Gmail Segregates ‘Promotions’: Why This Won’t Slow Down the E-mail Marketing Machine

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Gmail’s new tabs system separates marketing messages into a “Promotions” box, making it easier than ever to ignore e-mail ads. Yet one theory holds that Gmail’s new design could actually make e-mail marketing more effective.

Despite it already seeming like a fairly old-school marketing strategy, e-mail remains an extremely popular way to reach consumers. In a new survey from Forrester Research and, a division of the National Retail Federation, 80% of retailers said they planned on spending more this year on e-mail marketing campaigns. It’s become customary for shoppers to see their in-boxes swamped every year with more and more e-mail ads during the Thanksgiving-Black Friday-Christmas period in particular.

The ever-rising flood of e-mail promotions may seem like a growing nuisance, but as Internet Retailer put it, there’s some indication that marketer e-mail messages “may be getting less annoying to consumers.” According to a Forrester study published in June, consumers are becoming less likely to automatically delete most e-mail ads: 44% said they did so in 2012, compared to 59% in 2010. What’s more, while 49% of survey respondents said they received too many e-mail ads in 2010, just 40% said the same last year.

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The shift appears to be the result of both marketers and consumers getting smarter about how they deal with e-mail ads. “Retailers in particular are better at personalization, even with small things like your name at the top of an email,” Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said via e-mail. Using data that includes one’s shopping history and other preferences, retailers are also in a better position to highlight deals, products, and promotions that are customized to the individual’s interests.

“But consumers also are better at filtering emails that are or aren’t useful to them,” said Mulpuru. When Forrester asked consumers what actions they took after receiving e-mail ads, the most popular response (named by 37% of those surveyed) was to just plain unsubscribe from the e-mail list. Because it’s become so commonplace to unsubscribe, consumers should naturally be more receptive to the e-mails they haven’t opted out of.

Even as e-mail ads seem to be hitting the mark better with consumers, there’s been concern that changes to Gmail accounts could send e-mail marketing strategies into upheaval. Earlier this summer, Google tweaked Gmail’s inbox design by creating several tabs and automatically corralling messages into boxes such as Primary (e-mails from real people), Social (social networks), and Promotions (marketing). MIT Technology Review called the redesign “a marketer’s worst nightmare” because promotional messages would being cordoned off and not instantly seen by Gmail users every time they checked e-mail.

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Indeed, a recent Quartz post rounded up research indicating that there has been a small but supposedly “significant” decrease in Gmail users opening marketer e-mails lately. So does the Gmail tabs innovation spell doom for e-mail marketing, or at least make e-mail ads less effective?

Forrester’s Mulpuru said that it will be difficult to measure the impact of Gmail’s changes on the industry as a whole for many reasons, one being that Gmail accounts represent a minority of addresses on the typical business’s e-mail list. More importantly, she says marketers shouldn’t necessarily hate that their messages are compiled in the Promotions tab. “The segregation could actually be helpful because people can quickly scan in one place things that may/may not be relevant without having to hunt for personal emails in a sea of mixed clutter,” explained Mulpuru.

While some Gmail users will be less likely to check out e-mails under the Promotions tab, others will give these ads more attention because they’ll purposefully seek them out when they’re bored or curious and their smartphones are handy. In effect, the tab “provides a ‘destination’ for people that’s not unlike getting a pile of Sunday circulars,” according to Mulpuru. “There are actually people who love marketing emails–that’s the reason they still stay subscribed to email lists in the first place. It’s very opt-in and self-selected.”

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So Gmail’s new interface might not be a marketer’s nightmare after all. Instead, the consumers who opt in, stay on those subscriber lists, and regularly click on that Promotions tab are marketers’ dream shoppers.