How Do Consumers Feel About Gmail Tabs?

Rates have been measured, studies produced, cries of doom heard, and questions raised since the rollout of Gmail inbox tabs in mid-July. But what has the consumer reaction been?

“For most consumers, this is a welcome change,” says Movable Ink VP of Marketing Jordan Cohen. “That’s my takeaway from listening to multiple social channels.” Several studies corroborate Cohen’s opinion.

The “Gmail Tabs Consumer Survey 2013,” released by StrongView (disclosure: my company) last week, states that 37.4 percent of respondents said the new experience made managing the inbox at least somewhat easier (20 percent) or a lot easier (17.4 percent). Still, a full 47.3 percent of users said the change “had no impact.”

Based on these results, it’s safe to say that most consumers won’t be ditching the tab experience anytime soon. Is this bad for brands that rely on email?

We know that consumers are OK with the tabs, but most marketers are more concerned that the new tabbed experience will cause engagement and revenue generated from email to fall. Here’s where available data on consumer reaction becomes less clear-cut.

Return Path’s “Gmail Tabs Analysis,” released roughly a week after Gmail tabs rolled out as a default setting to most Gmail users, identifies three groups of users with three different reactions to the change. Highly engaged users (11 percent of total users) had read 58.64 percent of their marketing emails before the rollout, and ended up reading 59.88 percent in the week afterwards. However, for the bulk of users – the so-called medium engaged users (88 percent of total users) – the read rate dropped from 10.55 percent to 9.81 percent. Other studies from organizations like MailChimp and SeeWhy seem to validate this slight drop in read rates and open rates.

However, with just six weeks of data to evaluate, it may be too soon to tell from engagement metrics alone how consumers will respond over the long term.

A full 76.6 percent of participants in the “Gmail Tabs Consumer Survey 2013” stated that the new tabs caused “no change” in their interaction with emails from their favorite brands. Still, 46.4 percent of participants said they check the Promotions tab less than once a week – a response that no doubt causes concern for many email marketers. So while consumers may perceive no change in their interactions with brand emails, a good number of them check the Promotions tab, where most brand emails are likely to land, much less frequently than a marketer would like.

So it seems consumers appreciate the new experience, and perceive little change in their interaction with brands. Most data available so far matches this. Several marketers, in contrast to those who have panicked about the change, have taken these early results as an indication that the rollout of Gmail tabs is not a big deal and warrants no further attention.

Cohen believes this is a mistake. “This is a significant change,” he says. “It’s affecting a significant percentage of your recipients, and it will affect more as other ISPs jump on board and as Gmail takes more of the market share.”

The changes introduced with Gmail tabs are not the only alterations to the inbox experience in recent years. Email marketers are facing a more segmented inbox landscape, where messages are automatically siphoned to contextually relevant folders within the inbox and emails aren’t immediately read right after they’re sent.

“Ignoring this [inbox foldering] trend is not the appropriate response,” says Cohen. “Email is no longer interruptive. Just like TV advertising changed after the introduction of the DVR, email marketing has changed too. We’re no longer interruptive marketers. We’re now in the era of complete consumer control in the inbox. Step 1 was the CAN-SPAM act. Step 2 was the industry coalescing around best practices (email is only permissible from first party, etc.). Now Step 3, consumers will only interact with our messages when they see fit. You need to have a plan to deal with this new delayed time and consumer control experience.”

Email marketers shouldn’t panic, but they should approach this market shift with their eyes open and a clear plan of action to ensure that their campaigns and tactics keep pace with evolving email consumption behaviors.

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