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.