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Gmail Inbox Update: Tabs

Clayton Mellgren

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In late May 2013, Google announced a new inbox that "puts users back in control." By default, the new Gmail inbox for webmail, the desktop version of the email client, shows users three tabs: Primary, Social, and Promotions. The Gmail mobile applications were also updated and show the primary tab by default and allow mobile users to view the additional tabs through the side rail. In webmail, if a user clicks on the plus button (+), they can edit which tabs are displayed. Two additional tabs are available: Updates and Forums. These two additional tabs are not enabled by default. "Starred" or favorite messages will also be affected by the new tabs. By default, starred messages will be included in the primary inbox and the tab they are delivered to. This can be turned off in the settings so that starred messages appear only in the tabs they are delivered to.

The rollout was not system wide at initial launch, but was deemed fully launched by late July 2013. Users also have the ability to disable the tabs to revert to the old non-tabbed-based Gmail inbox if they desire.

Gmail Tabs

Additional information can be found on Google’s blog post here.

Audience Volume & Response Rates

Response Rates

Gmail addresses can be the largest group of users for some brands, but still only account for 15% to 30% of total emails sent.

  • Additionally, in order to experience "Tabs," Gmail users will have to use Gmail via webmail or a Gmail mobile application.
  • This means, if you look at your Gmail account via your iPhone using the native iPhone mail app (like the majority of iPhone users), then you will not see the tabs.
  • Gmail webmail and Google Android combined is estimated to be only 12% of all email opens for the industry and will only be able to have a net effect of 12% of all responses (see graphic).


Historically, users do not globally adopt new features in Gmail and other online interfaces. They default to what they are comfortable with and continue with their current habits when possible. Currently, reviews are mixed from Gmail users, with some trying the new Tabs interface but reverting back after finding it does not fit their needs. We can assume that several (if not the majority) of Gmail users will not be using the new Tabs interface due to their non-webmail/non-gmail-app based email viewing application or that many users are simply not keeping Tabs activated on their webmail accounts.

Response Rates

Return Path (July, 2013) has predicted that the Gmail specific impact might be a .5% drop in Gmail-only open rates. Historically, Gmail can account for 25-50% of all responses for a brand due to a highly engaged audience type, which means a potential drop of only 0.125% to 0.25% in total open rates for any specific brand. Some brands could see zero change or even a lift if their Gmail registrants find the update allows them increase their engagement with all emails coming into their Inbox. Overall, we are anticipating a very small drop in response rates, and Gmail specific response rate changes will be nominal as well.

Email Marketing Industry

Return Path and Hubspot had a 59% increase). Overall, the Gmail tabs update will affect every industry and brand differently. If a registrant is actively responding to a brand’s message, then they will likely continue to engage and possibly increase their rate of response. If a registrant is disengaged, they will likely drop off from a potential response. Since "Tabs" will allow users to leave groups of emails unchecked for longer periods of time, it may cause users to respond later than normal to some emails. This is fine for non-time-sensitive emails, but potentially bad for urgent messages. Most pharmaceutical brands do not send "urgent" messages. Therefore, we expect to see little impact on the pharma industry.

Notification Email

Groupon Email

With any change to the normal user experience, it is normal for marketers to look for opportunities to modify adverse behavior based on the new experience. While it may seem like a good idea to create and deploy an "alert" email to give registrants a step-by-step guide to moving your message over to the Primary Tab, it may not be the best allocation of a brand’s resources nor the best use of your audience’s valuable time.

For brands that have a lengthy regulatory process, this type of email would be the last in a long line of emails coming to a user from several other brands. The value in this message is then lost, which was trying to educate the user as well as leveraging the relevancy of sending the email soon after the Inbox updates were made.

We recommend that clients do not deploy this type of email to their audience, unless they have a deep and well established relationship with a core audience that is very likely to complete the task of moving their brand to the Primary tab. It is our belief that this message will simply be lost in the shuffle and provide no value to the brand-patient relationship, potentially giving them another reason to opt-out.

But, What About My Brand?

With all the insights and statistics pointing to a general consensus of "no action required," it is still a best practice to fully understand what your brand’s audience is doing and how you can more appropriately message to them.

To define what is happening, there are a few steps that can help estimate the impact this update has on your audience:

  1. Calculate both the total count of email addresses in your database, as well as the average monthly volume of responses coming from addresses during the last 12 months.
  2. If this percentage is greater than 15% (which it typically will be), then further analyze the data to define the trend of opens and clicks for the months leading up to the Gmail Inbox Update (May-June) as well as the months after.
  3. To provide a benchmark for the gmail response trend, pull the same data for the top 5-10 domains during the same time period as well as your overall response rates for all domains. This will help you understand what your audience is doing outside of the Gmail inbox update.
  4. Once a complete picture of the impact of the Gmail Inbox Update can be determined, then a brand can make an informed decision regarding how to best to address the issue based on their specific situation and audience. This exercise may also produce additional insights that could lead to improved response rates across multiple domains.

Looking Ahead

Intouch is watching this topic very closely and will be applying any new best practices related to this change to their clients’ brands as they continue to optimize their individual CRM programs. While the immediate impact is not likely to have a drastic effect on overall response rates, it may drive more email service providers to implement similar user experiences. This will raise the bar for valuable communications and continue to force marketers to create more meaningful relationships between patient and brand.


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