Has Google’s Tabbing Initiative Killed Email Marketing’s Golden Goose?

When Google announced that it was going to introduce tabs into its web-based email client last year, some marketers feared that it would kill off email marketing campaigns once and for all.

Their fear was perfectly understandable in the circumstances as Google’s tabbing initiative automatically sorted emails into Primary, Social and Promotional categories. This meant that users would have to actively click on messages Google had assigned as ‘promotional’ to see them. Email marketing has been a mainstay for digital marketers for many years. When done well email marketing is considered to be one of the most cost-effective promotional tools. Naturally email marketers were worried that dumping all their messages into a Promotions bucket might kill of their marketing campaigns.

But why would digital marketers concentrate on email when social media has proved to be such an effective promotional alternative?

Social media, after all, can offer audiences a high-volume, quickly moving stream of messages. The problem many marketers have found is their message often gets lost in the process and remains unread. Email, on the other hand has proved to be more effective. The majority of people check their email at least once a day, and most are happy to read promotional messages so long as they feel they are not being spammed. Marketers, therefore, could generally rely on their messages reaching recipients.

So what sort of effect has Google’s tabbing initiative had on email marketing? Well, according to Pat Flynn, a successful San Diego internet marketer, Google’s Promotions tab has had a significant effect. He told the BBC that he had always been able to rely on users opening a high percentage of his marketing emails prior to Gmail’s tab function, but since its introduction his ‘open rate’ had fallen from a respectable 50% to roughly 37/8%. The only way he has been able to address this issue is by ‘training’ his audience, and asking users to manually set emails from his address to drop into the Primary section of his inbox instead of the Promotions tab.

However, it’s fair to say that experiences of Gmail’s tab function vary from industry to industry. Not everyone has experienced the same degree of slump in open rates as Flynn. John Foreman, a chief data scientist at AWeber which provides campaign management tools for email marketers, told the BBC his open rates were relatively unscathed. December’ figures showed that AWeber’s Gmail open rates had only dropped by a relatively modest 1.5% since tabs were introduced. A November study by email intelligence firm, Return Path, found that open rates for emails in the Promotions tab remained largely unchanged on average. What’s more, the firm found an unexpected benefit: those users who actively sought out emails actually took the trouble to read them.

The general consensus now seems to be that the initial fears of many marketers were unjustified.

Rather than creating a sort of ghetto for unread marketing emails, Gmail’s Promotional tab has created a place where interested recipients will go to seek out email with useful offers, tips, and information. The key to making the best of Google’s tabbing function is to produce marketing emails that are both timely and relevant to the user, without consistently and shamelessly trying to milk them for their money. The success relies on engaging with an audience on different channels and building up a strong relationship. Return Path found that open rates for emails actually increased slightly after the introduction of Gmail tabs, but this only applied to recipients who were already considered ‘highly engaged’, and that the more value your marketing email offers on a regular basis, the more likely people are to go looking for it.