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Since Google I/O, Gmail’s web and mobile clients have undergone some significant changes. Most recently, Gmail’s new approach to categorizing messages using tabs has begun its rollout and captured the interest of many an email marketer. But while the transition to this new inbox layout promises greater efficiency for recipients, could it possibly come at the cost of results for senders?

For those who have just stumbled upon the new inbox, the skinny is that instead of the traditional approach of displaying all non-foldered emails as one chronological list in the email client, Gmail now organizes messages across five tabs, being Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums. All new messages are automatically filed into one of these tabs, meaning that email recipients have to “tab” through to view them. It’s almost like having five inboxes in one:

Gmail's tabbed inbox

At this early stage, our observation has been that Gmail’s categorization is fairly primitive, with pretty much all email originating from mass senders like Campaign Monitor ending up in the “Promotions” tab, regardless of content. So it’s likely that this determination is based on IP/sender history, instead of the message copy itself. That said, Gmail does give recipients the option of re-categorizing email, so hopefully we’ll see this process developed in order to ‘train’ Gmail to accurately categorize email from specific senders:

Manually categorizing email in Gmail

For now, manually changing an email’s category doesn’t seem to affect how new messages from the same sender are categorized, however manually moving an email message from one tab to the next does result in a prompt being displayed, asking whether future messages from the sender should be automatically moved to this category.

Should senders be worried about this new inbox?

The concept of categorising all incoming mail isn’t at all new – in 2011, Priority Inbox was introduced, allowing recipients to mark mail as “Important” and “Not important”. By marking email in this manner, Gmail could be trained by recipients to separate “Important” family emails from say, “Not important” social network updates, with the goal of making it easier to “focus on the things we need to get done”. Gmail’s “Smart Labels” followed soonafter, which kicked things up a notch by automatically labelling emails as “Bulk”, “Notifications” and more, based on their own evaluation.

Given this precedent, the introduction of these tabs doesn’t mark a radical change. The feedback we’ve received from folks using Priority Inbox and Smart Labels to manage their mail has largely been favourable, so it seems like a fair assessment to say that the Gmail team have found a competitive advantage in finding clever ways to segment email messages.

The concerns back in 2011 were no different from the concerns that have arisen with Tabbed Inbox now. Just as senders viewed having their campaigns marked as “Bulk” as being nearly as bad as having them marked for deletion, so the thought of having email campaigns ushered to a “Promotions” tab has caused a collective shiver.

However, in the period since Priority Inbox’s introduction, the predicted open rate Gmailocalypse has never come to fruition. In fact, we compared statistics for Gmail subscribers between September, 2011 and May, 2013 and found that the average open % had increased during this period. Nonetheless, the potential impacts have kicked off some interesting discussion in our forums, especially around having all email campaigns categorized as Promotions, regardless of the true purpose of the message.

If you have a (not Google Apps) account and haven’t been migrated over yet, you can switch over to the new inbox via Settings > Configure Inbox. Naturally we’d love to know what you think of this new-look inbox, so let us know in the comments below.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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