What Gmail Tabs Have Done to Email Marketing

Cara Bowles    By under Email Funnels.

What Gmail Tabs Have Done to Email Marketing 1At the end of May, Gmail introduced a new "tabs" feature, which automatically sorts emails into "Primary," "Promotions," and "Social." Email marketers almost immediately recognized that this could pose a threat to their efforts. Companies like Redbox and Kroger sent emails begging users to move them back into the "primary" folder, and many others followed suit.

Was this the right way to react to the change? Does this pose a serious threat to email marketing? Is there anything we can do about it? Read on to find out.

No Reason to Panic

The first thing to realize is that, surprisingly, only 4 percent of total email opens are Gmail opens. Even if Gmail were sending every single promotional email straight into the trash, you would only see a 4 percent drop in email traffic. On top of that, only 41 percent of Gmail opens occur on a platform that supports the new tabs.

In addition, some studies haven't seen any significant changes to open rates, such as this one conducted by ReturnPath. Not all studies agree, but this discrepancy demonstrates that even if some businesses will see a decline in open rates, this doesn't necessarily apply to everybody.

The Promotions Tab is the Right Place to Be

According to the same study, begging users to move you into the "Primary" folder is a fool's errand. Out of 65,507 such messages, only 61 were successful. That's less than 0.01 percent of users.

When it comes to Gmail, the promotions tab is where you want to be. Ninety-three percent of these messages make it through unscathed. Meanwhile, only 77 percent of commercial emails sent to the primary folder make it through successfully. The rest of them are going straight to the spam folder, never to be seen again.

More importantly, if you are delivered to the promotions tab, your chances of being reported as spam are less than half of what they are in the primary tab. Keep in mind that whenever a user reports you as spam, your odds of turning up in everybody else's spam folder increase.

Yes, Open Rates are Down

While the promotions tab is the right place to be, most studies agree that open rates have indeed gone down. For example, a study by Epsilon found that Gmail click rates dropped from 14.5 percent above Yahoo in June to only 4.2 percent above Yahoo in October.

At the same time, it's important to note that the change is small in comparison to the phenomenon of "holiday fatigue." Yahoo's click rates dropped by 17.5 percent from June to October. Gmail's click rates dropped more, by 25 percent, but the difference pales in comparison to holiday fatigue.

According to a study by MailChimp, the change in click rates wasn't even the worst among the major platforms:

gmail tabs 01 

AOL and all other platforms actually saw a worse drop in click rates than Gmail, suggesting that the tab effect isn't especially dramatic for clicks. That said, the effect on open rates was much clearer:

 gmail tabs 02

Even so, while Gmail lost more opens than any other platform, the total open rate is still higher for Gmail than it is for Hotmail and Yahoo.


Perhaps the most important thing to realize, however, is the way that unsubscribes were affected:

 gmail tabs 03

While unsubscribe rates went up over the holidays for every other platform, unsubscribe rates on Gmail didn't change at all. In other words, the promotions tab is preventing unsubscriptions from happening. Since customer retention is far more important than any other metric when it comes to email marketing, this particular statistic is very encouraging.

As you can see, to say that email marketing has "taken a beating" as a result of Gmail tabs would be a dramatic overstatement. None of this changes the crucial role that email plays in any digital marketing campaign, or the fact that it's still a higher value channel than social media.

At the same time, marketers should be aware of a few things:

  • The tab system seems to be working very well for Gmail users, so other platforms are likely to implement something similar.
  • It's becoming increasingly clear that users must want to receive email from you for your campaigns to be successful.
  • Trying to get moved out of the promotions tab and into the primary tab is a very bad idea

While nothing has fundamentally changed, email marketers should be prepared for this to become widespread practice, and design their strategies accordingly.

Image credit: Mario Antonio Pena Zapateria