Gmail Tabs: For Better or For Worse

Google’s Gmail Tabs has caused an uproar since it began a phased rollout in July. The new format segregates mail into types, including a “Promotional” queue that houses commercial appeals. Epsilon SVP and email authority Quinn Jalli, for one, sees nothing but trouble for marketers in being exiled to an e-com gulag. “This is not going to be a good thing,” he says. “We’ve seen enough tests of this to not have to look too hard at the crystal ball.”

Other email solutions providers take a brighter view of the development, their spirits perhaps buoyed by a study from Return Path chronicling Tabs’ first week. It found that highly engaged (with marketers’ emails, that is) consumers actually read more emails after the Tabs transformation than before, if only by a little: 59.88% from 58.64%. “For users with histories of high engagement with email marketing,” Return Path’s report says, “Gmail’s Tabs feature made it easier to do something they like doing: shop.”

This impression rings true with Gmail Tabs’ glass-half-full crowd of email marketers, like Listrak CEO Ross Kramer. “For Gmail users who are the most engaged, engagement is actually increasing,” he says, “because, when it’s time for them to shop, Gmail has put all the promotional messages in a separate area.”

Making marketers better

Kramer is also of the opinion that Google did conscientious marketers a favor last year when it altered its spamming algorithm to take consumer engagement into account; basically, if a user ignores marketing messages over a span of months, but the brand keeps sending them, Google begins to view that company as a spammer, and its messages might soon find its way into Gmail spam filters. “As an email marketer, I don’t want to send emails to people who don’t find them important,” Kramer says.

According to Kramer, despite Google’s focus on engagement as a spam indicator, many marketers have continued their daily email programs, even with low open rates. “When people dropped daily programs, engagement didn’t increase and revenue flat-lined,” he says. “In the age of social media, a steady stream of data to people has become more prevalent.”

It’s hard to argue that engagement is of ultimate importance, but so is customer acquisition, where the opportunities and the numbers are larger. Email users with high engagement rates made up only 11% of Return Path’s study sample. Moderately engaged consumers accounted for most of the rest (88%), and their post-Tabs read rates dropped to 9.81% from 10.55%.

Making the job harder

This is where Epsilon’s Jalli, spokesman for the glass-half-empty faction, weighs in. “What we’re seeing is that the tabs are impacting opens and clicks and driving down the ratio. All of our clients want their messages in the Primary tab,” he says. “With a tabbed inbox, if open rates go down, then Gmail makes it harder for consumers to get what they want. If open rates in the Promotions tab go down to 15% from 20%, does that mean that all of a sudden 5% of people don’t want their emails?”

Since Google has yet to acknowledge whether Tabs has even reached 100% penetration among Gmail user’s, such questions are sure to be asked and answered for some time to come.

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