Email Segregation: A Good Thing?

I don’t vote for politicians who promise change. I respect the ones who want to preserve the status quo. They have less potential to mess things up. But change is a daily travail in our supercharged cyberworld. You have to adjust to it like you have to accept paying the price of a new pair of shoes for a tank of gas. But it doesn’t mean you have to like it.

So I wasn’t overly delighted when I opened my Gmail inbox today and got one of those black super-screens saying, “Lucky you, we took it upon ourselves to mess with your inbox and take another 10 minutes out of your jam-packed day to get you used to something you didn’t ask for and probably don’t want. Hope you hate it!”

The new tabbed Gmail inbox, which Google has been slowly phasing in since May, had made its way to me. Oh, happy day. It’s like waking up in the morning, blundering into your kitchen and finding that a burglar had come in during the middle of the night and taken nothing, but rearranged your appliances. After I had shed my initial curmudgeon’s reaction, however, I found I kind of liked the refrigerator better where the burglar put it.

Staring at me from my desktop monitor was my new Personal tab, with messages from friends and family. That was good. I always search for those first among the wreckage. I pressed the second tab, Social, and was presented with the sea of Linked In invitations I get (Hey, I’m a popular guy.), neatly sequestered from my more important stuff. Next to that was a Promotions tab with all my opt-in e-com and commercial emails. There are two more options (Updates and Forums) that Gmail thankfully didn’t pre-install me with.

I was taken aback. A tech juggernaut had once again poked its way uninvited into my life (Well, okay, I did ask to get Gmail free) and actually made my life easier. But then, I thought, what about the marketers? What about the e-coms and airlines and financial institutions fighting for the top spot in my inbox and needing—as Epsilon email wiz Quinn Jalli notes—to get my attention in the next couple of hours or drift away into the ether? They must be hating this. So I called a few of my email contacts to commiserate.

To my surprise, I found that Loren McDonald, VP of industry relations at Silverpop, thought there was a possibility that email segregation could turn out to be a good thing for business emailers. First off, he saw it as an improvement on the Priority email system Google launched a few years ago, which relegated business emails to the bottom of the pile. Also, each tab uses a colored button to signal the number of new emails in a queue, and McDonald thinks the alert might actually push people, in shopping mode, to click the Promotions tab.

“What we don’t know yet and won’t know for a long time is whether separating promotional and other marketing related messages will actually be good for marketers, because their messages won’t get lost in a sea of unrelated email,” McDonald points out.

G.B. Heidarsson, the Anton Van Leeuwenhoek of email, upon whom I always count for scientific dissections of email campaigns, was equally open-minded on the subject. “All changes in Gmail tend to become emphasized by marketers, and for good reason. Around 20% of most B2C email lists are being sent to Gmail or Google Apps accounts,” the COO of eDataSource said. “This change, though, may have been over-hyped by the email marketing community. It’s a mechanical change, and mechanical changes don’t change your personal likes and dislikes. You’ll probably like your favorite brands just as much as before and dislike those that you think are spamming you exactly as much as before. So what’s really changed?”

Kara Trivunovic, a veteran of StrongMail (now StrongView) who is currently VP of strategic services at Blue Hornet, joined the Amen Chorus: “This certainly can benefit the marketer in the long run,” she said. “The worst case scenario is that the offers appear in the Promotions” tab and, while a consumer has to specifically click on the tab to view the offers, it is another qualifying step that they are seeking out a deal.”

Epsilon’s Jalli opined that the top of the box position still exists within the Promotion tab, but wonders whether the new format will have a subliminal effect on consumers’ perceptions. “The real issue here is that the tabbed browsing perspective will sublimate the marketing message in importance,” he said.

Alright, Google, you leave me with nothing negative to say, which is a position I don’t like being in as a columnist. Just do me a favor and give your technologists and programmers a month off. No more surprises for at least the rest of the summer, OK?

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