How will the new Gmail format affect users and marketers?

If your day consists of constant back-and-forth emailing between clients, customers, and co-workers, that lofty goal of “inbox zero” might seem like an unattainable dream. Google, always one to jump at the chance to make our online lives better with their fleet of ever-evolving products and service offerings, recently unveiled a new feature in Gmail which automatically categorizes incoming emails.

With the aim of helping Gmail users get a better handle on their plethora of incoming messages, the promo video for Gmail’s new inbox features concludes with “The inbox has gone Google. Again.” So far, the response to the automatic categorization of Gmail messages has been fairly positive, but there are some users out there who aren’t too happy about their Gmail inbox “going Google” yet again.

Breakdown of Gmail’s New Inbox

The new Gmail inbox allows users to have their incoming messages separated into one of five categories:

  • Primary – This category houses your most important messages, including stuff from coworkers, friends, and family. Also, any messages that don’t fit the other four categories will default to your “Primary” category.
  • Social – Messages from your social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.) and media-sharing sites will appear in this category.
  • Promotions – Any incoming messages containing offers, deals, sales, or other promotional and marketing information will be sent here. Most spam messages that make it past Gmail’s initial filters also make their way to this category.
  • Updates – Bills, financial statements, reminders, and confirmation messages will appear here.
  • Forums – Updates from online groups, message boards, or mailing lists will be sent to this category.

Users can customize their new Gmail inbox be selecting which categorization tabs to enable, setting certain senders to always appear in a given category, and moving messages between categories. At this time, it isn’t possible to create a custom category, but you can still organize emails using stars, folders, and labels.

Why the Change?

As Google mentions (and many of us already painfully know), email inboxes can be overwhelming. By automatically categorizing your incoming emails, Google is attempting to help users keep their Gmail inboxes organized, stay on top of important email items, and streamline their work flow.

As many Gmail-ers have commented, this categorization technology isn’t ground-breaking by any means. Folders, tags, and other categorization functions have existed within Gmail and other email clients for years. What is novel about the new Gmail inbox is that Google is taking the initiative (liberty?) to pre-sort your incoming email for you, which has some users a bit on edge.

Why the Pushback?

With some Google products, the “big brother” feeling that comes from having your online activity and email correspondence monitored has been a point of contention with many users. From targeted ads showing up in Gmail accounts to the myriad of privacy concerns surrounding Google Glass, Google product users and general Internet searchers are becoming more and more aware of Google’s efforts to gather online behavioral data in order to deliver a more “customized” user experience. To some, these data-gathering practices are less about customization and more about delivering highly-targeted, unsolicited advertisements.

That said, Gmail users should know that if you aren’t a fan of the new email format, you can easily switch back to the previous version.

Implications for Marketers

While Google remains typically mum as to algorithmic factors used to sort incoming Gmail messages, it is interesting to think about the implications that this new message categorizing functionality presents to online marketing professionals. It’s a pretty safe bet that keywords contained in the subject line and body of an email have a lot to do with which category a message ends up in, as does the sender of the email. With this in mind, advertisers running email marketing and/or social media campaigns may consider optimizing their messages to appear in specific Gmail categories and grab the recipients attention before it ends up being marked as “spam.”


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