google—it’s bad for the retailers who have made a significant investment into Google’s whole suite of marketing products. 

The new Gmail helps to assuage soothe some of the pains of e-mail consumers were feeling—and in so doing, lets them get their e-mail content in a way that works best for them.  The convenience for users can give way to convenience for advertisers, who will be reaching the right consumers at the right time.  That open rates are being affected by less than 1% is telling: people are still getting, and opening retailers’ messages.  But here’s my hypothesis: even though the open rate might have declined slightly, the people who are opening these e-mails are spending more time perusing them (rather than just hitting the arrow to go to the next message), and are both clicking through and buying more.  It’s too early to tell—but I would encourage all retailers to do this analysis as the numbers will speak for themselves soon enough."

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