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On May 29 this year, Gmail introduced the new tabbed layout. For many email marketers this was a major concern as this raised questions on the effectiveness and ROI of their email marketing activities.

Would the introduction of this new layout affect their open rates? Does this mean email marketing just got a lot harder?

Let’s have a look at what this means for email marketers.

The tabbed layout of Gmail’s inbox

If you’ve got no clue about what I’m talking about, let me give you a quick update. Google introduced a new 'tabbed' inbox that allows users to enable up to five tabs (Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums) into which Gmail pre-sorts incoming messages, making it look like this:

The tabbed layout of Gmail’s inbox

From a user’s perspective, this is of course a great improvement. Instead of getting the bulk of your mail in one single inbox and missing out on some awesome promotions (because these might disappear in the junk folder), the user is able to classify his/her emails.

According to Google, this is what your tabs would contain:

  • Primary: Messages from friends and family, as well as any other messages that don’t appear in other tabs.
  • Promotions: Your deals, offers, and other promotional emails.
  • Social: Messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services, gaming platforms, and other social websites.
  • Updates: Notifications such as confirmations, receipts, bills, and statements.
  • Forums: Messages from online groups, discussion boards, and mailing lists.

The impact on promotional email marketing

Of course, this introduction of Gmail’s tabbed layout caused a lot of worries among email marketers. What does this new layout mean for commercial and promotional email campaigns?

Does this mean a decrease in opens, clicks and eventually revenue? The introduction of this new feature has upsides and downsides. 

What does it mean for my email campaigns?

Gmail works with special algorithms to filter out your promotional emails from the personal emails your family and friends send you. Basically, an email that looks like it came from an ESP (email service provider like Copernica) goes to either the Promotions tab or the Updates tab.

What makes an email look like it came from an ESP? It has a list-unsubscribe header, unsubscribe links are included in the content and so on. 

An email that gets placed in the Promotions tab faces different types of competition. First it competes with other email marketing campaigns.

Second it also competes with Gmail’s native inbox ad placements. Which is kind of a set back, as these inbox ads are placed above “normal” promotional emails, pushing these campaigns even further down the folder.

The main worries for email marketers are the following. Firstly, recipients will spend less time reading emails in the Promotions tab, than those in the Primary tab. Secondly, triggered and transactional emails might lose their effectiveness with this new feature.

These emails are highly effective for ecommerce professionals because they are timely and relevant.

In fact, abandoned shopping cart emails have the highest return on investment when sent within the first few hours after the abandonment. If these messages appear in the Promotions tab, it could reduce their effectiveness and the revenue they generate. 

Seriously, stop worrying me…what about my emails?

Enough with the possible downsides, on with what it actually means for email marketers. Let me give you the facts. Did the introduction of the tabbed inbox mean a decrease in open rates these first five months? 

In the first week after the introduction of this new feature, Return Path discovered that there actually was an increase in the number of read messages by users who have a high level of engagement with a brand. 

Gmail Tabs Analysis

Source: Return Path - Report for marketers: Gmail Tabs Analysis

Recipients with a medium level of engagement with promotional emails read a bit less of what they received but their behaviour did not change significantly.

They read promotional emails from their Promotions tab at practically the same rate as they did before the introduction of the new Gmail inbox. What’s even more surprising is that they make time to seek out interesting promotional items in their Promotions tab.

What’s important to know for email marketers is the fact that Gmail users who had a medium level of engagement will most likely continue reading your emails and highly engaged users will even read more emails. 

So if you have a high concentration of highly engaged recipients, you can expect your open rates to increase, meaning relevancy and smart segmentation is even more important than before.

But these are just the results from a week after the launch of the tabbed Gmail-inbox. What did we learn about open rates and Gmail users’ behaviour the last few months?

Our friends at Litmus came up with an interesting and signifant analysis of the impact of Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

The company found that in the past year Gmail opens decreased by 13% since July 2012 and in the months May, June and July these opens even dropped by 18%.

This accounts for a decrease of 7.75% in Gmail opens since the launch of the tabbed inbox.

Change in Gmail opens

Source: Litmus

At first glance, it looks like the introduction of the tabbed inbox caused a considerable decrease in the number of Gmail opens. But don’t jump to conclusions yet - we haven’t discussed mobile. Gmail users can open their email in any email client, both desktop as mobile. Surprisingly not all of these devices support the new tabbed inbox.

To put things into perspective it’s good to know that currently 47% of all email opens worldwide occur on a mobile device.  

Litmus analyzed about 5m email opens to find out which email clients Gmail users were using to open their email. It turns out:

  • 66% of Gmail opens occur on mobile devices, 19% are opened in a web browser and 15% are opened on desktop email clients.
  • 34% of all Gmail opens come from the iPhone’s built-in mail program (not supporting Gmail tabs), Android accounts for 20% of these opens (also not supporting Gmail tabs). Actually only 19% of Gmail opens actually occur in Gmail Webmail.

Source: Litmus

You might say that there aren’t so many emails actually opened using Gmail’s new tabbed inbox. 

As a matter of fact, it turns out Gmail opens only account for about 4% of total email opens, and less than half of those opens (41%) occur in email clients that support Gmail tabs.

Even if Gmail opens have decreased a bit since the introduction of Gmail’s tabbed inbox, these early findings show that there is no need for any sleepless nights about the negative impact of this new feature. 

How to get to the Primary tab

Ok, so we now know we don’t need to worry to much about the effect of Gmail’s tabbed inbox. But just to be sure, how do you get your emails to the ‘Primary’ tab?

There is no easy way to get your promotional email from the ‘Promotions’ or ‘Updates’ tab to the ‘Primary’ tab. So what should you do?

  • Get your recipients to move your email to the Primary tab: It just takes one time for your recipient to move your email from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab. They can do so by either dragging and dropping your message or by moving it using the Move to tab feature (by rightclicking on your message).

Once your message has been moved, Gmail will give your recipients the option to always deliver your messages to the Primary tab.

  • Relevancy is key! It’s getting even more and more important to send out timely and relevant messages to your target groups. Get to know as much as you can about your recipients and use this data for further segmentation of your email lists.

    The better you segment your customers, the more relevant your emails will be. For example, this helps you write better subject lines and set up emailings with targeted content. 

And never forget to run a few tests before sending your emails. See what the changes made in your content or what the use of specific subject lines mean for the open rates of your emails.

Do you know of any other ways to get to Gmail’s Primary tab or do you have another opinion about the impact of Gmail’s tabbed inbox? Feel free to share it with me and other marketers in the comments below.

Michael Linthorst

Published 14 October, 2013 by Michael Linthorst

Michael Linthorst is CEO at Copernica Marketing Software and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow Michael on Twitter or Google Plus

10 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Rick Noel

Great post Michael. I especially appreciate the data from Return Path and Litmus. Email marketing can be a super high ROI tactic but as you pointed out, relevancy matters now more than ever.

As more Gmail users begin to use tab-enabled apps, it will be interesting to see how the data changes. Another factor is the new Google privacy policy to begin roll out in the next month or so, with users names and likenesses showing up in ads that will no doubt appear in Gmail, providing yet another distraction from promotional emails.

Thanks for sharing.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Byrne

Chris Byrne, CEO at Sensorpro.net

The Litmus analysis is flawed. Their study is a narrow cohort of users and is contra to what Tier1 email vendors like ExactTarget, SpinnakerPro and Epsilon Interactive customers experience. It's much more likely that the email platforms used are not managing gmail throttling and sending compliance correctly.

almost 3 years ago

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Joe Amaral

Great article, I had been looking for some data on this. It is exactly as i suspected. Though tough to weed through the data between those who just blast garbage indiscriminately is hard.

almost 3 years ago

ruth ge

ruth ge, computer operator at itr

my best friend's ex-wife makes $76 every hour on the computer. >>>>>>>> http://xurl.es/3v4nr

almost 3 years ago

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