4 Data-Fueled Insights On How People Are Using Gmail’s Tabbed Inbox This Holiday Season

The Christmas shopping season is officially upon us. Inboxes are stuffed with special email promotions that will hopefully result in stuffed stockings on Christmas day. Maybe not Gmail inboxes, though. Will Gmail’s new tabs be the Grinch that stole Christmas from email marketers this year?

Some businesses have publicly speculated and decried the new interface, saying that Gmail is already destroying their business — with the new tabbed inbox resulting in declining open rates and declining sales. You can’t blame businesses for speculating on how the new inbox may affect email marketing efforts.

Actual data on how emails are being classified and which tab they are placed in hasn’t been available — until now.

New data and research from Return Path shows just how much email Gmail users read in the Promotions tab, how they configure the tabbed inbox, and whether or not tactics like asking subscribers to move promotional campaigns to the Primary tab actually work or not.

How Gmail Users Configure The Tabbed Inbox

By default, Gmail enabled the Primary, Promotions and Social tabs for their users. Sixty-one percent (61%) of Gmail users kept this default setting. Perhaps more interesting, 77% of custom inbox configurations kept the Social tab intact. This translates into 91% of all Gmail accounts having the Social filter turned on, moving all triggered email notifications of new followers, invites, and other social activities to the Social tab.

Gmail users didn’t universally love the Promotions tab as much. In fact, more than one in five Gmail users turned it off, deciding they wanted their email offers in their Primary inbox. This is good news for businesses this Christmas.

Shoppers and discount hunters that rely on email want it in their Primary tab. Those that don’t — people who used to find email promotions an annoyance — are now less likely to mark these emails as spam as well, which is perhaps one of the biggest gifts this year to email marketers.

How Gmail Users Configure Tabs

Takeaway: 21% of people turn the Promotions tab off, lessening the effect it has on marketing messages. Those that want your emails will still get them.

Inbox Placement More Important Than Primary Inbox

Let’s set one thing straight. The Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums are still part of the inbox. The tabs aren’t different folders, like the Spam or Trash folders; but rather, they define how messages are classified and displayed within the inbox. For email marketers, focusing on your deliverability and inbox placement rates should (still) be your number-one concern.

Here’s why inbox placement is still as important as ever:

  • Promotional messages considered spam are delivered to the spam folder — never to the Promotions tab.
  • The amount of emails read in the spam folder is near 0%.
  • Messages delivered to spam aren’t seen by subscribers regardless of the platform used, like mobile or webmail, unless they look in the Spam folder, which most do not.

Gmail behaviors indicate the tabs provide a good user experience, too. Marketing messages delivered to the Primary tab were marked as spam over twice as much as messages delivered to the Promotions tab.

With “this is spam” rates used as a heavily weighted metric in spam filtering algorithms, the Promotions tab has essentially helped marketers with their sending reputations and inbox placement rates. Ninety-three percent (93%) of messages classified as promotions made it past spam folders. Of the messages intended for the Primary inbox, only 77% made it past the spam folder.

This is Spam Rates by Tab in Gmail

Takeaway: Don’t worry about Gmail’s tabbed inbox this holiday season and beyond until you approach 100% inbox placement rates. High inbox placement rates will have a far more noticeable effect on the performance of your email marketing program than whether your messages are was placed in Promotions or Primary.

Marketers Should Move On From “Move Me” Campaigns

For the “Move Me” campaigns delivered in October, none of the campaigns actually resulted in subscribers moving their messages from the Promotions tab to Primary. In fact, less than 0.1% of marketing messages showed up to the Primary tab at all, indicating “Move Me” campaigns sent prior to October had little benefit.

It can be argued there’s little harm in sending these campaigns. If one has the time, money and resources for creating these campaigns, go for it. Looking at open rates before and after, or better yet, looking at actual message movement, if available to you, can inform your Gmail strategy if you’re seeing declining open rates.

Groupon uses the pre-header to ask subscribers to move them to Primary, likely because they know subscribers won’t move messages en masse based on one campaign. This is smart thinking, and here’s why: Most “Move Me” campaigns display instructions for the Gmail webmail version, which is fine — but consider that less than 20% of email users read emails in their browsers.

These instructions are useless for people reading email on mobile. iOS users using the native Mail app can’t move or re-classify messages, and even those reading emails within the mobile Gmail app require different instructions, which would be too many confusing steps for the typical smartphone user.

Takeaway: Move the “Move Me” campaigns to the side. With smartphones as the dominant platform for reading emails, these campaigns are almost useless. If you’re getting pressure from others in the company to do something, use the pre-header instead.

Winners & Losers Of The New Inbox

Looking at how much email was read in the Promotions tab in October shows a mixed picture, but one thing was clear: the tabbed inbox didn’t kill email, even slightly.

Industries like Apparel and Auctions (which include businesses like eBay) saw email performance increase. In fact, auction sites saw the amount of promotional email being read nearly double, likely showing that Tabs help users quickly locate bidding notification emails, or promotional emails on auction items that typically are low in supply but high in demand.

Retail and Online industries saw read rates decline 2%. Before we point the finger at the tabbed inbox, we should ask first if deliverability affected performance. In these cases, deliverability absolutely played a role in email’s declining performance. Retail saw a 1% increase in messages delivered to spam, and Online businesses saw a 4% increase. I’d wager that by improving inbox placement rates, these industries would see more emails opened and read.

Amazon, lumped into the Online category, bucked this trend of declining inbox placement and open rates. In fact, promotional emails being read by Gmail users increased 17%. Amazon invests heavily in email marketing segmentation and automation to deliver highly relevant emails to its subscribers. It also doesn’t hurt that they are America’s #2 favorite brand (according to YouGov BrandIndex), showing that how your customers perceive you plays a far larger role in how they interact with your emails.


Click to enlarge

Takeaway: Look at the bigger picture. If your customers are raving brand fanatics, a tabbed inbox won’t separate them from your emails. If your strategy was hoping people accidentally opened and clicked on an email, then you didn’t have a good strategy to begin with.

This holiday season and beyond, worry less about Gmail’s tabbed inbox or how to bypass the Promotions folder, and worry more about the fundamentals of a good email marketing program that, like Amazon and others have shown, is practically bulletproof to future changes within the inbox.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics | Analytics & Marketing Column | Channel: Email Marketing | Email Marketing | Google: Gmail


About The Author: is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter.

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