Countering Gmail - Ideas for Email Providers

The Gmail juggernaut is coming - what can email providers do about it?

Background to Gmail

Gmail is Google's new free email service, announced with much fanfare on April 1st, 2004. Its key features include 1GB (yes, one gigabyte) of email storage, email search functionality, anti-spam protection and threaded email browsing. To get up to speed quickly, please read "Google Gmail - Initial Analysis, which provides an overview of the service and its proposed feature-set.

Don't Panic!

As I type this, Gmail is only a few hours old, and has been seen by a handful of beta-testers. The email provider sky has not yet fallen. The ideas and suggestions in this article are meant to help stimulate and guide your own planning and discussions - but don't tear up and rewrite your business model just yet!

The Opportunity and the Threat

Google's brash entry into the email arena has suddenly made email cool again. Not since the release of the original Hotmail service has there been so much pent-up excitement over "another" email service. This is partly because of the out-of-this-world storage space on offer, and partly because, well, Google is Google! Although individual webmasters may gripe about the big G's ranking of their websites, overall Google must have one of the strongest brands on the Web today. Make no mistake, whatever success Gmail ultimately achieves, it's never going to be "just another email service".

Clearly, of all the major players, Hotmail has the most to lose. With the smallest storage space (1/500th of Google's proposed quota) and little else to distinguish the service other than email, it is the most vulnerable in a direct head-to-head fight. As the other major power in the free email space, Yahoo! Mail is in a slightly safer position, since a Yahoo! ID plays multiple roles, not merely as an email address, but also as the key to Yahoo's games, clubs, online file storage (briefcase) service and other tools.

With Google's resources and hyper-aggressive spec, the threat is all too clear. But with that threat comes opportunity - after all, if the news of Google's entrance into the free email market pushes users of competing services to the point of considering abandoning the email addresses that have served them for months or years, they may well shop around before opting for a particular provider, thus opening up a new, receptive audience to your marketing messages.

Help Users Migrate

Whether it's to Gmail or to a 3rd party solution, users looking to change email services will look more favourably on service offerings that can "rescue" and preserve their existing emails. If your service doesn't already include such functionality, consider implementing mechanisms to retrieve emails from Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail (the biggest players) and possibly other email services, such as Netscape Mail, etc. That way, new users will be able to migrate their mailboxes at the push of a button, making for a smooth transaction. And if you can extract Address Book and other data, so much the better!

Along with the migration tool itself, make a "migration guide" available, with simple, step-by-step instructions and screenshots to help users of the big email services get up to speed quickly with your interface and functions, with reference to the equivalents at their old provider.

Google is at pains to explain that this targeting happens automatically - no human is reading your email! That said, the idea of anything (even a sophisticated computer program) reading and analysing every email you receive is enough to give many people a "Big Brother"-like shiver.

Storage is no longer a key differentiator

Once word of Google's massive mailbox spreads, it will gradually become pointless to trumpet how much bigger your mail storage space is than Yahoo! and Hotmail, since they will no longer be the new "standard". Don't get trapped into competing head-to-head with Google on storage space (you'll have to win the competition on other grounds) but simply explain the size of your email mailbox and how far it will stretch for the average user's needs.

If you are offering free and paid service levels, separated only by the amount of storage space on offer (or different for-fee levels) you should look very carefully at your feature-set and see what other "enhancements" can be offered as an incentive for users to upgrade, since the lure of more storage space alone may no longer be a sufficient catalyst.

Embrace and Extend

Microsoft has earned something of a reputation for studying competitor innovations then implementing them with slight improvements. Take a leaf from their book... If Google's threaded representation of email exchanges proves popular, embrace the new paradigm for email: start planning how to add threading to your own interface. Can you make email messages even easier to sort? Can you represent the current message in the hierarchy more clearly than they do? Can you let users link different "trees" of email together to form a uber-conversation composed of many email conversations? There's always a tweak or an improvement to be made somewhere.

Intensify Your Focus on the Corporate Sector

There are over 10 million small businesses in the US alone - and most will need email at some point. If you can provide them with a simple, reliable, user-friendly solution whereby an arbitrary number of users can be provided with an email address under their own domain name, you're tapping into a market that Google is not likely to be interested in for a while (they're after volume - you're looking for margin). Automate the process to the point where a designated email administrator simply has to type in their desired domain name, select a service plan and number of mailboxes, and enter their payment details (if you have to start educating users about changing DNS settings, you're in for a rough ride). Offer a one-stop solution (domain registration, email and website IP/URL pointing if required).

The process of managing user accounts should be such that a non-technical user could cope with being "administrator" for the company email solution. Make setting up new accounts a matter of a couple of clicks (and make it slightly harder to delete them again!), give the administrator the opportunity to auto-populate each user's address book with the contact details of other company users, and provide a simple reporting interface that shows at a glance the available storage, number of accounts, invoice/billing details etc. in a format suitable for printing out and passing around the office.

Focus on Mail Client Users

Users who are satisfied with a webmail-only solution will be a very hard sell when it comes to persuading them to migrate to your service in the face of Gmail's stiff competition. Popular email clients such as Outlook/Outlook Express and Eudora count tens of millions of users, all of whom could benefit from POP3/IMAP services which Gmail will not be offering (initially at least). Focus your efforts on marketing these key differentiators, and accept that most webmail users who sign up will come as a "bonus".

Scrutinize Your Offering for Other Key Differentiators

As soon as Gmail goes live for regular users, make a list of all the features your service offers that Gmail doesn't (e.g. virus scanning, disposable email addresses - don't quote me on these until the service is "live"!) and then base your marketing message going forward on that list. You don't necessarily have to focus on Gmail by name, but simply ensure that your key features are clear, and that all explanations are in plain English (laypersons' terms). Educate your potential clients to the kinds of questions they should be asking of their next email provider.

Work on Your Advertising Implementation

If your email service offering depends on advertising for all or part of its revenue, can you find ways to implement the advertising more effectively? For example, can you replace banner ads (which more and more people overlook, and which are blocked by many ad blockers) with text ads, either rotated or static? Do you really NEED to keep annoying users by serving them popups and huge Flash ads - or could a text-based approach substitute for the revenue loss if you eliminate them? You can bet that Google's going to be banging the "unintrusive" advertising drum for all it's worth, so if you can maintain or increase your revenue by making your ads "smarter" while decreasing the perceived ad burden, you'll be in a stronger position going forward.

At the same time, any increase in ad revenue could be used to bulk up other aspects of your service, such as providing an increased storage quota (not 1GB, but a more competitive figure than the few MB or 10s of MB of the typical service), or on marketing the service more widely.

Help Happy Users Spread the Word

Harness your satisfied customers. Help them to talk about their experiences with your service by providing them with a forum in which to do so (discussion forum, Wiki or similar). Guide the discussion, keep it focused, but do not seek to control it. Encourage customers to send you testimonials (remember to ask for permission to reuse them) and then make prominent use of these on your site. The unvarnished feelings of your users will resonate in a way that no amount of "PR speak" ever will. Provide a simple one-page explanation of your service, its key features and benefits, which users can print out and pass around to friends and colleagues (if you can't summarise its appeal in one page, then try again - and again - until you can). Consider implementing a referral or reward program of some kind.


The above list is not meant to be exhaustive. Indeed, it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding ways to "fight back" against the Gmail challenge. If you can get a conversation going internally, get employees brainstorming and doodling away on ideas that could help your organization maintain its competitive position, that's the first battle won right there. Good luck fighting the wider email war!


Free Email Address Directory