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Do Gmail tabs hurt email marketing?

Earlier this year, Gmail rolled out a new way for users to organize their inbox: tabs. Tabs were an attempt by Gmail to help Gmail users organize their mail, particularly programmatically generated email like social media alerts and marketing mail. While many of us took a wait and see approach, a number of email marketers took this as one of the 7 signs of the apocalypse and the end of email marketing as we know it.
Dozens of marketers wrote article with such titles as “7 ways to survive Gmail tabs” and headlines that declared “Thanks to Gmail’s new tabs, promotional e-mails are now shunted off to a secondary inbox. If you rely on e-mail marketing, you should be worried.” Marketers large and small responded by sending emails to recipients begging them to move marketing mail out of the promotions tab and into the inbox.
A number of bloggers, reporters and marketers, myself included, tried to tame the panic. Not because we necessarily supported tabs, but because we really had no insight into how this would affect recipients interacting with email.
This week Return Path published a whitepaper on the effect of Gmail tabs on email marketing (.pdf link).
Not only did Return Path’s research show little negative effect of tabs, they actually saw some positive effects of tabs on how recipients interact with commercial email. Overall, the introduction of tabs in the gmail interface may be a improvement for email marketers.

The relatively low impact of Gmail tabs on marketing performance and user engagement hides a fundamental change in the way consumers experience commercial email. By shunting promotional messages into a separate tab, Gmail has effectively created a secondary inbox expressly for shopping, and consumers are using it. Four months after the widespread rollout of tabs left marketing messages a click removed from personal email, consumers continue to read them at roughly the same levels as before. Tabs have taught Gmail users a new and potentially more efficient way to shop from their inboxes.  Gmail teaches users to shop from the inbox

Return Path’s findings aren’t actually that surprising to me. I’ve used filters to sort different classes of mails (discussion lists, commercial lists, personal mail, social network mail) into different mailboxes for years. For me, the maintenance was a bit of a challenge, as all the filters had to be created, written and maintained by me. Even now when it doesn’t take a huge amount of work I still have to poke at them occasionally. Gmail took all that maintenance off their users and it Just Works. Much of the current data, including Return Paths, says that users like this new interface and are actively going and shopping in their inboxes.
The sky didn’t fall. Tabs were not the end of email marketing. In many industries, tabs are actually an improvement.

5 comments

  1. Mark Swanson says

    I disagree wholeheartedly. The open rates are lower – based on my own metrics and based on the results of 2 billion emails at top ESP Mail Chimp: http://blog.mailchimp.com/how-gmails-new-inbox-is-affecting-open-rates/

  2. Catherine Jefferson says

    Mark — I don’t use GMail except for testing, but I program my inbox to sort email into folders much like GMail tabs. I doubt that this means that I buy less. The ads I get are for books, computer supplies, art supplies, and other stuff narrowly targeted to my interests. This stuff is of very real interest to me, and I could easily let myself be an impulse shopper with any of it. 🙂 To the extent that I exercise some control over when I shop, and therefore buy less, I think that’s a benefit because when I think about what I buy, I buy stuff that I actually want and will use instead of stuff that just looks shiny at the moment.
    If your sales rates go down when people are allowed to view your ads when they’re thinking about buying, maybe a lot of people find that what you are selling isn’t worth buying if they’re given time to think about it. If that’s the case, why should people act against their own interests? Why should companies such as Google put the interests of marketers ahead of those of customers? Do you want people to buy stuff that they don’t need, don’t really want, and won’t use for long?
    It takes more work to focus on finding stuff of real value to sell, and then teaching people why it’s worth buying. But you’ll find you get much more loyal customers that way, and they keep coming back. I’ve been buying from some companies for thirty years or more because they do a superb job of offering stuff that I find valuable at decent prices, and don’t waste my time with advertising that doesn’t tell me anything useful.

  3. W. Jeffrey Rice says

    I could not agree more with you Luara. I perceived all the companies pleas to move my branded email from the Promotional Tab the Primary Tab was a missed educational opportunity . Instead of assuming I could not understand the filters, and wanted to my inbox to remain the same, these brands could have had a conversation about the many options a Gmail user has to customize their inbox. A brand could have demonstrate its willingness to help a subscriber adapt and successfully navigate new technology.
    Like you and RP mentioned, for heavy email users, the Promotional Tab, might be the best place for branded email to reside. In this location, the user has clear expectations to the type of messages she will find, little distraction from personal communications, and is reviewing emails in that tab with the intent to find sales, coupons, or deals.

  4. Garuda - Software for Email Blast says

    Hi Laura, I don’t think gmail’s new tab feature has affected email marketing. This new gmail feature simply differentiates your emails according to type of email. It helps the people to categorize their emails so that they can easily find out their emails according to their category.

  5. Million Dollar Email Marketing Secrets | Internet Marketing Tips says

    […] Do Gmail tabs hurt email marketing? – Word to the Wise […]

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