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Gmail Tabs: How They’re Impacting Email Marketing So Far

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
27 August 2013

Since Google's launch of its new Gmail inbox featuring the Tabs functionality in May 2013, the email marketing world has been in a dither unlike any I can remember since, perhaps, the CAN-SPAM Act passed in late 2003.

Many email marketers are grabbing at quick-fix tactics, such as one-off emails with instructions for moving messages from the Promotions tab to the default Primary tab, with hopes that these will keep their messages in front of their Gmail subscribers' eyes. I'm not convinced these will pay off.

I still stand by my advice in my June 6, 2013, blog post "New Gmail Tabs: Big Yawn or Zombie Apocalypse for Email Marketing?" that marketers not panic now that Tabs functionality is rolling out to wider use. Instead of jumping straight to a Band-Aid tactic message that might or might not get read, consider my solution framework:

  1. Analyze
  2. Act
  3. Evolve

Before I dive into my recommendations, let's look at what we know about Tabs so far:

User Numbers Likely Still Relatively Low

Gmail Email Announcing New InboxWe still don't have hard numbers on how many Gmail users are employing the tabbed inbox. Users can read their Gmail messages in dozens of different email clients, but many of those clients don't support Tabs and likely never will.

The primary email clients that do support Tabs are the Gmail Web interface and the iOS and Android Gmail apps. Non-supporters include popular clients such as Apple Mail and desktop/webmail clients that import Gmail messages, such as Outlook and Yahoo.

When Google announced the Gmail inbox with Tabs on May 29, it said, “The new inbox is rolling out gradually. The desktop, Android and iOS versions will become available within the next few weeks.”

The Gmail apps were launched in early June. While we can't verify the exact rollout date, it seems Tabs was rolled out and turned on automatically for lots of users in mid- to late July.

Here’s what isn't clear at this point:

  • What percentage of users around the world now have access to Gmail Tabs on either the Web interface or a Gmail mobile app?
  • How many Gmail users may have turned off Tabs and gone back to other inbox formats, such as Priority Inbox or an unfiltered inbox?

Gmail Meet the New Inbox


Gmail Engagement Numbers Mixed

We’re beginning to see changes in Gmail subscriber engagement, but it's not clear yet how much of this is being driven by Tabs.

Return Path and Litmus (both Silverpop partners) have found mixed results when studying Tabs' effect on email engagement.

  • Return Path's study said "read rate" is up 2.11 percent among highly engaged readers. Inbox placements rates are up both for medium- and low-engaged customers. However, the read rate has plunged nearly 80 percent among lowest-engaged readers, from 2.2 percent before Tabs to 0.42 percent after.
  • Litmus' study found that Gmail opens fell 18 percent from mid-May to mid-August. However, Litmus also found Gmail opens had declined overall by 13 percent since July 2012. In the approximately six weeks following the Gmail Tabs announcement, Litmus has seen a 7.75 percent decrease in Gmail opens as percentage of total opens across all email clients. Further, its study revealed that Gmail opens account for only about 4 percent of total email opens across all email clients. Also, 41 percent of those opens (perhaps 1.6 percent of all email opens) occur in Gmail clients that support Tabs. 

Litmus Research Change in Opens

My own "back of the envelope" paints a slightly larger potential impact. For many B2C companies, Gmail subscribers comprise 20 percent to 30 percent of their email database. Let's say 25 percent of your company's subscribers use Gmail. Multiplying that by 41 percent gives you about 10 percent of subscribers with the potential to use Tabs. Assuming about half of Gmail subscribers use Tabs, that's roughly 5 percent of your database.

If my model is even close to reality for many marketers, 5 percent is nothing to sneeze at, especially because Gmail subscribers often are more engaged and valued. But it also doesn’t signal the end of the world.

Silverpop's informal client survey, conducted in early August, found that 13 percent said Gmail open and click rates were down, while 10 percent said Gmail conversions were down. Most said, however, that they either weren't monitoring for change yet or thought it was too early to tell.

Silverpop Survey Clicks and Opens

The Return Path study cited earlier is consistent with my hypothesis that your engaged subscribers will find your emails regardless of what tab they are routed to – and then move them to the tab they prefer.

The likely bigger challenge for email marketers is getting their emails found and acted upon by the unengaged and slightly engaged subscribers. But then, that has always been a huge challenge.

Add Tabs Tactics to Your Email Engagement Strategy

Now that we have a sense of the potential reach and impact of Gmail Tabs, what should you do? Rather than simply creating and sending out one of those "move our email to the Primary tab" emails that are all the rage now and then moving on to the next fad, I recommend a more strategic approach.

This approach uses a three-phrase framework – analyze, act, evolve –  to ensure long-term success. For more details, please check out my blog post, “Your 9-Step Marketing Game Plan for Gmail Tabs.”

Additional Resources:

Gmail

Return Path

Litmus

Silverpop

Other

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