Google Inc. began rolling out a new multi-tabbed Gmail inbox in May, but many nonprofits and small businesses worry that it will relegate them to second-class status. Reuters

If there’s one thing Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) knows how to do, it’s deliver panic to Gmail inboxes.

Ever since the popular email service was introduced in 2004, it’s been causing controversy. Privacy advocates have long hated its message-scanning capabilities. Now email marketers are voicing concerns over Gmail’s new multi-tabbed inbox, which began rolling out to users in late May.

The new system, which relegates marketing emails to a second-class “Promotions” mailbox, aims to reinvent the way emails are sorted. If it catches on the way other Gmail changes have, it could have particularly serious implications for small businesses and nonprofits, which rely more heavily on direct-email marketing than their larger rivals do.

And some organizations are already fighting back -- or trying to. Avaaz, a civic group known for aggressive email campaigns, sent an appeal to its subscribers on Monday morning, calling Gmail’s changes one of the “biggest threats” it has ever faced. The group is asking users to simply send a reply to its email, with the idea being that the increased user engagement will prompt Gmail to assign a higher priority to Avaaz emails, and so keep sending them into users’ primary inboxes:

“Replying now is the simplest way to send a signal to Gmail that you want to receive Avaaz emails. And if we all do, it could show Gmail that Avaaz is valuable, and help ensure that thousands of members who might miss this email to still receive Avaaz alerts, and have a chance to continue to take action with us.”

Nonprofits rely on direct-email campaigns not just for marketing, but also for fundraising, membership drives and spreading the word about civic activism. In fact, Avaaz relies on email communication more than most -- so much so that it’s been accused of promoting “clicktivism” rather than activism. It’s no wonder, then, that Gmail’s tabs have enveloped the group in a sense of panicked desperation

But will the tabs really hurt companies and nonprofits that depend on email marketing? Some of the largest email-marketing players on the Internet are already aiming to answer that question. In July, MailChimp, a subsidiary of the privately held Rocket Science Group LLC, posted the results of an internal study in which it compared click-through rates for every email it delivered via Gmail over the last year and a half. Since the new inbox was rolled out, the company has seen three consecutive weeks of declines in response rates, from 13 percent to down near 12 percent. In a blog post, MailChimp said it was not enough to “declare an emergency,” but it’s still significant considering that the new inboxes haven’t even been rolled out to every Gmail user.

Constant Contact Inc. (NASDAQ:CTCT), one of the oldest and largest email marketers, found similar results, reporting small decreases in click-through rates for Gmail users between May and June. But the company stresses that it’s still too early to know if the decreases will last, and it has vowed to continue monitoring the impact of the new Gmail inbox in the coming weeks and months. In a phone interview, Julie Niehoff, Constant Contact’s director of field education and development, said the best approach for the time being is to wait, measure and see.

“Don’t overreact to a change like this,” Niehoff said. “This is not the time to change your marketing strategy. It’s too early to tell.”

Niehoff, who also serves as vice chair of the Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations, reaffirmed the importance of email marketing for small businesses and nonprofits in particular. And while she said she hasn’t necessarily heard gloom and doom over Gmail’s new inbox, she acknowledged that there is a sense of genuine concern among Constant Contact users who depend on email campaigns to communicate with their customers, members and volunteers.

“It’s enough that we’ve actively addressed it with some how-tos and some blogs, and we’re proactively going out to our users to say, ‘Here’s what’s changed and here are some ways to deal with it,’” she said.

And what of Avaaz’s method of asking subscribers to reply to an email campaign in the hopes that Google will then see it as relevant? Niehoff said she hasn’t tested that particular method, but she suggests instead that companies and nonprofits simply ask their recipients to drag and drop their emails into their primary folders -- something that only takes one click.

“They only have to do that once,” she said.

The only universal constant of email marketing is that it will always continue to evolve, and Niehoff said the most successful marketers are the ones who know how to adapt. “The technology we rely on changes once in a while,” she said. “What I like about being in education for nonprofits and small businesses is the chance to be out front and understand it, measure it and then explain it in terms they can understand. So they can shift but they’re not overreacting.”

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