October 22, 2014, 5:25 PM

Google disrupts e-mail marketing—again

The search giant today launched an app called Inbox that could force retailers to change their e-mail marketing strategies.

Lead Photo

Search giant Google Inc. today launched a new e-mail app called Inbox that is much more than a mere inbox organizer. The new app allows consumers to group e-mail messages, making it similar to the way category tabs in Gmail work now. The app also pulls relevant information—such as tracking information—even if it’s not in the e-mail.

Inbox expands upon what Google has been doing with Gmail and search. Google revamped in July 2013 its Gmail inbox to automatically filter e-mail into tabs based on the sender, with one of the default tabs being “promotions.” Most e-mails from e-retailers were sorted into the promotions category.

Groupon, for example, was hit hard by the Gmail changes. Groupon says the change led to more shoppers leaving its e-mails unopened and contributed to a $2.6 million net loss in the third quarter of 2013.

Chad White, lead research analyst at Salesforce Marketing Cloud and e-mail marketing expert, says there are two things marketers need to pay attention to in the new release: bundles and highlights.

Bundles is a feature that allows consumers to group e-mails, as the category tabs do in Gmail, and to set preferences. For example, a consumer can decide that she only wants to receive a particular type of groups of e-mail—such as promotional e-mails sent by retailers—once a week, White says. “Bundles likely means that marginally engaged subscribers will become even less engaged, while engaged subscribers will become more engaged,” White says.

Highlights is a feature that will pull up information related to an e-mail and upsets the status quo in a big way, White says. “For instance, using Google’s search expertise, an e-mail about a package delivery could show you the real-time status of that delivery, even if that information isn’t in the e-mail,” he says.

Highlights will likely make open rates a less-important measure of success for e-mail marketing campaigns. “Highlights alsocontinues to break down the traditionally linear model of e-mail interaction—that recipients engage with envelope content, then body content, and then landing page content before hopefully converting,” White says. “Inbox gives another boost to the Stage-Bypass Model of e-mail interaction, where subscribers can jump to landing page content right from links in the Highlights content. For marketers, this will make open rates even less of a meaningful metric over time.”

Highlights is similar to a web search feature Google launched earlier this month. “Structured Snippets” pull information from web sites and displays that information below the search results on Google’s search results page. For example, a Google search for “Nikon D7100” displays such information as weight, screen size and sensor resolution below the search result for Digital Photography Review, a web site that reviews digital photography equipment.

Algorithms, powered by Google’s Knowledge Graph, uncover tables on web sites and extracts what it deems relevant information. The Knowledge Graph debuted two years ago, and is responsible for Rich Snippets, the encyclopedia-like information that occasionally appears to the right of search results on Google. For example, the query “Chicago” will pull up a photo, a summary and some key information about the city.

Because the Inbox app is invite-only right now and requires consumers to download a separate app—rather than just automatically updating Gmail—the adoption rates will likely be slow, White says. “Inbox will have a gradual impact on marketers, but the trend is clear. Increasing message relevance through smart content and smart targeting is the priority for all e-mail marketers.”

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