It’s been more than a month since Google unveiled Inbox, the email app that will either complement Gmail or replace the decade-old service, depending on whom you ask.
So far, a significant portion of the chatter surrounding Inbox focuses on the novelty of the thing, the user experience it offers and how beta invitations are going for $200 a pop on eBay.
But another conversation needs to take place among marketers, particularly those whose bread and butter is email marketing. If Google just went and re-invented email again, how much does that change the game?
Let’s try to get an early perspective on what Google Inbox might mean for email marketing, given some of what we know about the app.
What Exactly Does Inbox Do Differently?
Among the most exciting features Inbox reviewers have pointed out is what Google calls “bundles,” or the grouping of like emails. This automatically puts all of the promotions a user receives in one place, purchase confirmations in one place, travel-related emails in one place and so on.
That means promotional emails don’t get slotted alongside angry messages from your boss and forwards from your grandma. Users actively have to go peruse promo emails in Inbox.
That’s not really a huge departure from the Social and Promotions tabs in Gmail. Inbox users will still be navigating to promotional emails on their own terms.
A second interesting feature is what Inbox is calling “highlights,” which are richer in information value than text-based subjects. Instead, you might see an image, some display text and even a call to action if Inbox deems these things relevant. (More on Inbox acting as a gatekeeper in a moment.)
Finally, the big changes from a UX perspective include the ability to set reminders for emails (if you wanted to de-prioritize a message until after work, for example), to pin important messages at the top of your inbox, and to mark off messages as “Done” rather than sending them to Gmail’s cavernous Archive.
Experts Put Inbox Into Perspective
This is where Inbox gets interesting for a lot of people because it starts to look an awful lot like productivity and time-management apps. Amadou Diallo at Forbes hints at that idea in a November piece, and the productivity gains Inbox offers him were incentive enough to adopt it as his default email client.
“Inbox is a completely different animal, based on a different concept of how we manage our digital lives,” Diallo writes.
Gigaom senior writer Kevin C. Tofel goes so far as to call Inbox “a change in how we view and work with email.”
“It’s more of a task-based system to help manage communications,” Tofel writes.
While that paradigm shift is part of the key difference, Tech2.com points out that Inbox is really an example of Google segmenting the email market: “Inbox was always meant to run in parallel with Gmail. Inbox is aimed at power users who get a ton of emails each a day, many of which that need to be replied to. This is in contrast with Gmail, where advanced features are hidden to make things simpler for average users.”
Finally, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan put Inbox’s automated bundling feature to the test by forwarding his work email to it, which is about 700 messages per day, give or take. Dignan reports it organized that mess pretty well.
“Bottom line: Inbox is a handy app that takes Google's latest interface approach and cuts down on inbox time,” he writes. “My previous way to cut down on email time was to just shut it down and don't look at it.”
What This Means For Email Marketers
If email marketers want to keep pace with Google’s changes, they’ll need to similarly approach Inbox as an email management tool. This is a double-edge sword.
On the one hand, Inbox bundling promotional messages actually helps qualify leads. A user has to go looking for your message and will engage with it when they actually want to.
On the other hand, if you’ve been blasting out spam, you’ll need to step up your game (but really, you should step up your game as a matter of principle, anyway).
Here are a few things to take into account as more people sign up for Inbox:
The Highlights Feature Will Be Your Friend
Let’s take a look at the example from the Inbox landing page again:
Having a media-rich summary of your promotional email — with a call to action right in the inbox — will very likely boost your open rates, Aaron Beashel at Campaign Monitor writes.
“These extra visuals in the inbox draw the reader’s eye to your email and can help it get noticed and opened,” he says. “A similar thing happened when Twitter started showing images in the Twitter feed — tweets with images saw 18% more click-throughs than those without images, as they stood out above the other content being presented to the user.”
Now, just for fun, imagine the same Taro Sushi sending out an email with a 20% offer and a “Make Reservation” call to action.
Allow For Longer Lead Times
Lauren Smith at the Litmus blog notes that bundling will allow users to receive all of their bundled message at a designated time, meaning a recipient might not have the opportunity to act on a time-sensitive offer from you.
“If your subscribers have set their bundles so they only receive them once a week, then they miss out on key deals and promotions,” Smith writes.
Few People Are Actually Using Inbox Now
Remember, Inbox is invite-only at the minute, so only put as much energy into your Inbox strategy as you are into your Ello strategy, at least for now.
Chad White at the SalesForce Marketing Cloud blog sums this up nicely:
“Currently, Inbox downloads are by invitation only, just like Gmail was initially. So there should be a very limited impact in the near-term. And even once it becomes generally available, people will have to go and download it, which will moderate both the rate of adoption and scale of adoption. This is in sharp contrast to Gmail Tabs, which was rolled out to a huge existing user base over the course of a couple of months.
“Because of this, 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 email marketers.”
Could We See Marketers Build Apps Exclusively for Inbox?
I had a chat via email with email marketing expert Laura Atkins from Word to the Wise, who brought up an interesting idea: If and when Google releases Inbox’s API, this could allow those companies that invest heavily in email marketing to build apps for Inbox.
“Some providers (like Gmail) are starting to offer APIs into the mailbox,” Atkins said. “This API allows application developers to manage mail inside the Gmail inbox. It's possible that you will see some retailers, like Gilt, put together applications that interface with the Gmail box, but only show mail from that particular sender.”
So, let’s use the Gilt example because that company messages members every day — Gilt’s email campaigns are integral to its business model. In Gmail, this could take the form of a fourth tab in a user’s inbox: Primary, Social, Promotions and Gilt. In Inbox, Gilt emails could be their own bundles, perhaps.
Such a move would turn Inbox from an app to a full-on platform, and a potentially powerful one at that. Let’s be clear, though: We are just speculating at this point.
You Are Getting a Little Presumptive, Google
One last issue that reaches far beyond simple email marketing is the fact that Google appears comfortable prioritizing users’ messages for them.
Kevin Gates at Optinmonster.com writes that “the user is not on the front line when it comes to prioritization anymore.”
“This means that Google will decide if the user’s preview is of an image included in an email or only a line of plain text. This also means that Google will begin analyzing emails in even more depth to differentiate between content and filler material.”
This might just be the trade-off for a more productive email client, but email users (read: all of us) need to consider how much of our email curation we want to give away to an algorithm.
So, will Inbox be the death of email marketing? The astute reader should already be screaming about Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.
No, online marketing has survived numerous disruptions from Google over the years, and it has largely forced everyone in the industry to rely less and less on trickery such as keyword stuffing and spend more time crafting messages that resonate with people.
Aweber’s Olivia Dello Buono puts a nice spin on Inbox’s disruptive potential. “Weeding out unengaged subscribers isn’t a bad thing,” she writes.
“In fact, enabling users to choose the content they want to see the most in their inbox will only make them more engaged — and better engagement means more sales for you.”