Marketers aren't waiting to see if Gmail's tabbed interface decreases email open rates. They're taking matters into their own hands.
The jury's still out on whether Gmail's tabbed interface, which routes marketing messages and other mass-blast email to secondary inboxes, will have a lasting effect on businesses that send email to customers, prospects and other external groups. Some companies aren't waiting for the verdict.
Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., recently sent an email to Gmail users encouraging them to take several simple steps to ensure future Kroger emails would appear in the Primary inbox rather than in Promotions. Indeed, the process for doing so is simple: Just drag an email from the Promotions or other second-tier tab to the Primary tab, then choose "Yes" when asked if you'd like all future messages from that sender routed to your main inbox.
DVD rental firm Redbox sent a similar end-of-summer email, telling Gmail users: "The new inbox means that you might miss Redbox emails with time-based offers and rental news." Plenty of other companies have also sent emails to Gmail subscribers urging them to take the same steps.
Businesses that send lots of external email can't control Gmail's user interface, but they can't well ignore it, either, given the service's popularity. Gmail open rates and other metrics that marketers and other email senders care about have been a hot topic since Google first began rolling out the tabbed interface in May, and especially once tabs became the norm later in the summer. That coincided with a wider rollout of Google's new Gmail ads, which appear as emails under Promotions, and effectively compete with other messages categorized in that tab. Those ads get top billing and a slightly different background color, too, not unlike ads that appear in Google search results.
Most initial stats point to at least a modest decrease in Gmail open rates since the launch of tabs. Email testing and analytics firm Litmus has tracked a slow but steady decline in Gmail open rates -- a half percentage point overall, or a 13% drop -- from May through August. Other email providers have noted similar decreases, though caution it's still too soon to draw definitive conclusions.
"Summer is typically a slower time for email marketing. I think the true test will come in Q4, the busiest email season," said Jill Bastian, community education and training manager at VerticalResponse, in an email to InformationWeek. "That will show better if there really has been a drop in open rates, or if it was just a summer lull."
What about those companies that aren't waiting around to find out? Should anxious businesses follow suit and ask their external email lists to move their messages into the Primary tab? There's an awkward arrogance to such requests. If you don't follow these instructions, you're going to miss out the next time we put cargo shorts on sale. That, plus the volume of organizations sending similar emails, creates a downside to the strategy, according to Bastian.
"Sending an email instructing readers how to move an email from the Promotion tab could be more annoying than helpful at this point," she said. "I'm a Gmail user and I can't tell you how many emails I've been sent on how to do this. At this point, they just annoy me."
Instead, Bastian recommends monitoring Gmail open rates and other metrics and only send such a request if there's a noticeable drop-off. Otherwise, sit tight and track how the changes unfold over time.
There's another important reason to avoid overreaction. According to Litmus, more than half of Gmail users don't read their email in a client that supports the tabbed interface. In fact, just 19% of people with a Gmail address actually read their email in Gmail's Web client. (It's also easy for those users to tweak their settings and turn off tabs.) More than one-third of Gmail users, on the other hand, read their mail on Apple's iPhone mail client. Another 20% of users check Gmail on their native Android app. Neither mobile interface currently supports tabs. Overall, mobile devices now account for 47% of opened emails, regardless of mail provider.