Google is a company that thrives on innovation and it has brought that energy and spirit to the email channel over the last few years, helping shake up the industry that just wont change (see, I didn’t say die there). Google seems to have double-downed on email, as it realizes it is the cornerstone of the consumer Internet experience.
The latest shake-up in the inbox is their latest product called Inbox (hey, no one said they are innovative product marketers). A provoking article about why Google wants to replace Gmail is a must-read as a companion piece to this article.
Speaking of this piece, I asked three heavy-hitters to let me know whether this latest curve ball was a blessing to email marketers and consumers or a terrifying change to tried-and-true experience of checking and reading your email.
My three guests in this two-part article are Chad White of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Ryan Phelan of Acxiom, and Jay Jhun of BrightWave.
Simms Jenkins (SJ): What is your impression of inbox? Major game changer to all who use and love email or cute enhancements that won’t change many things on marketing or consumer side?
Chad White (CW): Inbox raises the bar. No one is innovating more around the consumer inbox than Google right now. Just in the last 18 months the Gmail team has rolled out their native unsubscribe link more widely, turned images on by default, launched grid view, and, of course, debuted Tabs. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t spur other inbox providers to release significant updates by next summer.
There are three things that are really interesting about Inbox. First, there are Bundles, which is really just Google’s way of adapting the tabbed Gmail environment to the mobile form factor. Instead of tabs running across the top of the inbox, tabs have been converted into Bundles of emails that appear in the inbox feed in line with email conversions and single emails.
Second, beyond adapting to the mobile form factor, Inbox makes use of other mobile functionality. For instance, it makes use of touchscreen gestures, allowing you to archive an email by swiping right. Swiping left on an email brings up the snooze menu, which lets you set a time-based reminder or a location-based reminder, making use of your smartphone’s location functionality. For example, you can set a reminder on an email to go off when you get home. The big head-scratcher, however, is that Inbox doesn’t recognize media queries and therefore can’t render responsive email designs.
And third, Inbox redefines snippet text with Highlights, which can show you text, images, and attachments from the email – as well as information not included in the email. For example, by using Google’s search expertise, a shipping notification might show you real-time delivery information as a Highlight, even if that information isn’t in the email. That’s a radical rethinking of what we should really start calling snippet content.
Ryan Phelan (RP): Since coming out last week, I’ve been playing with it as a consumer and as an email marketer. My initial impression was, “Oh man, change again…. I just got to love the new inbox from Gmail from the last time.” I am really in love with that format as it helps me categorize my emails so they are easily digestible, but what I really loved is that they did it for me. Technology working to make my life easier. This is what Inbox is all about. What Google seems to have done this time is step it up a notch. They’ve done this on two levels. First, through the mobile device and second with organization in an unorganized world.
First, they’ve focused on mobile. You still have the same Gmail Web structure, but what you do in the Inbox app cascades to the emails in this box. So when you swipe a category away as completed (meaning you’ve read it), it vanishes from your tabbed experience. We all recognize in our own programs or clients that mobile viewership continues to increase – it’s where we need to be thinking and it’s where consumers are more and more accessible. Not only in how our emails work, but the time involved in consuming content. Marketers are continuing to look at optimization and that has to be a broad action in our programs.
This of course leads us into our second level, organization. It’s always the question in the mobile world of how do you minimize or encapsulate the important information for the user, but also make it easy to access. By using Bundles, Inbox seeks to expand its simple tabbed infrastructure into a broader categorization and unlike tabs, the user can actually start to bundle their own. In addition, you have pins (sounds familiar to social) and reminders (snooze) and finally a rather clean UX that is more controlled by Inbox than the marketer, putting more emphasis on the short subject line with the sender second in priority.
When we reduce all this what do we find? That Google is transferring the fast pace of our lives and what apps really are intended for into the need for faster consumption by teaching us what organization looks like and ease of use. Email through Inbox has now started to move beyond what we have as an archetype into a migration into the application of apps to email. What that means for us is that we start to de-clutter our communication and when we get more organized, we get smarter. Clarity and organization create focus and that focus helps us concentrate on things that are really important. With Inbox, Google just did it for us and again proves that technology is working for our benefit. The challenge will be how will the average consumer accept a radical change?
I think Inbox would be really easy if you were starting on a pristine inbox, but mine with its tons of emails in each tab has me on edge as a radical change. I literally watched a months’ worth of emails vanish the other day and I have to admit, it was a little scary. Like ripping off a Band-Aid and admitting that my feeble attempts of organization have been proven so wrong that emails now just vanish when they’re done instead of a reminder of my accomplishments. Oh well, change is good. It will be very interesting to see how consumers react. Until Google forces the Inbox experience in the browser, we will see varied adoption as people run back to what they know.
SJ: Bundles and Highlights seem pretty cool for the end user? What do you think these mean for the email marketer?
CW: Just like with Tabs, Bundles will likely further polarize a subscriber’s engagement. So if they were marginally engaged before, Bundles will make them less so. But if they were engaged before, Bundles will make them more so. On net, this should benefit most marketers, just like Tabs benefited most marketers, especially those with highly engaged subscribers.
That’s because Bundles, just like Tabs, makes it easier for email users to ignore emails that are unimportant to them and to pay more attention to the emails that are important to them. Also, when similar emails are grouped together, it’s more efficient for users and better for marketers. I compared Gmail’s Promotions Tab to a shopping mall, saying that you’d rather have your store in the mall where people go to shop than in the Primary Tab where you’re like a traveling salesman who interrupts conversions with your subscribers’ friends and family members. Bundles are similar, except this mall floats freely in your inbox feed rather than being tethered to a tab.
Highlights is largely good for marketers as well, partially because most marketers don’t optimize their snippet text. According to research the Salesforce Marketing Cloud will be releasing in mid-November, only 47 percent of major B2C brands fully optimize their snippet text. So while Highlights represents a loss of some control for marketers, it’s control that many weren’t exercising.
Jay Jhun (JJ): With the introduction of the default Gmail Tabs of Primary, Social, Promotions, and Updates, we watched as Gmail tried to be our personal assistant in organizing the clutter of our inbox. The Tabs, now dubbed “Bundles,” are a little smarter and actually pretty helpful in sorting out your messages. For example, transactional emails that we like having handy (travel-related, purchase receipts, bank notifications) are sorted into Bundles named Travel, Purchases, and Finance.
If you have a significant segment of your customer base using an @gmail.com address, now might be a good time to invest in refining your transactional email creative (especially if you’re a brand like a bank, hotel, airline, or e-tailer).
The Promos, Updates, and Social bundles (aka the founding Tabs in Gmail) appear to be the prioritized in the default view and there is no mention of a “Primary” tab anymore.
Interestingly, when you look at the order in which the Bundles are displayed, Inbox by Gmail seems to treat brand marketers like “frienemies” because they stuff Promos at the bottom of the list of Bundles. But (if you look at the way it appears on my Nexus 5, screenshot shown here), the Promos bundle is the easiest one to access with your thumb.
One thing I did notice is that one usability enhancement the Gmail team made is that the rest of the Bundle/Inbox remains visible after clicking on an email message to open and read. Hitting the Escape key collapses the email message you opened, thus making it much easier to skim through any given email. I personally love this feature because it provides me with a keystroke exit from reading an email message instead of a click on a back button or navigation element.
RP: Great question and I think what this means for the email marketer is this: “Your attempts to fight the relevancy conversation are futile.” We’ve been preaching the relevant conversation for years and while many are there, it’s still not a majority of the companies. This is yet another step in the receivers taking control of the inbox and forcing marketers to comply. I mean, did we really believe that we would be able to send massive amounts of irrelevant email forever?
Relevancy is around us 24/7. How exciting would the Internet be if it was not relevant? I log into my news app and there’s what I am interested in. I go to Amazon and there are suggestions on what else I may need. We know that when we add relevancy in our emails specific to the consumer, we see increases in response (see: related product inclusion in transactional emails). Yet, time after time in our promotional cadence that we don’t have this same focus. Sure, marketers can continue to stay with outdated strategies that encourage higher cadence of a general message, but if you look around, email is one of the last Internet technologies that is still sending one message to everyone. Bundles, Highlights, pins, and the other pieces of Inbox should be a wake-up call to the marketer that things have to change.
The email marketer and the executives that support them must face the music that email costs more than a pure CPM and that an investment in data will pay off. Inbox is proving that in the fact that other companies are redefining the email experience. We’re either going to play along and innovate as well, or fail because we refused to see the future. That’s not just me saying that, I along with other companies have case study after another of companies that used data correctly and responsibly and is seeing massive returns. This isn’t vaporware, it’s technology’s gift to marketers in that we have propensity, modeling, and data to make us smarter.
Think about this. Direct mail is still around. Why? Because there are intricate models that determine who is the best audience to send a $4 piece of mail. The funny thing is, direct mail still shows a return. Why is it that we cannot translate this practice into email? It would seem that Google and other receivers are telling us what email is instead of us showing them.
In the second part, I will share advice from these battle-tested email veterans and ask them where the next email innovation is coming from.
For another perspective on Google’s Inbox, please visit
Everyone Stay Calm (Again): 4 Things to Know About Inbox by Gmail.
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