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Email marketing works on the principal that your inbox is like your house and that marketing emails are like salesmen. It's your house, your rules. You alone decide which salesmen have permission to enter, which ones should stay outside, and which should never even try to grace your doorstep again.

In the last two months, Google has trampled on the rulebook with the introduction of its Promotions tab in Gmail and the addition of email-style advertising. In effect, Google is taking back the house. And for the right price it can hand the keys to anyone so they can come in and start selling to you without your permission.

A new webmail aesthetic means a new kind of experience

The war for the ad dollar has heightened over the past few years: With more channels than ever, marketers have had the opportunity to spread their ad dollar across multiple new areas, including a focus on social media. Accordingly, Google's core revenue generator, search, has come under major threat.

As part of its retaliation, Google has deviously—and, admittedly, ingeniously—changed its Gmail advertising strategy, now making advertising a natural part of the classic inbox.

By implementing several new "tabs" as part of Gmail design, including a Promotions tab that now siphons advertisements and commercial interests, it has changed the language of not only what it means to advertise via email but also how consumers then receive direct advertisements.

It's important to keep in mind that Google has basically introduced "emails" that circumvent spam laws.

Yes, you may argue that it's "advertising" and these "ads" don't fall under email spam laws, but let's be realistic: They are "sent" to your email address, they are delivered to your inbox, they have a sender field and a subject line, they are coded in HTML, and they can be saved and forwarded. That's the very definition of an email. However, they're also spam by many people's definition: They're unsolicited, and opting out of them is complicated and confusing.

So, by side-stepping spam laws, Google has become the most powerful list broker in the world—and, what's more, it's beginning to look like a real player in the email marketing industry.

If Google is writing a new marketing playbook, how will Facebook strike back?

Google's new approach changes the very nature of email advertising. It's up to Facebook to keep up, or to counter with a new construction of its own.

Yes, Facebook has made strides by introducing in-feed ads, but Google has the one thing Facebook simply doesn't: the ability to target consumers based on their spending behavior rather than relying on inferred spending behavior via their Likes. It's a completely different ballgame.

And although Facebook has made feeble attempts at owning the consumer email inbox with the introduction of @facebook.com emails, its email offering lacks many of the basic functions consumers expect from their email inbox. That shortcoming created a roadblock preventing consumers from moving their entire digital lives solely onto Facebook.

The question here is this: If Facebook were to improve its email offering, would that make it a more significant player against Google? And would marketers be forced to accommodate yet another major email provider?

Of course, Facebook won't sit on its heels as Google picks up the pace of its webmail advertising efforts (Facebook literally can't afford to). But with Google's new approach to email marketing as ammunition, it might be daring other major players—including Yahoo and Microsoft—to follow its lead. In fact, both Yahoo and Outlook.com are already making significant changes, and both currently advertise in their inbox.

Google has given the traditional salesman new clothes, or at least an upgrade

Viewing the evolving world of Web marketing through this kind of lens, it's clear that instead of falling behind the times Web titan Google has dressed webmail marketing efforts up in new clothes and devised a new methodology of reaching customers.

Though it's hard not to appreciate a new look, the tradeoff is that marketers now have to traverse unknown terrain. But here's how marketers can succeed while the war to monetize the $650 billion global advertising market wages on:

  • Don't jump at asking users to move your brand from the Promotions tab, to the Primary tab. While we've seen some brands do this in recent weeks, the truth is that it's just too hard to tell whether the Promotions tab has any real effect—positive or negative. The key thing to remember is that this change may not necessarily affect revenue or other KPIs of your email program. Instead, ask your email partner to monitor whether there's a response curve for opens and clicks, as well as monitor conversion metrics (where available).
  • Forget open rates. Instead focus on open reach. Marketers worried about the Gmail tabs change are likely pointing to a shift in open rates. My best advice is to reduce your reliance on open rates; though some early data suggests that open rates may have gone down, clicks and purchases appear to have increased following the introduction of the Promotions tab.
  • Open a dialogue with your media/brand marketing team now; you're going to be seeing a lot of them. As many CMOs can attest, "ownership" of various marketing vehicles can often be ruled by the "stay out of my swim lane" approach. With Google and Facebook (as well as other platforms) in full-on battle mode, it's going to be important for new teams to become involved in the email marketing conversation. For example, your ad buy team may have typically worked directly with Google on inbox ads, but with the new email-like-ad format, you'll want this team working directly with your email marketing team.

Make no mistake, there's a marketing war on. But in this particular marketing bout, I'm not putting my money on either player. Instead, I'm betting on the battle itself. It will be one to watch.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Dela Quist

Dela Quist is CEO of Alchemy Worx, digital marketing agency dedicatedsolely to email. With offices in Atlanta and London, Alchemy Worx has a diverse client portfolio that includes Getty Images, Hilton, and Sony Playstation.

Twitter: @DelaQuist

LinkedIn: Dela Quist