Marketers are wringing their hands over changes to the way Gmail handles promotional email. But the situation isn't all bad: It's good news for smart marketers, although it's going to make it more important for brands to keep their marketing messages relevant.
Google redesigned its cloud email service three months ago. Instead of directing mail by default into one big inbox -- the way email has always worked -- Gmail now automatically directs bulk mail into a variety of tabbed folders. The folders are labeled "Forums," "Updates," and "Promotions." Marketing newsletters go into the Promotions tab.
The fear is that the Promotions tab will be the Tab of Doom, a place where users don't go. Marketing messages and offers would become invisible.
The change threatens to dilute the effectiveness of email, still a highly effective marketing channel despite its venerable age. (See Email & Search Still Rule for Marketing Effectiveness.)
The Tab of Doom?
What's worse, Google is now putting its own ads at the top of the Promotions folder. Those ads look like emails, but are shaded yellow with information "I" icons explaining their purpose. Marketers worry the Google ads will draw attention away from their own messages, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Gmail has more than 425 million active users worldwide, and more than half have the updated Gmail layout, which Google has gradually been rolling out since May, according to the Journal.
Many brand marketers are sending users step-by-step instructions how to move messages outside the Promotions tab and back to Gmail's "Primary" folder, the Journal says. These include Delta Air Lines, Gap, Gilt Groupe, and Groupon.
Research shows that the Gmail change's effect on email marketing has been negative -- but only slighty, according to the Journal. "MailChimp last month found the percentage of emails that were opened by its 3 million customers fell by about 1 percentage point for Gmail, to between 12% and 13%." And HubSpot analysis showed open rates sliding slightly over the summer. But the rate of decline has been the same since April, indicating that user engagement is suffering from too many emails, rather than Gmail.
"There's a little bit of Chicken Little happening right now over this," HubSpot product manager Tom Monaghan told the Journal.
Email marketers Return Path find the effect is nuanced, according to their report: "Gmail Tabs Don't Stop Shoppers: So Far So Good for Email Marketers."
The effect of the new tabs on marketing engagement depends on how engaged the consumer was to begin with. Gmail users who "routinely engaged with marketing" before Tabs came out are "reading a slightly higher percentage of their marketing email now, roughly 60 percent," says Return Path.
"Among moderately engaged email marketing recipients, the bulk of the Gmail audience, read rates dipped slightly to around 10%." That decline was partly offset by less marketing email going to spam folders.
Gmail users most disengaged with marketing email fulfilled pundits' dire predictions, reading far fewer commercial messages, dropping from 2 percent to 0.4 perent in the week following the rollout.
In other words: Gmail Tabs allowed consumers to do what they want to do. The ones interested in receiving your marketing messages found them easier to get at, and the ones interested in avoiding your messages found them easier to avoid.
And that's why Gmail Tabs is good news for smart marketers: Those who create marketing messages that people actually want to receive will find it easier to get their customers' attention. But the dummies who relied on spray-and-pray will find their jobs are harder.