Gmail Insights: Gmail Reinvents Itself

Gmail tabs

Recently Google introduced a new feature to Gmail that has some marketers up in arms. In the past, an email could wind up in one of two places: the inbox or the spam folder. Gmail users could prioritize their mail with labels, but as long your mailing didn’t end up in the spam folder, you were doing alright. Now Gmail users have the option of dividing their email into separate tabbed areas based on the content. These tabs are, as follows:

  • Primary—This is where all personal correspondence or any email that Gmail can’t categorize ends up. It is the first tab and automatically appears whenever the Inbox is opened.
  • Social—As the name suggests, any email from sites such Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn will end up here, as well as email from dating sites.
  • Promotions—Most marketing email will end up here, including special offers and company newsletters.
  • Updates—Transactional email, such as order receipts, program updates, and monthly charges should end up in this tab.
  • Forums—Similar to Social, forums, mailing lists, and any special groups to which you belong will appear here.

Gmail tabs

Whenever new email is added to one of these tabs, the tab displays the number of new emails along with the first few “From” names that appear on these mailings. These tabs are also available on the Android and iPhone Gmail apps. For now, the tabs feature is an opt-in setting, but Google has said that in the future it will become a standard feature of Gmail.

For the power email user, these changes do not matter much. These people have already applied filters to their email to categorize things more easily. As a member of some particularly hyperactive discussion groups, I learned long ago about the advantages of assigning certain topics or “From” addresses to their own folders. But for the person who normally doesn’t bother with any email sorting beyond dragging receipt emails to a separate folder, Gmail’s new tabs could be a game changer. How much of a game changer remains to be seen.

What goes where?

How does Google decide under which tab to put a new email? Google won’t say anything about their logic, probably to avoid people trying to game the system. This is similar to their SEO logic, where they will say very little about the algorithms. So here is our take on how they are doing this. The Social tab is probably hard-wired to the main social sites —Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, etc. This should work pretty well and is fairly foolproof. It does mean that promotions from these companies come in as Social, as we’ve already experienced. For all other email, we suspect they are scanning the content, looking for keywords, and the things that they examine for deliverability already, such as the number and location of links and the text-to-image ratio. Anything that has commercial sounding keywords, or many images, will likely go to the Promotions tab.

If this is true, then ironically, sophisticated marketing email design suddenly become less valuable. A transactional email that includes several images, complex tables, and additional offers, has a strong chance of ending up in the Promotional folder instead of the Updates folder where it belongs. A simpler transactional email containing few if any images or links, and is primarily text has a better shot at the Updates folder in this case.

For some marketers, Gmail’s new interface seems like a direct assault on their businesses, arguing that segregating promotional email into its own tab is tantamount to creating a new Spam folder. Although the actual effect remains to be seen, some people in the industry predict that we will see a drop in response rates.

So is this the end of the world?

First and foremost, it is important to remember that most promotional mailings are going to end up under the Promotions tab at first. The problems you’ll face as a marketer with this new system really aren’t that different than they were before. People can usually recognize promotional email almost immediately, and its success inevitably boils down to the usual factors—intriguing subject lines, compelling content, and how easy you make it to respond to offers. Whenever email lands under the Promotions tab, the client is alerted to new email in the tab bar immediately, but how people respond to these notifications is still unknown.

Some concerns about the potential effect of tabs on customer responsiveness are valid. Extremely time sensitive emails (“25% off afternoon special”) might get overlooked until it is too late. But it is equally possible that when clients discover they have missed short-lived specials, they will be more diligent in the future when it comes to viewing their promotional emails, which could benefit everybody in the long run.

If you are sending transactional emails you are going to want to pay close attention to where your mailings end up. You may find that your transactional emails are being treated as promotional based on the keyword-scanning methods Google appears to be using.

Google’s Rulebook

Google’s stated goal with these recent changes is to make Gmail more relevant to the users. That was the idea behind the addition of the priority feature in email, but it appears that not too many people bothered with that feature, so they are trying a different tack. In the end, the success or failure of tabs will hinge on the public reaction. It is interesting to note that one of the features Google touted for Gmail when they introduced the service was the idea that you did not need to categorize your email, but could, instead, use search to find specific emails. Apparently, they no longer feel this is the case. Google has never been particularly responsive to marketers; just ask anyone who has dealt with SEO issues over the past few years. It is doubtful that any complaining by marketers will yield results.

It is also apparent that the interface is not 100% accurate. I’ve received promotional mail in three different folders without any rhyme or reason. It appears as if Google is resorting to keyword connections to determine the placement of some email. If your mailing is in reference to a specific event, such as a webinar, or contains information that resemble a receipt, there’s a chance it will end up under the Updates tab instead of Promotions. We are also seeing a lot of crossover between Social, Updates, and Forums, depending on the information in the “From” address.

One thing is certain, this will not be the last time that Google fiddles with email, nor is it a marketer’s worst nightmare. Good marketing will prevail because, in spite of any grousing on the part of the general public, people like good marketing. It informs them, entertains them and aids them. As long as your mailings do one of these three things, you’ll be fine.

Go to Goolara website

7 thoughts on “Gmail Insights: Gmail Reinvents Itself

  1. Terea Jennings

    So far, I don’t like it. I prefer to open emails as they arrive and by sender, not by subject category. I think it will encourage me to open less and open rates overall will drop.

    1. Jim Morton Post author

      Some ESPs are reporting slight drops in open rates, but nothing significant. We haven’t seen much change here. Personally, I turned the tabs off for two reasons. First, the new email alerts disappear as soon as you go to that tab, even if you haven’t opened the email. Second, those paid notices that used to appear at the top of the page now appear under the promotions tabs, looking for all the world like email. They are highlighted in yellow, but still it seems a bit deceptive.

  2. Hillary W.

    I can’t stand it from a personal perspective and that’s before thinking through the business impact. It’s much more difficult to look for the most recent e-mail quickly. Now you need to check multiple tabs and clean-up multiple tabs. People will be more likely to go to the promotional tab and “delete all” if they haven’t gone there in a while and there are a lot of e-mails in there rather than looking at all of them. At least when mixed with other e-mail if they had time they may have browsed and looked through some promotional mail that caught their eye.

  3. Debra

    Proof again that people don’t readily accept change. Initially, I was surprised and disturbed by the tabs. I decided to give it a little time and see how I would adapt. In the meantime, I received a flurry of emails from marketers about the evils of categorization. Last night I considered removing all of the tabs and resorting to business as usual, and then I caught myself thinking, hey, I like the way this is organized. I can easily move any emails into my Primary tab that have more weight in my world, and can more easily scan and purge the rest. The only feature I do not like is that I have lost the overall “email count” tracking capability. I really like to see the numbers drop when I open and delete, not per tab, but overall. So, all things considered and for now, I have adapted to this as my new business as usual.

    1. Jim Morton Post author

      Debra, I suspect that you attitude is reflective of most people. Marketers are the only people railing against the tabs. Good marketers still understand that as long as your email is not just a hard sell, but offers people something they look forward to reading, it won’t matter if it end up in the promotions folder.


    At first I hated the layout but now I have to admit that as businessman I quite like it… Change is inevitable but sometimes does take some getting used to. I’m sure in time we will all get used to the new concept…
    The same applies to our most recent product launch that has created a bit of a frenzy because it is a platform that make marketing so much easier under one umbrella. Worth a look.. if your want to increase your sales or personal income


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