Email Marketers: Gmail Wants to Kill Your Babies (How NOT to React to Gmail Tabs)

Fear the Gmail Tabs

Marketers do not find Gmail’s new Promotion tab crisp or refreshing (though definitely sassy).

By now we’ve all had a chance to process our our knee-jerk reactions to Google’s now infamous Gmail tabs. Over the past few weeks, marketers everywhere have been discovering that under the new Gmail inbox system — which sorts emails into three default categories: Primary, Social, and Promotions  — their emails are now automatically appearing under the Promotions tab. Or, as some think of it, the “Slightly-Nicer-Name-for-Spam” tab.

Just how bad is this freaking everybody out? In short, many of the immediate reactions have ranged from this to this to this.

And who could blame them considering we have a KILLER on our hands (cue dramatic music, lightning, woman’s scream).

Email Marketers: Gmail Wants to Kill Your Babies (How NOT to React to Gmail Tabs)

But while some marketers equate the Promotions tab with a death sentence, others aren’t quite so quick to wheel out the casket. Some, like Marketo co-founder and VP of Marketing Jon Miller, have even made compelling cases for why the change is an opportunity, not a threat.

Whichever side you fall on, there’s no denying Gmail’s tabs are making a big splash. Here are a few tips to help you avoid making rash decisions while riding out the wave until we can see how things settle.

Reacting to Gmail Tabs: 3 Things You Absolutely Should Not Do

1) Do Not Panic and Make Uninformed Decisions

Before any real data started coming out on the impact of tabs many marketers had already decided they were going to be the downfall of their email marketing programs. They immediately dove into researching and discussing ways they could get their emails out of the Promotions tab, and in doing so they were skipping one very crucial first step: measuring and understanding the real impact.

Which do you want driving your marketing strategy? Your emotions and assumptions or data and results?

Before you do anything else, take a minute to take an objective look back at your stats. First off, how many of your subscribers are using Gmail? Find out. It might be a smaller portion than you think.

Once you have that data, run a quick comparison of open, click-through, and conversion rates. Gmail introduced the tabbed inbox on May 29th. Compare your historic open and click-through rates with the rates for the emails you’ve sent out since late May, keeping in mind that depending on how many emails you send out, your sample size may not be large enough for an accurate analysis (not to mention there might also be seasonal and other potential factors in play).

Do you see a big drop? If not, there’s no reason to panic. Even if you do notice a drop, it’s still far too soon to bust out your “The End is Nigh” sign.

According to Matthew Grove at MailChimp, the new Gmail inbox does appear to be bringing down open rates, but “the change isn’t dramatic at this point.”

Gmail open rates before and after inbox tabs — MailChimp


Yes, any drop is something to take seriously, but the point is you should make sure you’re well informed regarding the impact on your own stats before you act.

2) Do Not Blast Your Entire Email List with Instructions on How to Move Your Emails to the Primary Tab

You’ve probably received at least one or maybe even a handful of them by now — an email from the newsletter you signed up for or the list you opted in to explaining why it’s not fair for Gmail to classify the relevant, content-rich emails they provide you with alongside spammy Promotional emails, and walking you through the simple steps of either moving their emails to your Primary tab or disabling tabs altogether.

Out of all the reactions from marketers, this may be the one that’s gained the most steam early on (thanks in part to Michael Stelzner’s helpful “How to Disable Gmail Tabs” video at Social Media Examiner), but honestly, I have a hard time seeing this as a good move.

Naturally, once we marketers discovered our emails were going to be lumped in and associated with messages from other marketers we wanted to get as far away from the Promotions tab as possible. I get that. But having received a few of these emails myself, I have to say the inadvertent impression I got was that the senders thought I was stupid and that they also came off as a little desperate.

Think about it — even if one of your subscribers just happened to get back from a relaxing summer-long vacation living under a rock and noticed for the first time his Gmail inbox now has tabs, how long do you honestly think it would take for him to figure it out? He’ll check everything out, decide whether he wants to keep the tabs format or not, and if he cares one iota about your emails or newsletter he’ll keep an eye out for it, make note of where it shows up, and either look for it in the Promotions tab or move it someplace else.

Gmail Tabs: Moving Emails from Promotions Tab to Primary Tab


Do you really think it takes an email from you, oh wise bestower of intuitive, 5-seconds-worth-of-Google-search knowledge, to make that possible? More importantly, do you really think you explaining to your subscribers your preference for how they organize their own personal inboxes is going to carry much water? That’s exactly what we’re all upset at Google about, right?

Have a little faith — in both your audience and in your content. If your emails are what they should be your subscribers will find them and figure out which way of categorizing/accessing them works best for them, personally.

As DJ Waldow reminds us in a post on his blog, “before you get all fired up and lash out at Gmail, remember that its focus has always been — and most likely always will be — on the user experience. It’s not about you — the email marketer. It’s about you — and your audience — the consumer.”

So should you send a note to your subscribers?

I personally don’t think it’s necessary, but if you must, I’d suggest taking the advice Tori Deaux offers in her post “The Great Gmail Freak-Out of 2013”:

Instead of sending me a freaked out mailing about how this is going to wreck YOUR business, with a desperate call to action designed to protect YOUR interests… why not make it a positive note, showing me how this change may benefit ME?

Show me how it can make it easier to find awesome content, both yours, and other people’s. Give me a mini tutorial that shows me how to customize the tabs for MY benefit, not yours.

Isn’t that more in the spirit of Permission & Content Marketing? Wouldn’t that be offering me something of value to me, rather than to you?

Also, please don’t forget that not all of your subscribers are Gmail users. Sending an email out to everyone on your list isn’t necessary.

3) Do Not Try to Game the System

Of course, the second Google releases any kind of change or update the race is immediately on to discover a way to work around it. Sure, you can spend a ton of time and energy trying to break down how Google determines what goes to Primary and what gets tagged as Promotion, and even more into gaming the system, but in the end do you really think you’re going to be able to pull one over on Google, really?

Even if, by some miracle, you were able to trick Google (you won’t) and sneak your way back into the Primary tab, how do you think users are going to react? Chances are they’ll think it’s suspicious that your email is there and not under Promotions, and they’ll likely just mark you as spam.

As MailChimp co-founder and CEO Ben Chestnut puts it in one of his comments on Grove’s post, “Some marketers want to game the system and get back into the “primary” tab. Such tricks, if ever possible, are short-lived. More importantly, marketing tricks backfire.”

Long story short, you can’t fool Google and you shouldn’t try to fool your audience. So no fast ones, okay?

My Own Take on Gmail Tabs

As a user I actually like the tabbed Gmail experience. It makes my inbox feel far less cluttered, and I think a big reason for that is the welcome banishment of all those annoying LinkedIn Groups and Twitter notifications to the Social tab. It’s funny how we haven’t heard too much complaining about that. For all the bluster around the Promotions tab, I personally find the Social tab to be the real dungeon of my inbox.

Like others, I’ve also found that I may actually be reading more of my “Promotional” emails, but then again, I’ve long since unsubscribed to anything I didn’t want, and as someone whose job it is to sign up and be interested in a lot of email marketing, I don’t think I’m a good representative of Gmail users on the whole.

All that said, I do have to agree that — as both a marketer and a Gmail user — there is something troubling and problematic about the switch to tabs, and I think for many people it comes down to Google operating under the assumption that it knows what is best for its users (but then again, I guess that’s what Google is in the business of figuring out). That and the fact that emails actually come in far more than three flavors. Specifically, I think a big part of this outcry from marketers has to do with the “Promotions” label, itself. Take this comment from Grove’s post:

Dan Comment

On one hand, I absolutely get where Dan is coming from, but I also realize this argument would be a lot stronger if it were coming from a user complaining about actual lost value or a tarnished experience rather than a marketer who is only assuming his audience either won’t be able to find his emails or will somehow see them as less credible now that they’re appearing under the Promotion tab (and I think the jury’s still out).

In the end, it’s still our audience’s perception of our emails that really matters, but it is a shame that Google’s perception of them factors in, too. Such is the cost of using a channel you don’t own.

For tips on some additional great ways you should be handling Gmail’s new tabs, check out Sonia Simone’s list of 7 Ways to Survive Gmail’s New Promotions Tab.

What’s Your Take on Gmail Tabs?

  • Have you noticed any impact on your open or click-through rates?
  • Have you taken any actions or modified your email approach?
  • Is this the end of the road for email marketing or have rumors of its demise been greatly exaggerated?
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