Why You Shouldn't Ask Your Gmail Subscribers To Re-Tab Your Emails

In a risky move, more and more marketers are asking their Gmail subscribers to relocate their emails from their Promotions tab to their Primary over the past couple of weeks. I say “risky” because the decision to make this request is based on inadequate information and false logic. Let me explain.

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.

10 comments about "Why You Shouldn't Ask Your Gmail Subscribers To Re-Tab Your Emails".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Tim Roe from RedEye International, August 13, 2013 at 12:16 p.m.

    Hi Chad
    Good post and I agree that the juries still out on the impact that this change is likely to have. I quite like the idea of having it brought to my attention that 2 new promotional emails have arrived (I do like a bargain!). One point I would make, is that Android is rolling out the mobile version as well, I got my mobile version two weeks after the Webmail. And it works far better than the old version.

  2. Jordan Cohen from Fluent, August 13, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.

    This statement is not accurate: "And Gmail’s new inbox only affects the shrinking number of desktop users, not the growing number of mobile users." --

    The tabs are in full effect on the Gmail app for Android, which is the most popular mail app on Android devices (recent Brightwave study put it at around 70 pct of all Android opens)... so, total penetration of the tabs is probably 7 - 9 pct for most marketers in Litmus's dataset, which is still big. I also mention Litmus's dataset because it is enormous and includes a mix of B2B w. B2C and SMB w F500... so, within F500 B2C only I'd expect the Gmail numbers to be even larger.

    My main point above is that I wouldn't underestimate the "impact" of tabs in terms of total # of consumers seeing them just because of rising smartphone adoption. Rising smartphone adoption only minimizes their reach on iOS and 30% of Android opens.

    That said, the point about "closing your store at the mall" in favor of being an interruptive "door to door salesman" is a good one and the most important thing for marketers to consider. This is the #1 transformation being driven by Google with the tabbed inbox, and is something that marketers need to consider and adjust for: moving from an interruptive model to a consumer control model. And that, in my opinion, does merit marketer attention and discussion (in addition to their regularly scheduled holiday season planning).


  3. Chad White from Litmus, August 13, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.

    Hi, Jordan. The latest from Litmus makes Tabs seem even less of an issue: "Gmail opens only account for about 4% of total email opens, and less than half (41%) of those opens are occurring in email clients that support Gmail tabs" ( But data sources aside, your point about "moving from an interruptive model to a consumer control model" is dead on. Permission isn't the only control that subscribers have anymore. Better, smarter emails is the answer.

  4. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, August 13, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.

    Great post Chad ... I'm still trying to get my head around the Litmus numbers - I look at it a bit differently; if 25% of my database is Gmail subscribers and 41% of them see Tabs - that is about 10% of my database (potential versus tracked opens). Regardless, I completely agree with your sentiment and advice.

  5. Elizabeth Ball from It's In The Stars, August 13, 2013 at 5:01 p.m.

    I emailed my Gmail customers a quick email with the subject title "How you can get rid of the new Gmail tabs" on how they could revert to the original format if they wanted it back - not move my emails from Promotions to Primary - and got a 23% open rate.

  6. Stuart Meyler from Beeby Clark + Meyler, August 13, 2013 at 5:12 p.m.

    Disagree. Tabs have rolled out across mobile, as pointed out by others, and despite creating highly relevant emails, as witnessed by very high open rates, click through rates, and ultimately conversion rates, we do see smaller numbers when an email is in the Promotions tab. This is particularly true if there is a time sensitive nature to the promotional email in question.

    No matter how relevant you are, if your customer doesn't see it, there is no chance to create value - for them or you.

  7. Chad White from Litmus, August 13, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

    Yes Gmail added Tabs to their iOS app, but usage is very small, as pointed out here:

  8. Janet Roberts from Content by Janet Roberts, August 14, 2013 at 6:45 p.m.

    I hate to be the ignoramus in the bunch, but I just relogged in to my Gmail app on my HTC (Android), and I'm still not seeing Tabs. Just all the email, with each message have its own label.

  9. Jen Mcgahan from MyTeamConnects, August 15, 2013 at 4:36 p.m.

    Janet, Gmail did not automatically insert the tabs in my inbox either. I had to go to the gear icon in the upper right corner to configure my tabs. Pretty handy, actually! You can deselect tabs there, too.

  10. Jay Jhun from BrightWave Marketing, August 28, 2013 at 1:25 p.m.

    Jen, Janet - check to see if you are using Gmail for Android version 4.5 or later. That's the first version that supports the Tabs

Next story loading loading..