Email Marketing Is a Strategy Game

For years, email has been our solid companion, our owned audience. It’s the path of least resistance to the audience and serves the purpose of delivering content, promotions, advertising, and more. But it’s time for email marketing strategy to evolve because Google is changing the game.

Email marketing continues to be a dominant channel for audience engagement, sales monetization, and product sales. Why? Because it’s an owned audience. You own the direct relationship with that audience member … well, for the most part.

That direct relationship with the audience is increasingly under attack from Google, turning email marketing into a strategy game that is quite similar to ones publishers and brands have been playing for years with Facebook and Google itself. It’s 2020, and we all better be ready to play.

Remember when publishers were burned by Facebook back in 2014 when organic reach from the platform plummeted from 16% to a mere 6.5%? Publishers and brands had worked so hard to grab all of those friends (then fans, then likes), but then our voice was essentially snuffed out unless we forked over cash to boost content.

For years, email has been our solid companion, our owned audience. It’s definitely the path of least resistance to the audience and serves the purpose of delivering content, promotions, advertising, subscription offers, event invitations, and more. The barriers of entry are low; the tools are accessible, easy to use, and not too expensive.

But it’s time for email strategy to evolve. Publishers need to be ready to play because Google is changing the game. And although Gmail doesn’t have the same dominance in the email market that Google has for search engines, as of 2019, Gmail is leading the global email client market share with 27.8%. Apple iPhone is close behind with 27.6%, while Outlook is in third with 9.1%, according to Litmus Email Analytics.

In 2013, Gmail launched the Social and Promotions Tabs. This update was intended to offer Gmail users a better experience by segmenting emails based on their content and who they were from. Your contacts end up in your inbox while marketing and bulk emails (deals, offers, and other promotional messages) go into the Promotions tab.

“Mail classifications automatically adjust to match users’ preferences and actions,” a Google representative told nonprofit news organization The Markup. This means our inboxes are starting to operate more and more like our social feeds, influenced by our engagement and assumptive about the type of content we want to see. In free Gmail accounts, the Social and Promotions tabs also serve as ad inventory for Google.

The Markup conducted a recent experiment to determine how Gmail “filters political email from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits” into the Primary, Promotions, and Spam tabs and saw results all over the map. Candidates including Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar ended up in the Promotions tab most often, while Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris ended up in the Spam folder more often than any other inbox destination. Pete Buttigieg, by comparison, ended up in the Primary inbox 63% of the time but also had more than a quarter of his emails go to Spam.

Setting aside the anxiety these results induce in me about the influence of only one or two companies on our elections, they illustrate that publishers need to start paying attention to the ground rules that Google is setting with Gmail.

Last year, Gmail began to penalize publishers and marketers for continuing to send to email addresses that hadn’t engaged in more than 180 days, making it increasingly important to maintain a clean email database and regularly purge inactive email addresses.

All of these changes over the last seven years point to the fact that Google is increasingly making the inbox a competitive landscape that requires adherence to the rules set forth. Attention, engagement, testing, and reputation. Sound familiar? Don’t take email marketing for granted. It’s 2020 and publishers need to play the email game.