Don't Get Tabbed Out of Existence

  |  August 6, 2013   |  Comments

How email marketers can respond appropriately to Gmail's new inbox tabs.

Since the rollout of Gmail's new inbox tabs experience around the beginning of July, email marketers have been trying to understand...

  • Where their emails are appearing
  • What are the effects of the new tabs on campaign performance
  • What they can do to mitigate the effects

Let's discuss each of these concerns in turn.

Where Are My Emails Appearing?

First off, let me state the obvious: no one except the people at Google truly understands the algorithm that determines where a brand's emails appear in the inbox. Similar to SEO tactics, we have glimpses of what affects the categorization, but no clear definitions.

As a starting point, you should refer to the Google support article that explains in plain language how it aims to segment a user's emails.

Then it's best to experience the categorization for yourself. Go to the Gmail web client and notice which of your emails appear in Promotions, or Updates, or the Primary tab. Talk to others who use Gmail and see what their experience is.

Here's what's probably true: if you're a brand marketer sending email, that email is most likely to appear in the Promotions tab of your recipients' inbox, unless they aren't using tabs or indicate that they want to receive your emails in the Primary tab.

What Are the Effects of Gmail Tabs on Email Campaign Performance?

Reports from the industry have varied; most claiming a modest decline in open rate, but some claiming an actual increase. What's important is what's happening to your campaigns.

Identify those in your list who have a address. (Remember, however, that not everyone who has a address reads that email on Gmail's web app or mobile app, and therefore doesn't experience the tabs.)

For that segment, consider the following:

Open rate. Have you seen a drop in open rate for the segment? Did it begin around July 5? Is there another factor that you can contribute to the drop?

If you have the data, you should also consider "time to open." One effect of the tabs is that recipients will not open emails in the Promotion tabs as soon as they would have before. This is important, especially if your promotions rely on timeliness.

Click-through rate. Have your clicks as a percentage of delivered emails dropped? Or have they risen? Also, look at your click-to-open rate; this will allow you to see if a drop in open rate has corresponded with a drop in engagement as well. It's possible that your open rate dropping may be merely the effect of unengaged users no longer opening your emails out of habit since your emails now appear in their promotions tab (and unengaged users are less likely to casually open those emails in the first place).

Revenue per email. While your opens or clicks may drop, make sure to check if your revenue per email or other relevant performance metrics have dropped as well before panicking.

Once you've considered the metrics, you may find that the change hasn't caused any big shifts. Continue to report on this segment for the next few months to make sure you capture long-term trends, but don't take unnecessary actions to correct a problem that isn't there.

If you're seeing a significant drop in your metrics, it's time to take action.

Mitigating the Effects of Gmail Tabs

It's true that a small set of your email list will experience the new tabs interface, and so you shouldn't freak out about small drops in engagement. That being said, I believe that the Gmail tabs move is just the latest in a general trend toward inbox foldering. Gone are the days of a single, user-filtered inbox. Approaching are the days of inboxes curated automatically by email clients based on historical engagement. Therefore, while the steps below specifically reference Gmail tabs, it's important for the email marketer to future-proof her marketing against the negative effects of inbox foldering.

Call out the change. Several brands have had success educating their subscribers who use Gmail about the new experience, and providing easy instructions on how to make sure the brand's emails are still being seen.

You can send a separate email to all of your Gmail subscribers, prompting them to move your emails to the Primary tab. Alternatively, you can dynamically populate the pre-header of your emails to Gmail subscribers with the same instructions, replacing the old "add us to your address book" approach.

Stand out in the inbox. If your emails appear in the Promotions tab, they are more likely to appear with other promotions, and even ads from Google advertisers. This means it's even more important to use attention-getting methods to stand out in the inbox.

Don't rely on email only, think cross-channel. As the trend of a more curated inbox continues, it's time to expand your approach as a brand and move beyond email as a standalone tool to reach out to current and future customers. Email should always form a part of your core strategy, but it should exist with campaigns in retargeting, SMS, mobile applications, and other channels to effectively reach your customer. Cross-channel campaigns have the added benefit of being less fragile to changes in technology like the creation of Gmail tabs.

Take the steps necessary within your organization to create cross-channel marketing experiences and don't silo email, because in doing so Gmail tabs and other similar technologies will have exaggerated effects on your marketing performance.

Finally, remember that Google has not added Gmail tabs to hurt your marketing performance (although it might feel that way) but to improve the user experience. If your recipient feels your emails are important, she will continue to engage with them. So the age-old email advice still applies: be relevant and important to your subscribers.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.



Justin Williams

As one of StrongView's in-house marketing strategists, Justin Williams helps email marketers develop and implement strategic lifecycle marketing campaigns that are continually optimized to increase engagement and revenue. For the past five years, Justin has applied his expertise in email marketing, social media, web design, and other interactive marketing disciplines across a variety of industries, including retail, finance, media, and technology. In addition to founding his own consulting company, Justin has built go-to-market strategies for early-stage startups and worked with brands like Cisco, Qualcomm, and Geeknet. Justin holds a BA in cognitive science from the University of California at San Diego.

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