Thanks to Google Your Emails Don’t Exist


Dose of Digital Mini White Paper

A while back, I wrote a post called “Why Your Facebook Page Doesn’t Exist,” which got a good response, but made a few people a bit nervous. I’m back to make more people even more nervous today. If you thought having a Facebook page that no one really ever saw was bad, how about if I tell you that no one sees your emails either? Ugh.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that day may be close courtesy of your friends at Google. With little fanfare, a couple of weeks ago, Google launched Priority Inbox for Gmail. Here’s a quick overview of what it is:

Two things…first, if you use Gmail, I guarantee you just went and activated this. Second, if you use email marketing for your brand or company, that video probably made you a bit uneasy. I activated this the second I heard about it and couldn’t wait to see how it worked. It didn’t disappoint. For those who didn’t watch the video, what Priority Inbox does (as its name suggests) is prioritize your email messages by highlighting the ones it deems most important. These most important emails move to the top of the list to a section called “Important and Unread” regardless of when they were received. It looks like this:

Handy, eh? How does it work? Simple really. Google took its really great spam filter and basically told it to do the exact opposite. Instead of finding the most useless messages (spam), find the most important. Its a brilliant little tweak that works really well. For now, this only works on the Web version of Gmail, but the concept is too powerful for it to remain exclusively there for long. Nearly every email platform and corporate email provider has spam filtering, so how long before they make the same tweak as Google and offer this same prioritization? For providers looking to grab some corporate market share, this is a nice feature that any client would probably like to add.

I can say that in my two weeks of using Priority Inbox I’ve noticed two things. First, it works almost perfectly, meaning it doesn’t categorize much incorrectly. You can correct it when it does so that it gets even smarter, so by now it’s running almost flawlessly for me. Second, all I could think about when I was using this was when I could get the same thing for my corporate email account on Outlook. It might be a little while, but know that it’s coming.

As a marketer, and one who works for a digital marketing agency that manages a lot of CRM programs for a lot of clients that includes a lot of email, Priority Inbox both excites me and scares the hell out of me. To be sure, for all the noise about social media, I’m still a big fan of email (see here: “Pharma Can Use Email Marketing to Improve…Everything“). Why am I a big fan with all the buzz about social media? Simple. Email sells cases. Period. It works. For now (and this might change in the very near future), there are very few tactics that can deliver as immediate, predictable, and measurable results as email marketing. Having said that, Google might just be out to change all that.

Remember, Google’s goal is to get you to use more of Google products. So, they continuously make them better and introduce new ones. As you use it more, guess what? You see more text ads that you eventually click on. When you do, cha-ching, money for Google. It’s a system that works really well for them and, frankly, for me as a consumer. It’s a fine tradeoff to be able to use Gmail for free seeing as it’s something I would gladly pay quite a bit for. Google’s goal is not to get your brand’s email opened or clicked. Their goal is to make Gmail better. Better means that it’s quicker and easier to use. One of the best ways to make it quicker is to help people sort out all the junk and get to the important stuff.

Need an example of an inbox that needs a little help? Here’s mine from last year that I showed for a post called “The 7 Biggest Mistakes in Digital Relationship Marketing:”

As you can see, there are a bunch of commercial emails that filled up my email inbox for just one day. One other thing…none of them are read. I don’t care about any of them. For most, I don’t remember when I even signed up for them and, frankly, I’m too lazy to unsubscribe from them (check out the cartoon at the end of this post for some additional perspective). Google knows this. So, with Priority Inbox, I never have to even address these anymore or worry about losing an important email amongst the clutter. In the two weeks of using Priority Inbox, only one commercial email has ended up in my “Important and Unread” section of Gmail. One out of probably 150. I’m not totally sure why that one ended up there, so I told Gmail not to make the same mistake in the future, which I’m certain won’t be a problem.

If you’re using email marketing for your brand or company, you should be a little nervous. The point you should notice by now is that I’m (and your other subscribers) likely not seeing your email. I’m not seeing it because Google doesn’t think it’s important to me. They’re right. While Google has marked some important messages with normal status, I can fix this by marking them as Important, so that the filter does a little better next time. I’ve done this for about 10 messages in the past two weeks. I can tell you that not once have I done this with a commercial email. I’ve also realized that I haven’t missed a single one. I haven’t been wondering where my email from company X is or when my regularly update from company Y is coming.

How does Google figure out which emails are important and which aren’t? Here’s how they explain it: “Gmail uses a variety of signals to predict which messages are important, including the people you email most (if you email Bob a lot, a message from Bob is probably important) and which messages you open and reply to (these are likely more important than the ones you skip over).” So, if you’re a marketer and want me to see your email, get me to do the following:

  • Open your email
  • Reply to your email
  • Send you an email

Easy, right?

Nope. You probably notice the problem. There aren’t really any commercial email campaigns out there that invite people to respond back to the email (in fact, most explicitly tell you not to reply) and there isn’t any reason why I’d send an email your company’s email program. Let’s assume those are out of your control. There might be some other factors, too. Google doesn’t like to give away the full algorithm for any of its products so that no one can game the system. However, you can probably assume that clicking on a link in an email is probably important, but we don’t know for sure. So, the one factor that you know is important and you can affect is open rate.

Am I opening your emails? Probably not and no one else is either. According to Epsilon, email open rates are around 22% in their most recent data. Also, this data shows that the average click rate is 5.3% (down from last year) and yet the average volume of email sent per company is up 10.6% compared to last year.  Bottom line, companies are sending more email and people are finding these emails less relevant. Combine this with the birth of Priority Inbox and it’s a potential perfect storm for companies relying on email marketing.

Putting Priority Inbox aside, one goal for your email program is obviously to get people to open the email and probably to click on it. Epsilon noted that “Consumers are much more likely to open messages that contain relevant content based on their past behavior and preferences.” Are you making content that is relevant to people? If you’re sending emails about the latest sales on dresses to your male customers, you’re probably not hitting this mark. That’s pretty easy to avoid. How about ensuring that you aren’t sending me emails for engagement rings since I’ve been married for almost (17 more days) 8 years?  Those are just the basics. You need to invest a little to really understand your customers, record their preferences and past behavior, and create something that’s meaningful to them. It’s not impossible.

I’m not one to pat any airline’s marketing efforts on the back, but here’s a simple example of a highly individualized email from Delta in my post “Personalization and Individualization…What’s the Difference?“. This is all you need to do. If your current CRM database isn’t capable of collecting this type of information and automatically generating an email like Delta’s, then you need a new system. If it is capable and you’re not using it, start today (if you need help, feel free to contact me and find out how my company can help you).

For all you skeptics and cynics out there who are thinking that Priority Inbox isn’t worth getting nervous about, consider this. Gmail has more than 176 million users now (according to ComScore data). Go through your email database and see what percentage are Gmail users. I guarantee that it’s higher than what you’d expect. For my part, 16% of subscribers for the Dose of Digital White Paper and Presentation email list are Gmail users (PS: sign up here). Fortunately for me, these people must find the content of the emails relevant, as around 50% have opened one of the most recent emails I sent (which is around once every 4-6 weeks). This means that Google is more likely to put a future email I send in the Important and Unread section of these subscribers’ inboxes. If the emails aren’t relevant all of a sudden, I’d expect that to change pretty quickly.

And while, 176 millions users might not be enough to sway you (I’m not sure why though), rest assured that this type of feature will be coming to other email providers and platforms in the near future. Gmail today…everyone else tomorrow.

Besides creating better emails, what else can you do? I’ll give you one big tip that only those dedicated few who have made it all the way through this post are going to get. Thanks for sticking around. Okay, here it is. Right now, it seems like the thing to do now with email is to ask subscribers to Like you on Facebook or follow you Twitter. That’s fine. However, if you are like other marketers, you probably do more marketing via email than social media, so it’s critical to get the email stuff right before worrying about social media (this from me, who is “Director of Social Media”, so you know I think it’s important). So, how about asking your subscribers to do something different? Instead of asking them to Like you, how about asking them to increase the priority of your email?


Assuming that your email didn’t land in the Important and Unread section of their Gmail, then you need to help ensure it does next time. You can do this by having them flag the message with a higher priority. If they do it, then the next time you send an email to this person it’ll likely appear in the Important and Unread section. I know what you’re thinking…that’s just one person…we’ve got thousands (or millions) in our database. Showing up in the priority section of one person’s inbox isn’t helping us. Well, you see Gmail is smarter than that. When enough people mark the same email as spam in Gmail or the same company’s emails are keep getting marked as spam by a bunch of people, guess what? Gmail eventually categorizes it as spam for everyone and sends it directly to your Gmail spam folder. Since Priority Inbox uses the same algorithms as Gmail’s spam filter, you can be fairly sure that it uses the same general idea. That is, if enough people increase the priority of a company’s emails, then eventually Gmail will classify them as important for everyone. So, maybe your next email should have a little diagram like this as a call to action.

If you read this and said to yourself, “that great, but it would annoy all the people who aren’t Gmail subscribers if we included this in an email to all of subscribers,” then you need a new email database or a new way of looking at the one you have. Even the most basic systems (including nearly-free Mailchimp, which I use for Dose of Digital) allow you to filter out people based on email address.  So, create one version of your monthly email that goes to people with Gmail addresses that includes whatever content you want plus this new call to action. For those who don’t have a Gmail address, send them the usual. [PS: the next step is to stop sending requests for people to Like you on Facebook who don’t have Facebook accounts or who already Like you (or do you?), but that’s a post for another day.]

So, there are a few ideas of what to do to get ready for Priority Inbox from Gmail and at the same time make your email campaigns more effective. As some parting inspiration, here’s a great cartoon I found that gives you an idea of how not to conduct your email program. If this reminds you of your program, Priority Inbox is the least of your problems.

[Click to enlarge] Courtesy of Brad Colbow.

Don’t be this company.

If you’re looking for more about digital marketing in pharma, register for the 2010 E-patient Connections Conference. This year’s conference features three different tracks: mobile, gaming, and, yes, social. I’m co-chairing the Social Pharmer track, so expect a different approach compared to the regular conferences you’re used to.

I’m also teaching a tutorial the day before the conference called “Social Media Accelerator.” This will be an interactive workshop that will provide a quick way to catch up on social media in healthcare, including a review of the most and least effective social media marketing programs across industries. You’ll learn about the social media platforms used by patients and physicians and discuss opportunities and challenges of social media marketing, including within the context of DDMAC regulations. You’ll leave with a “best practice” process for creating and approving social media programs within your organization. Bring your questions, as there will be some good discussion time.

Register for the conference and use code “rx2010” (no quotes) and you’ll get $300 off. As a further incentive (as if you need one), everyone who registers gets a free Zeo Personal Sleep Coach system and some other great gifts too.

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7 thoughts on “Thanks to Google Your Emails Don’t Exist

  1. Billiant, as always! I’ve noticed in my ‘Important and Unread’ Inbox a bunch of messages I never reply to from a company I never send an email to: Google Alerts 🙂


  2. Sorry, I mistakenly checked in with my other Twitter acount.

  3. GREAT post and insight… While this could definitely be read as a significant challenge for healthcare marketers, I really think it enforces how marketers need to shape their digital strategy in such a way that it strives to provide value to constituents.

    Priority Inbox, much like ‘Diggs’, Twitter ‘RTs’ and Facebook ‘Likes’ all help the best and most valuable content rise to the top. Please don’t read this post and ask “How can I outsmart Priority Inbox”… instead, please ask yourself “How can I provide more value to the businesses, healthcare providers, and most importantly, patients involved in our healthcare system”.

    Thanks, John, for another great post!

  4. Simow Wyckert

    Thanks John. Very interesting post. I used Priority Inbox for about a week then stopped. It ssems that I don’t like others to tell me what should be important ;o)

  5. Excellent post. Loved the segmenting advice based on email client. Already do that for Gmail since it does not render some style elements

  6. I don’t disagree with any of this in principle. Priority Inbox doesn’t immediately change the game, but it is a sign of things to come. Any mail program or host with a spam filter can do what Gmail did and turn it around to prioritize email. And, to your point, it might not be optional in the future.

  7. […] found this little cartoon on a post by Jonh Rich (which was quite interesting) and I couln’t resist to share it with you […]

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