There was understandable concern about Gmail enabling Tabs by default, but that concern was whipped into frenzy a few weeks ago by reports that Gmail open rates had slipped. More recently, more nuanced information has come out about this decline and how it’s fairly modest among engaged subscribers.
This Decline Is of Questionable Significance
First, Tabs only affects a small percentage of your subscribers. On average, Gmail represents 4% of your email openers, according to Litmus. And Gmail’s new inbox only affects the shrinking number of desktop users, not the growing number of mobile users.
So we’re talking about a small drop among a very small audience that’s only going to get smaller over time.
Second, consumers haven’t had time to adjust to Tabs. While Gmail announced the rollout of its new inbox interface in May, it wasn’t fully rolled out to users until a couple of weeks ago. Gmail users are in a trial period, an adjustment period. Some will end up turning off Tabs. Remember that email users have traditionally rejected major changes in the past — e.g., Google Wave, Priority Inbox, Facebook Messaging, etc. Meanwhile, others will move email streams around until they get senders’ emails into the tabs that are most convenient for them.
So the behavior that we’re seeing right now is really unsettled. It doesn’t represent the new baseline. And for marketers, it’s more likely to improve than get worse in the weeks ahead.
Third — and most importantly — asking how Tabs affects open rates is really asking the wrong question. In my book, I tell marketers, “Don’t attach too much meaning to your open rates,” and this is a key moment to heed that advice. Open rates can be very misleading. Marketers should be paying much more attention to click and conversion rates — and everyone should be more than happy to trade a percentage point of open rate for a percentage point of click or conversion rate.
The Risk of Asking to Be Moved to the Primary Tab
Based on this small decline in open rates — which is inconsistent across brands and may not hold — some marketers are asking subscribers to move their email from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab. The assumption here is that their emails will be more effective in the Primary tab, but that doesn’t appear to be true, at least based on preliminary data from our clients, who are actually seeing improvements in both opens and clicks on average.
What appears to be happening is this: When subscribers go to their Promotions tab, they’re in a buying mood — or at least in more of a buying mood than when they’re interacting with emails from their friends and family in their Primary tab. They expect to find promotional emails and that’s what they get, one after another. There’s no shifting gears from a personal email to a promotional email and back.
So by asking subscribers to move your email from the Promotional to the Primary tab, you’re essentially closing your store at the mall and deploying door-to-door salesmen that interrupt your subscribers’ conversations with their friends and loved ones. You’ll surely be more visible, but also probably more intrusive and ultimately less welcome.
Will the benefits of being in the Promotions tab hold? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that Gmail Tabs is of minor significance and that it has become a major distraction. You’re much better off planning for the holiday season, deploying and optimizing triggered emails, and becoming more mobile-friendly.