Prediction: Gmail Smart Labels will further deteriorate email marketing open rates

If you depend on email to send or receive newsletters, credit card statements, marketing announcements, or notices from social media sites or forums, you may want to take note of this announcement on Google’s Gmail Blog.

Today, Gmail is rolling out a new feature called Smart Labels that are like its Priority Inbox (an algorithmic-based filtering system that predicts which messages are most important to the recipient — and displays them atop the inbox queue). However, in the case of Smart Labels, the automated predictions will filter “bulk mail” or “any kind of mass mailing,” according to the announcement.

This filtering has nothing to do with spam, which is, technically speaking, “unsolicited” email. Gmail (including the paid version Google offers to businesses and organizations) does a great job filtering such unsolicited bulk email.

What Smart Labels is all about is email the recipient has actually chosen to receive — subscribe to, opt-into, or any other term indicating a desire to receive and permission to send.

As a recipient of email (aren’t we all?), I find this feature immediately lovable. However, as a media and marketing person obsessed with metrics that measure consumers’ reactions to and interactions with media and content, I feel I can safely predict this is not going to be the greatest of news for those of us who generate email-delivered content, even when that content follows all the best practices of permission-based marketing.

First, a disclosure: My company assists several clients in creating and distributing opt-in email newsletters. We even send a monthly newsletter ourselves (subscribe, it’s free and awesome). We are proud of our email-distributed newsletters a we have the research to demonstrate they are effective in engaging readers when the people who choose to receive them, open them.

Second, another disclosure: Yesterday, I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a very senior executive at a media company that sends tens of thousands emails each month that contain one of the following: a newsletter or a link to some type of digital publication or web-based content. Every piece of this email mail is opt-in. No one is receiving it who didn’t subscribe. The company’s opt-out rate is very small. In other words, this is email that the recipient has chosen to receive and choose not to turn off.

Yet despite all of this self-selection and permission, the open-rate (percentage of email distributed that is opened by recipients) of this email is lower than 20%. In other words, only two in ten subscribers to this email-delivered content actually open a specific mailing.

Bottomline: One of the lesser discussed issues by those who promote email marketing is this open rate problem. The promise of all those saved trees when everything is converted to digital media runs straight into the reality that a small percentage of people open such email — even from sources they request to receive such information from.

There are many reasons one can speculate when pondering that only 20% of people open such email to which they subscribe. Who knows? Maybe people only open 20% of the print publications to which they subscribe. Maybe 20% is a good open rate. I steadfastly refuse that notion (he said, looking over at the rapidly filling inbox on his desk).

I believe if we gathered up all of the reasons for such anemic open rates, we could classify them generally under one heading called, “We get too much email, so we delete or file away the ones we know we won’t read — but wish we could if we had the time.”

One way I personally participate in the “permission-based email that deteriorates open-rate metrics” phenomenon is to create inbox filters that divert certain types of subscribed email into labeled folders which I later review. Or, that is my intention. Anyone who does this knows those folders can often grow too deep with dated material and about once a month, a bulk delete is the way they become “managed.”

This “out of sight out of mind” approach may be a good “getting things done by filing them in the ‘read/review’ folder” approach, but those folders can too easily turn an email newsletter purgatory into hell for email marketers.

Good intentions (I’m going to read this newsletter one day) may under-estimate the number of ghost opt-outs a newsletter has (I’m not going to opt out because next week, I’ll have time to review it.)

For those who don’t, as I do, set up filters, Gmail’s Smart Labels will automagically start doing it for you if you choose that option.

I predict lots of people will choose that option (maybe not now, when it is a “lab” feature, but later, when it gets rolled out as a standard feature).

I predict this will result in lower open rates among Smart Labels users (out of sight, out of mind).

I predict email marketers will yell, “foul,” and argue that it is equivalent to being placed on a black list.

I predict Google will ignore them or point out that its an option users much choose.