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Your 9-Step Marketing Game Plan for Gmail Tabs

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
27 August 2013

In an earlier post, I looked at how the Gmail Tabs functionality is impacting email engagement and metrics so far. Now, let’s examine the best strategic approach to your email marketing in the age of Gmail Tabs.

First and foremost, I recommend using the launch of Gmail Tabs  as a catalyst to create stronger messages that your subscribers will seek out no matter which tab they land under. In other words, don't just aim at moving messages to the Primary tab. Instead, incorporate your Gmail Tabs tactics into a broader engagement program across email clients and communication channels using my three-phase, nine-step framework:

Analyze > Act > Evolve

First, you do a deep dive (Analyze) and understand what’s really going on with your Gmail subscribers. Then, deploy various Tabs-related tactics (Act) and make fundamental long-term changes to your program (Evolve).

The best strategy is to incorporate Gmail's special concerns into your ongoing programs, starting at opt-in, then continuing through a broader onboarding process and into your regular email programs.


1. Understand what's really going on.

Run reports across your database by domain and analyze engagement (opens, clicks, clicks-to-open, etc.). Then, analyze conversions, revenue or whatever metrics you use to measure success.

Run your reports and analysis across these time frames:

  • Two to three months before, say, July 1, 2013 (allowing some time for Gmail Tabs adoption)
  • The period after July 1 and at least May 29
  • The same periods as above in 2012
  • Compare results from Gmail subscribers for these time frames against other domains
  • If you can, leverage email analytics tools to understand the difference in email engagement and conversions across desktop and mobile Gmail users

What trends do you see? If revenue, conversions or other engagement measures nosedive starting in July, then Tabs might be affecting your numbers. But, if these numbers were trending down before then, something else is going on.

Remember, lower opens and clicks don't always correlate with a lower conversion rate and revenue.

iPhone Promotions view2. Learn what Gmail is doing with your different types of messages.

Check your own (get coworkers and friends in on the fun too) Gmail inbox to see how Gmail is handling your emails. You might also get a general idea about whether Gmail has affected your inbox placement and read rates by using Return Path's Email Intelligence tool.

Determine where Gmail is routing all the email streams you send: newsletters, promotional, daily deals, surveys, notifications, transactional messages and other service emails. Do newsletters and promotions go to one tab while transactional and other service messages go elsewhere?

If your order confirmation emails contain cross-sell offers, they may be routed to the Promotions tab, and not the Primary or Updates tab. Monitor engagement on these emails as well.

Note: Because content varies across your promotional and other messages, emails might be routed to different tabs at different times.

While you might be tempted to try some tactics to trick the Gmail algorithm, remember to focus first and foremost on what your users want.


3. Add Tabs information to the opt-in process.

Instead of crossing your fingers and hoping your Gmail subscribers see your messages, post a note on your sign-up thank-you/confirmation page, preference page and pop-over forms, explaining how Tabs works and where to find your emails.

4. Incorporate into your welcome/onboarding strategy.

As part of a multi-email onboarding program, include a link to either Gmail's Tabs explanation or your own landing page in the first email and follow-up messages, including potentially a standalone email explaining Gmail Tabs.

Caution: If you use a different IP or system for welcome or transactional emails than for your regular emails, moving these emails to the Primary tab is probably not going to carry over for promotional emails. Be careful how you handle this process as you might confuse subscribers who aren’t aware that you use multiple email systems.

5. Using dynamic content, put a Gmail note and link at the top of emails.

Only a small percentage of your Gmail subscribers will likely see your one-time-only email about Gmail Tabs. So, consider putting a short note near the top of your email. While I'm not a fan of cluttering the preheader area, this is probably a decent tactic.

Place the text after your core preheader text, however. Include a link to your own landing page with Gmail instructions or to Gmail's explanatory page.

Fabric Preheader Gmail Example

6. Survey Gmail subscribers.

Send a survey message to Gmail users asking how they manage their inboxes, with some specific questions about whether and how they use Tabs. Add a note and link in all of your messages: transactional, triggered emails and broadcast newsletters.

Test this message first among co-workers, friends and family members to see where it lands in their Gmail accounts. If it’s routed to the Primary tab it might provide an additional way to reach subscribers that are missing your marketing messages under the Promotions tab.

7. Create and send that "Gmail Tabs instructions" email. But follow these tips first.

If you have a Gmail account, you're probably seeing what I'm seeing: emails from many brands that want to make sure I move their messages out of the Promotions tab and into the Primary tab, which opens by default whenever I go into my Gmail inbox.

Maybe you think you need to alert your own Gmail subscribers, too. But before you jump to create and schedule this message, which probably won't have the impact you hope, take a deep breath and a step back.

Think about it: You're worried that your Gmail subscribers won't see your emails if they don't check the Promotions tab. So, you're going to send instructions about moving your emails from the Promotions to the Primary tab … to Gmail users who might not see that email because it will end up under the Promotions tab that they aren't checking.

See the problem? Plus, marketers who have dashed off these email alerts are seeing mostly average results so far, according to Return Path.

Return Path Gmail Tabs Analysis

Once you’ve tempered your expectations, go ahead and send a dedicated email if you’re still convinced it needs to be done, but follow these tips to maximize its effectiveness:          

Focus on customer service: Instead of directing subscribers to take a specific step, write it from a customer service viewpoint.

Explain how Gmail Tabs works, how it benefits users and how users can find and redirect messages. Use your own email in an illustration. Consider adding tips on how to update email addresses and change preferences, too. Your database will thank you.

Avoid being presumptious: Don't assume that all subscribers want to re-tab your emails. Many Gmail subscribers like having all marketing message segregated in the Promotions tab because it makes it easier to find them when they are in shopping mode. Your narrow-focus email could just annoy them.

Follow up: Resend the email to non-openers. Also, schedule it to go out every few months over the next year, both to non-responders and to new subscribers down the road.

Be Consistent: Your “Tabs” email should be consistent with your brand. This Moosejaw message is one of my favorites so far, but also supports the company’s humorous brand personality:

Moosejaw Email Example

8. Get the word out through your social media channels.

Create messages that take advantage of each social channel's unique benefits to help spread the word. A few suggestions:

  • Tweet out a link to your Gmail landing page or to Gmail's own page.
  • Post an explanation on your Facebook page
  • Create a slide with instructions and post on your Instagram or Pinterest pages.
  • Create a short Vine or Instagram video using stop-motion or a recording of an employee walking through an explanation.


9. Think Long-Term: Use Gmail Tabs as your springboard.

While Gmail Tabs is a very real challenge for email marketers, it won’t be the last hurdle from ISPs, inbox tools and email clients. In the coming years we’re likely to see a plethora of new email inbox management apps and changes from the major providers that will put more control of where and how subscribers see your messages.

Instead of focusing just on a tactical response to Tabs, use the Gmail issue to get management's attention about the need to upgrade your email program in order to stay relevant and keep subscribers engaged and converting at a high level.

Rethink and evolve every aspect of your email program, including:

  • Opt-in process: Are you acquiring the right kind of customers? Managing their expectations from the start? Capturing the type of data you need to send targeted and relevant emails?
  • Onboarding: Move beyond a simple generic welcome email to an onboarding series that leverages both profile and pre-opt-in Web behavior to present a true one-to-one experience out of the gate – moving new subscribers into customers more quickly.
  • Leveraging behavioral data: Are you focusing increasingly on what your subscribers and customers are doing, rather than what they are saying?
  • Data structure: Do you have a centralized marketing database where demographic and profile data is housed along with behavior across multiple channels – that are then actionable in real, or near real time?
  • Personality and Content: Do your emails have personality and engage subscribers with great content beyond just today’s offer?
  • Automation: Are you leveraging marketing automation tools and triggered emails to enable real-time messaging via dozens of programs that are triggered for each individual at the decisive moment?

With the appropriate resources and management support, you can start incorporating behavioral data and automation, deploying real-time messages that make your email program so compelling that subscribers will do whatever they have to do – whitelisting, setting up special filters or moving them from one tab to another – just so they don't miss them.

So, address the near-term and real challenges that Gmail Tabs may present to your program, but do so in the context of a larger and longer-term more strategic approach.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on the impact you’re seeing so far from Gmail Tabs and the tactics and strategies you are or plan to deploy.


Related Resources:

1) Blog: “Gmail Tabs: How They’re Impacting Email Marketing So Far

2) White Paper: “20 Ways to Personalize Content and Enhance the Customer Experience

3) Ebook: “Print Money Today: 7 Emails Marketers Should Automate to Drive Massive ROI


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