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Are Google's New Tabs Making the Inbox More Shopping-Friendly?

by Tom Sather  |  
August 22, 2013

Did Gmail’s Tabs make the inbox a better environment for e-commerce? While marketers worried that Tabs would make promotional messages easier to ignore, early indications suggest that exactly the opposite may be happening.

At least for Gmail users who routinely read marketing messages, Tabs actually increased their engagement in its first week. They read even more of their commercial email—59.9%—after the roll-out.

Those users represent a small, highly engaged part of the email audience, but a study of nearly 1.4 million Gmail users in Return Path’s subscriber panel found that more typical users---those with average levels of engagement---also used Tabs to find and review promotional messages. Users read nearly as high a percentage (9.8%) of those messages in Tabs’ first week of general release as they did during the previous four months (10.6%). They also received more of the messages sent to them because fewer were delivered as spam.

Only the least engaged Gmail users significantly changed their behavior, reading 0.4% of their marketing messages---down from 2.2% before the Tabs roll-out. This group is comparably small, less than 1% of the total, and had virtually no influence in the overall results. On the whole, Gmail Tabs was good news for email marketers in its first week----at least for those with engaged subscribers.

A week is obviously not enough time to assess Tabs’ long-term impact on email marketing, but there are two reasons that this feature’s anticipated disruption hasn’t materialized. First, very few mobile devices were affected by Tabs, and mobile now accounts for 44% of email opens. As more users experience email on smart phones and tablets, the effects of changes to desktop and webmail interfaces will be even more muted.

Second, the Promotions Tab is simply a better e-commerce environment than the conventional inbox because there are no competing messages from social networks or other non-commercial senders to sort through. By compiling marketing messages in one place, Gmail helps engaged users do something they like to do: Shop. Users' initial reaction to Tabs may illustrate something for skeptics that email marketers have always understood: Consumers truly value and respond to messages from brands. By separating these messages from others in the inbox, Gmail may have created a shopping-optimized user experience.

As marketers continue to monitor how Gmail subscribers engage with their campaigns, these early observations challenge conventional thinking about the importance of primary inbox delivery. Already some brands are asking subscribers to signal that they want their messages routed directly to the inbox. As reviewing email in the Promotions tabs because more habitual for Gmail users, there may be a risk that messages in the primary inbox are overlooked when subscribers are actively shopping. Ironically marketers’ biggest fear about Tabs—that their mail would be out of sight and out of mind in the new Gmail inbox—could come true for messages left out of the Promotions tab.

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Tom Sather is an email deliverability consultant for Return Path, where he works with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM, and Twitter.

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