Gmail Tabs’ Impact Four Years Later

Mar 17, 2017


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Article ImageIn 2013, Gmail launched a new feature to help people manage the deluge of emails in their inbox. Users complained that finding important emails was difficult, despite Gmail’s strong built-in search capabilities. As a solution, Gmail started categorizing all incoming emails and sorting them to separate tabs with in the inbox. Nearly four years later, email marketing is alive and thriving despite prophecies that Gmail’s tabbed inbox would make email marketing irrelevant. The Email Marketer's Guide to Gmail Categories: Analysis of Consumer Adoption and Placement Accuracy, looked at the impact of Gmail tabs nearly four years later.

Gmail Classification and Tabs

Gmail classifies all incoming emails as either a Social, Promotion, Update, or Forum message. Gmail users are also allowed to customize their inbox by turning off categories they don’t want their email sorted to and turn on those they do. Emails labeled as Social are social notifications and updates from the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more. Promotions are just that—emails that are promotional in nature. Updates include important transaction emails like electronic receipts, shipping notifications, and order updates. Forums are for mailing lists and groups.

Emails that don’t fall into one of those categories aren’t categorized immediately. Instead, they’re placed through more spam filters, and if considered not spam, they are placed in the Primary tab. Normally, a Gmail user with all tabs enabled will only receive personal emails in the Primary tab.

Who Uses Gmail’s Tabs?

According to a Return Path survey of more than 1,600 Gmail users, nearly 34% have enabled tabs within their inbox. Slightly more males (51%) use Gmail’s tabs to sort their emails compared to females (49%). Usage is highest among the younger demographic--33% of Gmail tab users were 24 - 35 years old with nearly equal usage among both genders (34% vs. 33% for males and females respectively). Despite what many say, email is alive and well with younger users, but it appears they find managing their inbox more of a necessity than older demographics.

What Are They Sorting?

68% of respondents who use Gmail tabs say they have the Social tab enabled, followed by 60% saying the same of the Promotions tab. It should be noted that Gmail accounts have those two tabs enabled by default. Promotions and Social tabs were used largely regardless of gender. However, more males also choose to sort emails into Updates (62%) and Forums (60%). 

The 25 - 34 year old demographic uses the promotion tab (33%) more than any other group. The same is true for the Social tab. 33% in this demographic state they like to sort social messages out of their primary inbox. For the other age demographics, usage is equal for each tab with one exception: 35 - 44 year olds are more likely to sort Forum messages (30%) than other groups. 

But Are They Checking Promotions?

sather gmail tabs econtent insights

When Gmail introduced its sorting feature, the biggest fear among email marketers was the ghettoization of marketing emails. With promotional emails being sidelined, the thinking goes, more and more people will ignore these messages, treating the Promotions tab like the spam folder and making email marketing ineffective. The good news is 46% check the Promotions tab at least once per day; 26% check the Promotions tab at least weekly, and just 20% stated they never look at the Promotions tab.

Does Gmail Sort Emails Accurately?

Email marketers know all about false positives. They deal with their email campaigns being sent to the spam folder on a daily basis. In fact, over 20% of opt-in email messages are sent to the spam folder. The good news is Gmail’s machine learning algorithms do a better job of classifying emails as a Promotion, Social, Update, or Forum message than they do at identifying spam. But it isn’t perfect--9% of survey respondents claim that Gmail isn’t accurately sorting emails to the correct tab. Additionally, those who reported that they check the Promotions tab “constantly” or “3 - 4 times per day” were much more likely (25%) to report classification issues.

Misclassifications can have a major impact on email marketing. Gmail tab users are conditioned to look for emails in their appropriate tabs. Misplaced email subscription confirmations can result in lower signups and reduced list growth. Additionally, heavy email users are more likely to purchase something via email than their more casual counterparts. Misclassifications to this important group can mean fewer purchases, or an overall bad user experience.

To overcome misclassifications, email marketers should institute a practice of sending different types of email (i.e., promotions, transactional emails, and social notifications) from different, authenticated sender addresses. Mixing different types of content in one email should also be avoided. Offering a discount off a future purchase in a receipt or shipping notification message will likely result in that email being sent to Promotions (rather than Updates, which would be more appropriate). More importantly, email marketers need to monitor how their emails are being classified. You’ll never be able to fix a problem if don’t know you have one.