Gmail’s Tabbed Inbox: The Good News & The Bad News

Reactions to Google’s new tabbed inbox in Gmail are reminiscent of past changes to some of our favorite inboxes. A quick Google search shows dozens of articles on how to survive major inbox overhauls like Google Wave, Gmail Priority Inbox, and Hotmail’s Sweep.

These changes to the inbox pale in comparison to the threat that mobile devices and social media pose to email marketing — yet, despite the death threats it’s received over the years, email has always triumphed over adversity.

So, the question here is: Will Gmail’s tabbed inbox pose little threat to email marketing, or is email marketing finally at its ninth life?

recent Return Path analysis shows that the tabbed inbox is both a blessing and a curse.

Placement & Read Rates Among Users

We drilled down to the Gmail user level and created three buckets based on user engagement level with promotional emails across thousands of popular brands. The top group, the group most engaged with their inbox, read nearly 59% of their email promotions before the rollout, and the good news is they were reading 2% more emails after the rollout. While only representing 11% of all users, this group is likely more valuable to marketers since they find promotional emails relevant and are generally repeat purchasers.

Gmail Tabs engagement

The low-engagement group, representing fewer than 1% of the total Gmail base, saw improved deliverability with an almost 8% increase in inbox placement rates. Despite the better placement, the amount of emails for this group plummeted 81% from 2.2% to 0.4%. This likely doesn’t matter since this group read very few emails to begin with, and in all likelihood rarely (if ever) acted on an email marketing campaign.

The potentially bad news is the medium group. Before the rollout, these Gmail users read an average of 10.6% of emails in their inbox. After the rollout, they were only reading 9.8% — less than a percent drop, but a variance of 7%. It’s this group that email marketers spend their time trying to re-engage, convert and retain. While they aren’t the prized customers that comprise the highly engaged group, they still represent the majority of the population, and the combined value from this group is still likely high.

Stats By Industry

If we look at the effect of the tabbed inbox on industries, there are some winners and losers that stand out. Credit card companies and airlines saw huge increases in the amount of emails read, likely since it’s easier for people to find these messages to read.

On the other hand, dating and social networking sites saw even further declines. These businesses have relied on email notifications to increase engagement (logins) and in turn reduce churn. It seems that the tabbed inbox may finally kill the notification email. These businesses may need to take a different approach to email marketing or rely on other methods, like mobile app notifications, to reach their users.

Gmail Tabs by Industry

Mobile & Social — Email’s Unlikely Allies?

Mobile and social, once considered enemies of email, may in fact be what saves it.

At the end of July 2013, 44% of all emails sent were opened on a mobile device. Of that, 80% were opened on an iOS device — and the majority of iPhone and iPad users use the native Mail app to read their email.

Consider also that 33% of people open their emails not via webmail, but in email clients like Apple Mail and Outlook.

Since Gmail’s tabbed inbox relies on tagging of emails and not actually physically placing the emails in a different folder, emails are all delivered to the inbox when not read within the webmail version (where only 22% of email is read today) or the Gmail mobile app. This means emails read on mobile and desktop — 77% of all emails — will still appear in the inbox.

Gmail tabs - mobile open rates

As for social, it turns out that very few people are buying on social sites and, in fact, prefer the privacy of email when it comes to signing up to programs. Social is great for customer service, but lousy at conversion, and it’s unlikely we’ll see people turning over their Facebook wall feed to non-stop promotions without a revolt.

Will Gmail’s tabbed inbox kill email marketing? Hardly. But Google did give Gmail users an innovative way to sort through emails and focus on the ones that are important depending on time and place. If anything, fewer promotional emails are being sent to spam, and some are actually being read more. It may be too soon to feel the immediate and long term effects, but email marketing will continue to live and thrive through yet another interface change.

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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