Traditionally, email marketing has always been the best way to communicate with your users. Have a new feature, or a new blog post? Send out an email to let your users know and bring them back to your app.

While it’s great for reminding them that you exist and what’s new, does it really improve user engagement? Let’s break down some pros and cons of using email and in-app real-time messaging.

Google’s Tabbed Inbox: A Big Challenge

Unless you’ve been living under a rock and don’t use one of the most popular email services, you’ve probably heard about Google’s new Tabbed Inbox feature. To put it simply, Google automatically segregates a user’s email into five categories - Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums.

Google uses an algorithm to determine which tab each email belongs to. All emails from social networks get filtered into the Social tab, all advertisements and promotional content from companies go into the Promotions tab, notifications and receipts go into Updates, forum discussions belong to Forums, and everything else goes into your Primary tab (or SPAM folder).

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 10.14.28 AM


So if you use email to reach your users and customers, it’s most likely going to go directly into that Promotions tab along with every other advertisement. Think that an update by one email provider might not make a difference? Think again! Gmail has around 450 million users, and companies are starting to realize this.

Targeting just businesses and startups? 5 million of them use Google’s Business apps. The new tabbed email browsing is not yet “available” for Google Apps Gmail users, but if history proves to repeat itself, Google will eventually roll it out to all it’s Gmail users. Google Apps users included. So a fairly significant number of your customers will be seeing this change.

What matters now is if these changes will affect open rates. Will people just focus on their Primary and Social tabs and ignore the rest? Mailchimp has done some tests and collected data to show that there is a definite, if slight, decrease in open rates of so-called Promotions. HubSpot did their own tests too but found an increase in open rates.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 10.06.44 AM


The data might be inconclusive right now but this could definitely affect open rates in the long term. There are many people trying to figure out ways to get around this but Google will always keep up and try to keep your emails where they think they belong. Domino's Pizza, for instance, tries to solve this problem by targeting Gmail users directly in order to have future offers arrive in their Primary tab, but this still requires action from a user beforehand.

So how do you tackle this? Why not start by reducing your dependence on email for engaging users.

The Trouble With Using Email For Onboarding And Retention

Start off by rethinking your customer onboarding and retention strategy if you rely heavily on email for this. The problem with using email here is that the flow is broken. Even though the content of an email is relevant to a user, the email is out of context because of the where and when they are seeing it. Your emails will always be competing against what else the user has on their minds, the other emails in their inbox, and now the labeling of your email as a “Promotions”.

To fully activate a new user, the onboarding process is pivotal. You need to guide users through the steps it takes to them finding value in your solution. But interests wane quickly with new users. If you do not capture their attention and guide them to a successful experience quickly, you are likely to lose them forever, no matter how many emails you send them in the future.

You do not really have a choice on how you engage your users if they have not logged into your app in a while and you need to bring them back in. Email is your best bet there. But, if they are a new user, and you have their complete attention while they are using your website or web application, then in-app messaging really is the best method of engagement.

This isn’t to say you should stop using email all together. Though, it does say something for adding in-app, real-time marketing to customer onboarding and retention efforts.

Increase Engagement

LinkedIn is a good example of user onboarding done right. In order to have a strong LinkedIn profile, a user has to fill out a lot of old information about themselves and their past work, which can include digging through a lot of old files. Typically, most people would find this a hassle, driving away new users.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 10.15.11 AM


To avoid this, LinkedIn breaks this task into small pieces and guides the user through it within the app. They have a progress bar showing the user how far they have come. This serves as motivation to continue filling up the profile and reach that magical 100%. What’s more, LinkedIn adds more incentive by saying that 100% complete profiles improve your chances of getting found by recruiters.

Even after a user has completed their profile, LinkedIn always looks for new ways their users can improve their profile and thus improve the chances that users will gain more value from LinkedIn. If you received an email asking for you to do a specific task on LinkedIn, even if it will help you present yourself better, would you be as likely to stop what you are doing and complete that task compared to if LinkedIn quickly asked you to complete a task while you are using the platform?

With a well-designed user experience and relevant in-app messages, LinkedIn manages to increase engagement in a way email cannot achieve.


Email has been proven to be effective at pulling users back to your app, but in-app messages don’t pull people back - they get users engaged and prevent them from leaving in the first place.

Instead of letting people leave your website or app, communicate with them while they are there. The more time your users spend on your site or web application, the more opportunity they have to find value with your product and want to stay a customer.

The key is to create relevant user flows within your product that keeps your users hooked. Think about how people just spend hours scrolling through Facebook or Twitter feeds. You can do something similar with well-placed messages.

Your messages serve to engage users and point them to new features or features that they might find useful. Use a personal touch and customize your messages based on past behavior. Show them that your app is built just for them and give them reasons to spend more time on it.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 10.15.45 AM


Create great content and features and people will keep coming back. Especially if you can get the right content and promote the right features to the right users at the most relevant time and place with in-context messages.

Reevaluate your dependence on email marketing and start exploring the untapped potential of in-app messaging as an effective supplement. These days, everyone is trying to get to Inbox Zero and email providers are making it easier for users to cut out all but the most important emails. When you have someone on your site, you need to take advantage of those few minutes, capture attention, and provide value in the moment.

Have you tried in-app messages yourself? How do you think it compares to email for customer engagement?