Gmail inbox: The “tabs email”

We’ve had a lot of questions recently at Experian Marketing Services about the inbox tabs Google started rolling out to its Gmail platform in May. Many of the questions revolve around metrics or consequences: What happens when our emails are filtered into the promotions tab? How is this affecting our deliverability? Are promotions considered spam? Has there been a decline in engagement?

One of the questions cropping up most often, however, is about the “tabs email.” We’re sure you’ve seen them: Our emails are lost in your promotions folder—please drag them into your primary inbox to make sure you can find them. In fact, these emails are forming a major trend we’re seeing from email marketers across all industry verticals. We’ve seen everything from letters from CEOs to animated tutorials on how to alter your inbox so emails land where marketers would like to see them.

I am convinced, however, that as marketers we can do better.

One of my favorite novels is Joseph Heller’s classic, Catch-22. In it, the characters try to escape the horrors of war by pretending to be crazy, amongst other ways. But, as the book said, “[one] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if [one] was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.” In much the same way, sending an email informing someone your emails are lost in their promotions tab—when they’d only see it if they were already checking their promotions tab to begin with—might not make the most sense.

As a digital native, I’ve learned to go with the flow when it comes to the Internet. The saying change is the only constant is particularly true on the web. Case in point: Facebook seems to change its layout on a quarterly basis. In fact we’ve even seen changes from Google itself before: Google Buzz, Wave and Priority Inbox, to name a few. AOL has its own version of tabs, as well: Alto.

How, then, have these recent changes garnered so much more attention than changes we’ve seen in the past? Perhaps it’s partly because Gmail is the second-largest email service in terms of online visits (according to our data, behind only Yahoo! Mail, as of August 2013).

The good news is that, as a follow-up to a previous post on the Gmail update, we’ve continued to monitor Gmail performance and still aren’t seeing any portents of doom for email marketing. It’s also important to realize that on top of the fact that tabs are optional for desktop users, many mobile email subscribers aren’t even able to take advantage of them, potentially limiting their impact even further. This is especially significant given that a recent Experian Marketing Services study found that 50 percent of emails are opened on mobile devices. Maybe instead of fighting the tabs, we should start to embrace them.

According to a ReturnPath article (and our own data), there are actually (on average) increases in activity from subscribers most engaged with email. They’re savvy shoppers and don’t see tabs as a hurdle to finding a good deal. In much the same way we’ve seen greater average order value from product-friendly Pinterest over social-friendly Facebook (Forbes), people cruising through the promotions tab are more likely to want to interact with your email and your message.

If you’re anything like me, a fair portion of the emails in your inbox are from your mother (or other family members) or your friends. They’re asking you how your weekend was, what your plans for a holiday are or if you remembered to buy tickets for your trip home for a family birthday (yes, Mom, I did). When these very personal messages are punctuated by marketing emails, it can sometimes be reminiscent of a telemarketer call interrupting a family dinner or a commercial break just when your favorite TV show has a suspenseful moment.

It’s also somewhat challenging to gauge the success of sending a “tabs email” since there aren’t concrete ways to tell if subscribers are taking action. We’re unable to tell if subscribers are really moving emails from their promotions tab into their primary one, or if subscribers are even using tabs in the first place. There usually aren’t any click-friendly calls-to-action in the “tabs email” either, making it challenging to figure out what, if anything, subscribers are doing. Sure, you can track your open rate, but it’s hard to relate an open rate to the “tabs email” definitively. Maybe more subscribers are opening your emails because you’re presenting them with good, timely offers at the right cadence or engaging, relevant content, and it’s not connected to your efforts to have them arrange their inbox in the ways you’d prefer them to instead of their own.

That brings up another point: how do we know a subscriber really would want to abandon the promotions folder, anyway?

Maybe, instead of asking subscribers to lump your emails in with emails from their friends and family, a better tactic would be to inform them that it’s possible to. Just as we’ve seen that more relevant and personalized emails perform better than batch-and-blast sends, perhaps the right track to take is one of choice, by informing your subscribers that yes, there have been changes but yes, you’ll still be bringing them the same value that you always have. That way, you’ll ensure you’re showing up at your subscribers’ digital doors exactly when and where you’re most welcome.