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Email marketing: Dissecting the Gmail inbox changes

Thomas Senne
Senior Director of Global Deliverability

Gmail has once again made a major change to the way we interact with our email.  Over the past few years, Gmail has by far made the biggest jump in number of users.  It has become a major player in the Inbox wars surpassing Yahoo and AOL for many senders.  Any change to the interface or filtering now has a huge ripple effect on our email marketing campaigns.

In the last month Gmail introduced the idea of tabs in the email interface.  We’ve watched Gmail attempt to do something similar about a year ago when they introduced Priority Inbox.  The move to Priority Inbox caused a lot of worry among senders, but in reality turned out to be a little bit of a dud.  The adoption rate for this feature was much lower than expected and outside of some engagement benefit, was really a non-factor.

The most recent change at Gmail will (and is) already having a much larger impact.  First of all, Gmail is rolling this out by default to a number of users.  The newest updates to the Gmail mobile apps also include the new tabs by default.  This means the question of will or won’t people adopt becomes a reality much quicker.

The new interface has the following tabs:

  • Inbox – This is mostly individual messages from friends
  • Social – These are messages from social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter
  • Promotions – Marketing messages go here
  • Updates – Transactional messages
  • Forums – These are message board notifications and digest email

Gmail is doing an excellent job as expected in sorting these messages correctly.  We would expect this based on Google’s excellent grasp on data and engagement.  We’re seeing personal messages almost exclusively in the Inbox.  The Promotions tab includes all marketing type messages.  The Updates tab is also remarkably accurate in including transactional messaging.

There was some worry that email marketing professionals would see a dip in open rates because messages are not filtered to the Promotions tab.  So far, we have not noticed any difference in our global Gmail open rates, they are holding steady and actually have continued to slowly climb over the past few months.  Why is it that open rates would stay steady when these messages are in a non-inbox tab?  We believe that the accuracy with which Gmail is able to sort means people are constantly going to the Promotions tab because they care about at least some marketing messages.  This is great news for marketers.  I actually believe long-term that we may see even improved open rates as more and more people choose to adopt the new interface.

We will continue to watch the trending and report back any changes.  You should certainly monitor your specific Gmail data to detect any particular movement.  If you do see some degradation, you do have options.  You can move messages to different tabs and train Gmail.  You can use the same customer education techniques we have in the past with personal whitelisting and add to address book.

Stay tuned for new developments.

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