Gmail Tabs: Don't Panic Or Cheat, Just Focus On Engaged User Base

In the frantic rush to prognosticate about the impact of Gmail’s new tabs on the email ecosystem this month, pundits alternately declared email marketing revolutionized, disrupted, unaffected, dead, and improved. Some urged marketers to appeal to their subscribers to rescue them from the promotions tab where their messages would likely be ignored – which may or may not be a mistake. Others proposed tactics that might game filters to help deliver messages to the primary inbox – almost certainly a mistake.

It’s taken a couple of weeks for the flurry of opinions on Gmail to give way to actual results. Now that we can see their real effect on the email landscape, the key “so what” about tabs is Gmail’s emphasis on subscriber engagement and its increasing importance to marketers.  Our recommendation: Don’t panic, don’t try to trick the system, and focus like crazy on building the largest percentage of engaged users (that regularly read your mailings) as possible.



Using our email panel of three million users, we reviewed the impact of Gmail tabs on several thousand domains. The subscribers whose behavior clearly indicated that they wanted marketers’ messages – the mailers who had previously engaged with the brand/domain – simply engaged more (about 2% more) and their inbox placement rates mostly stayed the same. The unengaged – those who ignored their email before tabs’ general rollout – simply engaged less (about 7%) while, somewhat surprisingly, their inbox placement rates improved.  It appears that overall, the reputation required to make it to the inbox, when the inbox is a “Promotions” tab, is a little less strict than it once was.  The full analysis is summarized in more detail here.

Mailbox providers like Gmail are making decisions about how to deliver and place messages based on indications of what consumers want. Senders of wanted mail are already seeing their marketing email perform better in the new Gmail inbox not because they’re early adopters or shrewd marketing tacticians, but simply because their subscribers are engaged. Meanwhile, the declining performance among unengaged subscribers, even if tabs accentuated the drop within Gmail, is part of a bigger trend.

 The “economic return” from mailing to generally unengaged subscribers is less than it once was. They are becoming far less likely to read, click, or open than they once were. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mail to them at all.  It means that smart marketers are working hard to re-engage “lost” subscribers. However, if you are having delivery problems at Gmail (e.g., mail is going to “bulk”), dropping unengaged subscribers is typically the fastest route to the inbox.

We’ve seen a few mailers try to game they system by moving transactional and marketing messages to the same IP and same mailing domains (the categorization system appears to rely heavily on sending domain as an indicator of mail type).  This has resulted in much of the transactional mail being placed in the Promotions tab. Not the desired result.  At a minimum, send your transactional mail streams from a separate mailing domain.

The winners in this email revolution aren’t worried about navigating the tabbed inbox – they’re worried about how their customers interact with every campaign they send, and they’ll be focusing their efforts on getting the most out of their most engaged and economically valuable customers, measuring “open reach,” “read reach,” and other measures of how engaged their subscriber base is. They’re winning because they pay attention to customer behavior and look for indications that they’re building stronger relationships –  or missing opportunities to do so  –  and they use what they see to continually make their email programs better.

5 comments about "Gmail Tabs: Don't Panic Or Cheat, Just Focus On Engaged User Base ".
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  1. Jordan Cohen from Fluent, August 28, 2013 at 5:28 p.m.

    George, love this "The “economic return” from mailing to generally unengaged subscribers is less than it once was."

    The question is, what should marketers do re: the 88% of consumers who you guys say are sitting in the middle of the engagement bell curve? With an almost 10 pct decline in read rates amongst those users, marketers need to step of their games. Easier said than done, of course. Good read, but digging deeper into the findings, there may be cause for at least some reaction. Panic may be extreme, but concern would be fair and reasonable.

  2. George Bilbrey from Return Path, Inc., August 28, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.

    I think the jury is still out. There are a few paths one could go down:

    1) I think we'll see a lot more focus on "winback" campaigns to move more of the "middle of the curve" to the right hand side of the distriubtion. We've seen some success with this. Best approach is to copy the approaches that are already working in your subscriber base.
    2) It *might* be the the counter-intuitive strategy - simply sending more to the less engaged - might make sense. I think this probably depends on your business model. There is a lot of data that would indicate that > 50% of the value from email comes from purchase that occur through other channels. Simply having someone read the email drives value (e.g., customer reads their newsletter and passing by your store, remembers the special you just sent in the newsletters, and stops in to make a purchase). Read rates tend to decrease with frequency. However in most cases sending more mail drives more reads. I wouldn't recommend this for everyone - it depends a lot on how close they are to the line from a deliverability perspective (e.g. are they hitting spam traps, close to the thresholds on trusted complaint metrics, etc.)

    3) Potentially the answer is don't worry about the unengaged. It's sad that most people don't interact with your stellar email content - however, focus your efforts on driving conversion from those that interact with your content will drive an economic return. I think that like (2) is dependent on your business model.

  3. Megan Jones from Email Marketing Manager, August 28, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.

    Finally, a voice of reason among the panic! I haven’t heard about any of the IP trickery but I have been watching the “Move us to Primary” emails like a hawk. As a consumer, I find it so annoying that companies are asking me to move them into the primary tab. Why does JC Penny think that it deserves a spot next to emails from my mom and my sister’s baby pics? As an email marker, I am curious about how these types of campaigns affect long-term deliverability. If subscribers continue to treat promotional emails as promotions (i.e. read some but delete many) will gmail ever just start putting them back into the promotions tab? Will a senders overall gmail deliverability suffer if gmail gets wise to their schemes? It seems like a big chance for marketers to take.

  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, August 29, 2013 at 4:12 a.m.

    Interesting advice. Thanks! "send your transactional mail streams from a separate mailing domain."

  5. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, August 29, 2013 at 4:17 a.m.

    @Jordan Cohen: I wrote my first ESP about 12 years ago and have had good access to inside data ever since and I assure you that 88% of consumers are not "sitting in sitting in the middle of the engagement bell curve". If that were true, it would leave 6% highly engaged and 6% disengaged and the second number is far higher for typical mailing lists.

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