Will Gmail’s new inbox affect open rates?

By Ros Hodgekiss on 18th June 2013

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 @gmail.com (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.

11 Comments

  • Steven
    28th June

    I switched right back as I prefer to use labels and not have someone else determine the context of my emails (unless it’s spam!)

  • Carl Michael
    2nd July

    I’m testing the new tabbed set up at the moment. My initial thoughts are that I like it.

    As an email marketer though, it’s a little worrying. Though it all depends on the clients you have and the emails you send.

    I’d leave to see some figures on open rates for items in the ‘promotions’ tab, though I expect that’s impossible to test.

  • Carl Michael
    2nd July

    Personally I like it, but as an email marketer it’s a little concerning. Gmail.com is the most used domain in my current database.

    I’d love to see a test on open rates in the promotions tab, but I imagine that’s near impossible.

  • Andrew
    3rd July

    I think this could negatively affect open rates but, if people aren’t seeing emails that are important to them, then Google will definitely hear about it. So, I’m not too worried about this. In the long run, if an email’s important, then users will ensure that their email providers deliver it to them.

  • David
    21st July

    I really like Gmail’s new tabs/sorting feature. Sure, I’ve had to teach it a few things, but it learns pretty quick, and my new “Primary” inbox now feels much more clean, much more “me.”

    Also, I love the “New” flags that dissapear once you’ve viewed a tab, so I can immediately know what’s coming in without feeling compelled to “deal with it” (sort it, read it, delete it, etc.)

    I find the default categories (Primary, Social, Promotional) to be highly useful. Social things I recieve by default, so they’re not “earthshaking events” and I’m happy to deal with them separately. Promotional things are useful if I need them, and I’m happy to not be “interrupted” by them. That leaves Primary for everything else: communications. Love it.

    I’m sure the senders/marketers will dislike this, but I think in the longrun, they will. For example I used to regularly read certain promo emails just so that they would be in the “read” category. I will no longer do that. So I think overall open-rates will drop. However, when I do take up a promotion, read, click through, purchase, etc., that will be a real honest event for them. So they’ll have less “false” or ambiguous data, and the data they get will be more “real.”

  • Gordon
    24th July

    I used the tabs for a week, and eventually switched back to Priority Inbox, where I’ve been dutifully teaching Google over the past year what I think is “Important.”

    I can see a minority of power users finding this helpful after the algorithm has been conditioned, but I honestly can’t imagine this will be useful for the vast majority of Gmail users. And if almost nobody uses it, then it’s unlikely to have much effect on most bulk senders…

    Has anyone seen data about how many users are opting for the new inbox?

  • Julie
    30th July

    I’m a marketer but don’t do a lot with email… My first instinct is that it would effect open rates negatively. The branding value of an email might be down because less people will see it… However I wonder if the quality of the openers will be higher, particularly in ecommerce…. Since they had to seek out the email in their promotional emails, their mindset might be more apt to shopping. Thoughts?

  • Sarah
    10th August

    As a user, I didn’t ever like Priority Inbox, but I do like the tabs a lot. I’ve reduced mine to just Primary and Promotions (which I would rename if I could - basically anything that doesn’t require immediate or time-sensitive attention will also go here). I now can keep a cleaner inbox to work from, and when I have the time and the inclination, can go through and take care of what’s in my Promotions tab all at the same time - including reading forwarded emails from my mum! One less thing for my brain to consider when when looking at my inbox. I like that important Promotional emails can be starred, and then will show up in the Primary tab.

    I already have filters set up so certain emails (e.g. from social networking sites) never see my inbox, but I periodically check these labels and mark them as read. The tabs just helps catch all the “others” that I do want to pay attention to - but not right now.

    As someone who sends email campaigns, I’d hope that others would view it in the same way - but there is the risk it will become a Bulk Mail folder to them that they never check. But, if it continues to catch a lot of other stuff that is relevant to them, maybe they’ll find themselves checking it also, just less frequently.

  • Pauly Ting
    3rd September

    This has affected my open rate and I can’t really do a thing about it as I read it’s largely to do with the IP…so, now what?

  • Ros Hodgekiss
    4th September

    Pauly, our latest post on Gmail’s new inbox may be of interest to you. While senders have started doing interesting things like encouraging their subscribers to move their messages out of the “Promotions” tab, our advice is to really just focus on making your content excellent. That’s one thing that we, as senders, have a lot of control over and under any circumstances, can make a big difference to response rates.

  • Bfes-Enovate
    26th July

    Hi, I’d also say that the tabs are really good. I’ve always loved them and we just have to accept new things and move on.

    I personally always check the promos tab though sometimes I feel I don’t want to ‘read’ an email which is OK. In addition, there’s those good flags that signal new msgs and tempt one to open the tab…

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