Behold the greatest threat yet to nonprofit organizations

Nonprofit organizations face countless obstacles in their quest to protect the environment, improve education, tackle economic injustice, and otherwise help society.

Death Star poised to destroy nonprofit email
The Death Star – aka George Lucas’s early version of the Gmail tabbed inbox.

This is tough work, friends, and these days, as we gaze at computer screens or phones we are probably looking upon the most significant hurdle yet: Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

That’s the story, anyway, from a few recent nonprofit messages and news stories.  Jeff Bezos’s new project, The Washington Post,  has a story titled Advocacy groups want out of Gmail’s ‘promotions’ ghetto. It includes a snippet from a New Organizing Institute (NOI) email containing one of the best (if overwrought) lines in email history:

Now some of you might love this new organization of your inbox, that’s great! But many important advocacy emails (like this one from your friends here at NOI), could get lost in the commotion of all these new tabs – silencing our voices like those of the poor souls on the planet Alderaan.

The email went on to let people know how they could get rid of the tabbed inbox or slide NOI email into the primary tab so that future messages would appear there.

Not to be outdone, the international advocacy campaign group Avaaz sent a message to subscribers titled “Huge threat to Avaaz.” Here’s a bit of that one:

Avaaz email informing subscribers about the threat from Gmail.
Opening of a recent Avaaz email about Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

There is some debate about the impact the tabbed inbox is actually having on email response. MailChimp crunched data from millions of messages sent through its system to Gmail addresses and concluded:

What bothers me in this case is that open rates stayed down for 3 consecutive weeks. From looking at a year and half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal. I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.

Not exactly a call to evacuate Alderaan in the face of massive Imperial threats but perhaps we should be concerned. It’s worth noting that MailChimp looked only at open rates, a high level metric that doesn’t correlate to conversions (though it can be useful in spotting trends over time with large amounts of data).

ReturnPath has also taken a look at Gmail data using inbox placement and read rates. They found that already engaged subscribers are reading messages more often but read rates are down in general.

So,  what to do about tabbed inboxes?!

The tabbed inbox is simply Gmail’s next step in a long progression towards trying to give people what they want (or what Google thinks they want). They know that most “mass” email is ignored and have been shifting towards engagement based ways of inbox placement and advance management for years.

I don’t begrudge any organization from making an effort to get its messages out of the promotions ghetto and into the Primary tab. It’s definitely worth testing, at least.

But the people that are going to take this step are likely those that were already engaged with your messages anyway. In some sense, raising alarm about messages not being in the Primary tab misses the point. If people want to read your emails (and care about your issue and what you have to say) they aren’t going to suddenly stop because your messages are in a tab two inches to the right.

Better to emphasize action, engagement, and value to the reader in every single message. The tabbed inbox is not the biggest threat to your work.

Note: We would love to talk to any organization that has tested and crunched Gmail data in the past couple months. It would be great for others to know what’s working, what’s not and if there has been a measurable impact on actions taken and donations given. 

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