On May 29, Google began rolling out a newly designed Gmail inbox that includes five separate tabs to group emails. After the announcement on Google’s official Gmail blog, users began seeing their emails sorted into three tabs – Primary, Social and Promotions – with the two additional tabs, Updates and Forums, available from the Configure inbox settings.
According to Google, the new inbox organizes emails in a way that lets users, “…see what’s new at a glance and decide which emails you want to read when.”
The new Gmail tabs sent a shock wave through the email marketing community. Would email marketing, still one of the most popular marketing channels, cease to be effective with Gmail users once Google began organizing their emails for them?
While the initial panic immediately following the announcement has calmed, Google’s Gmail tabs still has many marketers wondering how much traction they can gain when their email messages are being automatically categorized under the Promotions tab.
Quick Overview of the New Gmail Tabs
The desktop version, as well as the Android and iOS apps all include the new tabs, with personal emails going to the Primary tab, while social emails are sent to the Social tab (messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services, gaming platforms and other social sites). Promotional emails such as deals, offers, and, most any mass email sent from an email service provider are delivered to the Promotions tab.
While the Primary, Social and Promotions tabs are automatically launched in Gmail inboxes, users may choose to add the Updates and Forums tabs from the Configure inbox settings link. The Updates tab includes notifications such as confirmation emails, receipts, bills and statements; messages from online groups, discussion boards and mailing lists are sent to the Forums tab.
The Android 4.0 and iOS Gmail apps show the Primary inbox when the app is opened, with easy navigation to accompanying tabs.
Google notes that if a tab is not used, emails that would be categorized within that tab are sent to the Primary tab. Users are also given the opportunity to disable the tabs and revert to the classic inbox view, with all emails going to one list.
How Will Gmail Tabs Impact Your Email Marketing
While many industry insiders agree it’s too early to determine how the new Gmail tabs will impact email marketing response rates, many experts are hopeful.
“We don’t know how people are going to use it,” says Silverpop VP of industry relations Loren McDonald, “It’s too early to have any sense of an impact on long-term performance.”
According to a Silverpop blog post published by McDonald on June 6, he believes it will take, at least, 12 to 18 months before marketers can truly understand the impact of the new Gmail tabs. “What we don’t know yet and won’t know for a long time is whether separating promotional and other marketing related messages will actually be good for marketers, because their messages won’t get lost in a sea of unrelated emails,” writes McDonald, “It may also train users to be in “shopping” mode when perusing the promotions tab.”
During our phone interview, McDonald reinforced his positive outlook, saying that many Gmail users may find themselves liking the new tabs, performing new habits around the way they consume email and engaging more with the brands they like. In his blog post, McDonald also points out that users are slow to adopt new email features, “While we lack specific numbers, history shows that user adoption of inbox innovations often is very low, perhaps only in the single digits.”
Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact, said she sees no reason for major concerns. “We’ve been actively monitoring our customers’ open rates since the launch of Gmail tabs to see what impact the new feature has had, and found small decreases in open rates among Gmail users,” says Goodman, “The bottom line is that marketers shouldn’t panic. Given that Gmail tabs is early in both its adoption and consumer usage patterns, we’ll continue to monitor this in the coming weeks and months to see if there is any further impact.”
What Email Providers Are Seeing So Far
Popular email service provider MailChimp published a blog post on July 23 offering insight into what they’ve seen happen around open rates with Gmail users since the new tabs were released.
“I trimmed my data to a lean six weeks around the introduction of tabs. That’s about 1.5 billion emails, which is plenty of records for a good analysis,” writes MailChimp’s Matthew Grove, “I learned from my research that the new Gmail inbox is bringing down open rates, but the change isn’t dramatic at this point.”
According to Grove’s findings, open rates for Gmail users had remained above 13 percent for 15 weeks, dipping only below the 13 percent mark during holidays. A week after Google launched the Gmail inbox tabs, open rates dropped and remained down for three consecutive weeks.
“From looking at a year and a half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal,” writes Grove, “I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.”
Lyris CMO Alex Lustberg confirmed his email marketing company has also witnessed a decline in open rates, but Lustberg thinks the new tabs will prove eventually to be a good thing for marketers:
Consumers have always filtered the way they read emails into those that are useful and relevant and those that are not. The only difference with the new Gmail system is that it does this automatically. So while it’s no surprise we have seen a slight decline in email open rates (by approximately .57 percentage points) and clicks (.08 percentage points), the overall browsing is net positive for email marketing and open rates.
The promotions tab grabs attention for an audience that is more receptive and the action is done with intent and in a way that is respectful to the customer. As such, the click throughs are more qualified leads, which is ultimately much more helpful for marketers.
Silverpop has conducted a simple four-question survey to gauge their client’s awareness level around the new Gmail tabs. At the time of my conversation with Silverpop’s VP of industry relations, they had received only 30 responses to the survey.
Of the clients who had completed Silverpop’s survey, 81 percent were aware of the new Gmail tabs and functionality. From the 81 percent, McDonald says 12 percent claim to have experienced a decrease in open rates and CTRs when asked if they are monitoring performance, while 42 percent said it was too early to tell, and 46 percent responded that they were not monitoring performance.
What Email Marketers Can Do In the Meantime
Many marketers are curious if there is a way to get marketing emails into the Primary tab. MailChimp’s Matthew Grove conducted his own test to see if he could get emails to show up in the Primary tab versus the Promotions tab.
“I’ve messed around with a ton of different content and header configurations,” writes Grove, “And anything that looks like it came from an ESP (has a list-unsubscribe header, unsubscribe links in the content, etc.) goes to either the Promotions tab or the Updates tab.”
MailChimp, Silverpop’s McDonald and Constant Contact CEO Goodman all agree that the best way to get marketing emails from the Promotions tab into the Primary tab is by sending an email instructing list subscribers how to move emails from one tab to the other.
“Marketers should think about the things they can do to make sure their email subscribers continue to look for and read their emails. Gmail tabs make it even more important that email marketers send relevant, valuable content to the people who have opted into their list – content that people will look for,” says Contact CEO Gail Goodman, “In addition, marketers should proactively ask Gmail users on their list to move their emails to the Primary tab, either by dragging and dropping their emails from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab or by clicking the star next to the email.”
Marketing Land staffers have already seen such emails surface, including a message from Delta’s Skylines® Dining program with a subject line that read, “Urgent: Your SkyMiles Dining emails need attention” followed by a message that offered, “…two easy steps to send our bonus offers, restaurant updates and earning opportunities to the front of your inbox.”
The email told readers to drag SkyMiles Dining emails from the Promotions to the Primary tab, then click yes so that, “You’ll never miss out on an offer or update.”
Of course, before telling readers to relocate their emails, it may be worth waiting to see how users interact with the new tabs. There’s a chance brands will see higher engagement levels as users form new habits with the way they read their emails, being able to focus on their Promotion tab emails when they are in the mood to shop or browse deals.
McDonald sees the Gmail tabs as a major shift towards a more intuitive mobile experience.
“With many brands seeing around 50 percent of emails opened on mobile devices, inbox management features are ultimately going to come down to the mobile email apps consumers use,” writes McDonald in his Silverpop blog post, “Because our mobile devices are a bit more context-centric, consumers might want to see all of their promotional emails or social network notifications when they are at lunch or on the train home from work, not throughout the day.”
Overall, McDonald sees the new Gmail tabs as good news for the email marketing industry, “It’s important to remember that other big email providers – Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL – are changing their email services and features because they see email is even more relevant in the social and mobile era…Let’s be thankful that these companies continue to invest in email and are ensuring an ongoing positive and relevant experience for users.”
Correction: This article has been updated since it’s original publication to correct Loren McDonald’s title to VP of industry relations.