Gmail’s Tabbed Inbox: What Is Your Risk?

Marketers are vacillating between “no big deal” and “panic mode” when they think of Gmail’s interface that automatically sorts incoming emails. There are two questions that every emailer needs to ask: “What’s our risk?” and “How do we prepare?”

Marketers are vacillating between “no big deal” and “panic mode” when they think of Gmail’s interface that automatically sorts incoming emails. It continues to be a hot topic for users and marketers. Early feedback from Google suggests that users like it because there has been a strong retention rate of the tab experience. This isn’t surprising because the automated sort process simplifies life in the email world. Marketers can expect the tabs to stay.

The effect on email marketing results will fail somewhere between a complete derailing of campaigns and very little change. There are two questions that every email marketer needs to ask: “What’s our risk?” and “How do we prepare?” Answering those questions now makes it easier to respond if the changes have a direct effect on your business.

What Is Your Risk?
Assessing your risk begins with a review of your subscriber list. Estimating how many subscribers use Gmail isn’t as simple as one might think because there are two types of Gmail users. The easiest type to identify includes addresses that end with They are confirmed users. The second is impossible to identify because Gmail provides email services to corporations, schools and government offices. You would have to have Google’s proprietary list of Gmail clients to know who to tag.

Judging by the databases we’ve analyzed, B-to-C companies have a better ability to measure the risk than B-to-B because people tend to use personal email addresses for consumer shopping. B-to-C companies can look at known Gmail users to access the risk. B-to-B companies will have a harder time because their subscribers tend to use company or organization email addresses. There are always exceptions. One exception for B-to-B is companies that market to soloprenuers.

A large base of Gmail users doesn’t automatically translate into high risk. The tabs have no effect on emails opened in applications like Outlook. There are studies that suggest that direct Gmail opens are less than 4% of total opens. Globally, there may be very little risk. What happens globally doesn’t matter if your database houses a high percentage of direct Gmail users.

How Do You Prepare?

  • Segment known Gmail users. This makes it easier to monitor open rates and times. The timing is especially important if your company sends limited time offers. Placing promotional emails in a separate tab may delay opens instead of reducing them. If the delay extends beyond the offer expiration, it will have a direct effect on revenue.
  • Watch for consistent trends. Gmail users tend to be a bit erratic with their open rates. It’s not unusual to see fluctuations. A small drop may be a hiccup instead of the beginning of the fall.
  • Monitor individual behavior. If you can identify individuals who use Gmail and consistently open your emails, create a segment for them. These are highly engaged people that want to read your messages. A drop in their open rate indicates a problem.
  • Ask for help. If there is a negative Gmail tab effect, ask Gmail users to flag your emails so they will go to the Primary tab. Some marketers started doing this shortly after the tabs became available. I don’t recommend this preemptive move because the new inbox is being tested by users now. If there isn’t a problem, why bother subscribers with information that may be confusing for them? It may not work anyway. While people are in test mode, they may switch between the classic and new versions. When they do, the flagged addresses revert to their original status.
  • Make your content more valuable. When people want to read your emails, they will find them. It doesn’t matter where they are hidden. Avid subscribers look for the messages and will email you if they don’t find them.
  • Watch for trends. If one or more segments start showing declines in response rates and revenue, look for similarities in email addresses. It could be a Gmail issue where the service is being provided to a third party.