Loren McDonald: vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop
Loren McDonald: vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop
A view from Loren McDonald

New gmail tabs: big yawn or zombie apocalypse for email marketing?

If you haven't checked your gmail account lately, take a second to log in now, you might see the service's new tabbed inbox.

If you enable it, this feature will automatically sort your emails into one to five tabs: Primary, Social, Promotional, Updates and Forums.

Gmail's product manager explained in this blog post that the tabs are to help users manage their inboxes more efficiently "using simple, easy organization." You can use any or all of the tabs or move messages from one tab to another to override Gmail's sorting. You can even scrap the whole thing and go back to the inbox format you like best.

 This tabs function will also be available on the Android and iOS Gmail apps. (The iOS version of the gmail app was updated with the new tabs feature on June 4.)

 Although gmail hasn't spelled out which factors drive the sorting decisions, I presume it uses an algorithm that looks for user-designated filters and labels, email address configurations, message threads, unsubscribe links, header data and other email functions to sort the messages.

 Moving a message from one tab to another will train gmail to automatically route subsequent messages to the new tabs.

Tabs: good or bad for email marketers?

Some marketers worry that the tab format could hurt email engagement because it segregates commercial messages under the Promotions tab instead of delivering them to the Primary tab, which opens up by default when you go into your inbox.

Similar angst surfaced when gmail launched Priority Inbox a few years back. Marketers might have cause for concern down the road, but it will likely take 12 to 18 months before we can truly understand the impact, positive or negative.

I find the tabbed inbox actually improves on Priority Inbox, which lumps marketing messages with all of the other emails that don't get 'Priority' classification at the top of the inbox, unless users change default settings or act on the emails often enough to signal the algorithm.

Any tab with new messages in it will show the number of new messages, a colour-coded 'New' label, and the first two or three sender names until you click on the tab.

What we don't know yet and won't know for a long time is whether separating promotional and other marketing-related messages will actually be good for marketers, because their messages won't get lost in a sea of unrelated email. It may also train users to be in 'shopping' mode when perusing the Promotions tab.

Before jumping out the proverbial Gmail window, let's examine several possible outcomes:

1. A high percentage of Gmail users never switch to the new tabs feature, making any positive or negative impact on commercial messages minor due to lack of adoption.

2. Seeing low adoption, Gmail pulls a Facebook move and automatically switches users over to tabs. Outraged users either change their settings back or discover they like it and keep it but are still mad at Gmail.

3. Users adopt tabs in significant numbers, with two possible results:

  • Some users spend most of their time in the Promotions tab, boosting engagement for email marketers, because they don't need to see the updates under the Social Network tab, and none of their friends email them anymore.
  • Other users forget or can't be bothered to check the Promotions tab. So, they miss all those free-shipping offers they love so much, as well as confirmation emails (Updates) and LinkedIn requests (Social Networks). But they do check Primary for Grandma's joke emails.

4. Many check Gmail on their mobile device without using Gmail’s mobile app and through a third-party app, rendering this feature useless to those recipients.

5. Gmail totally screws it up and filters and hides Promotional emails. The zombie apocalypse breaks out, and email marketing dies a sudden and shocking death.

OK, so the zombie apocalypse is farfetched, even though some folks would have you believe the tabs will bring it on.

My Initial Experience

Although it's dangerous to extrapolate from one person's experience (especially when that person has used gmail since 2004 and is an email marketing industry veteran), I like what I see so far. I appreciate how gmail sorts my messages into buckets that I can toggle between based on my mood at that moment.

The tabs also make my inbox look as if I'm wading through fewer emails to find the ones I want. Like many people (maybe even the gmail folks), I think in terms of buckets or categories. So, these tabs remove the clutter and confusion resulting from jumbling multiple messages types in the same inbox.

While I've only had a few hours to live with the updated iOS app, I actually do like it even more than the Web interface. For me, at least, the categories in the interface (see screenshot) feel especially natural and in line with how I engage with email on my smartphone – much more contextually than when I'm staring at my desktop or laptop and larger screen.

The question for me and perhaps many others becomes: doI like the new format so much that I end up using two email apps – one for only gmail and the Apple Mail app for everything else? More likely, I'll either stay with Apple Mail or gravitate to some third-party app that provides similar or better inbox management across all of my email accounts.

On the negative or "remains to be seen" side, I rarely use the gmail Web interface anymore. Instead, I check email via Apple Mail's desktop and iPhone apps that aggregate my Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and work email.

It's vaguely annoying that I can't customize the tabs, such as renaming them or changing their order. I'm guessing the gmail product folks want to start off simply, with a minimum number of options to see if the core concept has value. If so, they'll likely start rolling out tweaks and new functionality that increase usage and adoption.

But, I also wonder if gmail's product people aren't overthinking the whole inbox concept. Gmail's original value proposition was that its massive amount of storage space eliminated the need to hyper-organize your email inbox. Just use that good old Google-style search function, right?

Ultimately, this game is probably all about the mobile apps. Now that mobile opens are approaching 50% on average, gmail might be betting that this feature adoption will hinge on mobile usage.

How should marketers respond?

First, don't panic. While we lack specific numbers, history shows that user adoption of inbox innovations often is very low, perhaps only in the single digits. Gmail also lets users revert to other inbox formats. And, gmail has a poor record of feature adoption.

However, the simplicity of this new tabs feature might be an innovation that sticks.

The following are four areas to monitor and address:

1. Review your email 'From' name, subject line approach and preheader text. Does your "from" name clearly identify your company or brand as the sender? This is key, because, as I noted above, each tab lists new senders by name until the user clicks on the tab. Also, put your preheader text to good use, so that the key reason to open your email is clear from a combination of from name, subject line and preheader text, regardless of tab or inbox format.

2. Monitor your response rates by ISP. Short-term, track your gmail figures as of May 29, 2013, the date the feature began rolling out to users. But then, go beyond that date and run historical response rates by domain for the last six to 12 months to establish a larger window for analyzing downward trends and comparables with other domains such as Hotmail/Outlook, AOL, Yahoo, etc. Also, overlay your opens for transactional emails and purchase behaviour to see if your Gmail subscribers differ from users of other email clients in how they engage with your broadcast emails.

3. Consider sending an email to your Gmail users now (before they switch to Tabs) that explains how they can see all of your messages by starring them and moving them to the "Primary" tab. Add this information to your onboarding messages where you explain about how to whitelist messages on Yahoo, AOL, etc.

4. Understand the potential impact on real-time emails. I can understand marketers' concern that the tabs could hurt immediacy if subscribers miss time-sensitive emails.

Many users who adopt tabs might set aside specific times of the day to read certain type of messages or tabs, such as reading Promotions email only in the evening.

This could hurt deadline-driven emails such as flash sales or "lunchtime dash" deals, where the offer is good for a small window or until inventory sells out. If you send emails like these, you might need to alter the timing, extend sale hours and actively push Gmail subscribers to star your emails to ensure delivery to the Primary inbox.

Consider recasting the copy in triggered emails such as cart and browse abandonment and welcome messages. These messages, and other alerts or notifications, get much of their impact from being delivered right after the customer takes the related action. Check your copy and make sure it's still relevant 24 hours or more after you send.

The Bigger Picture

1. Email is more, not less, important.

Many marketers are lamenting that Gmail's messing with the inbox. However, it's important to remember that other big email providers — Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL — are changing their email services and features because they see email is even more relevant in the social and mobile era.

As marketers, we might not like certain features here or there, but let's be thankful that these companies continue to invest in email and are ensuring an ongoing positive and relevant experience for users

2. Inbox management innovations and apps are poised for significant expansion. 

Whether from the webmail providers themselves or from third parties, apps that help consumers prioritize and manage their inboxes are poised for explosive growth. This ABC News video presents just a few: Mailbox, Sanebox and Unroll.me.

In the next few years, consumers will initiate even greater control over when, where and how they view your emails. Your only sure way to address this is to deliver uber-relevant email content and offers to each individual.

3. Mobile will become the real focus.

With many brands seeing around 50 percent of emails opened on mobile devices, inbox management features are ultimately going to come down to the mobile email apps consumers use. Because our mobile devices are a bit more context-centric, consumers might want to see all of their promotional emails or social network notifications when they are at lunch or on the train home from work, not throughout the day.

4. The basics of email success don't change.

Although you must monitor and know about potential effects of the tabs feature, your primary focus should still be on the basics: delivering valuable, relevant emails that customers and subscribers want and will look for no matter which folder they land under.

In the end, there are really too many variables and uncertainties about Gmail tabs to get overly concerned. In the last 20 years, only a few major developments in the email inbox have shook the earth for email marketers: HTML rendering in most email clients, the ISPs' junk folder and spam-filtering algorithms, and perhaps Gmail's emergence as one of the largest Web mail service providers.

Let's wait to see what happens with tabs. My guess? We'll look back in six to 12 months and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations, Silverpop