Gmail Tabs: What Email Marketers Need to Know

July 30, 2013 , 17 Comments

Recently, Google rolled out a new “tabs” feature for Gmail users. Your email now gets automatically sorted into several categories like “promotions”, “social” or “forums”.

From reactions I’ve seen so far, for everyone who likes the feature, there seem to be at least 10 people who hate it (and I’m among them).

In this post, we’ll look at how you can improve Gmail sorting or get rid of the tabs altogether. Also, we’ll take a look at how this change affects email marketing and what you should do, if you have a mailing list.

How to Remove the Gmail Tabs

How to Remove Gmail Tabs

As you can see, it’s luckily very easy to remove the tabs completely. For me personally, Gmail did a terrible job of automatically sorting the emails and the tabs made me hate my inbox 100x more than I already did. It put me in a situation where even if I’d cleared up an inbox, there were still more inboxes I had to go through and made the task much more daunting. I had to get rid of the tabs, otherwise I wouldn’t even log in to my account anymore.

How to “Train” the Gmail Sorting Feature

Gmail Tabs Sorting

If you want to keep the tabs, this is a move you need to know about. Gmail will inevitably get some of the sorting wrong. With simple drag-and-drop, you can make sure that important emails go to your main inbox.

How Tabs Affect Open Rates

If you do any kind of email marketing, an important question is: how does this change affect your results? Do you have to expect a drop in responsiveness from your subscribers?

The short answer is: yes.

MailChimp have published some data from their service in this post:

Gmail Tab Open Rates

There’s a lot of speculation around, but the above is the only hard data I’ve found on the topic, so far.

A post published on the Infusionsoft blog makes a valid point in saying that:

…your emails will now have less competition in the Promotional folder to capture your recipient’s attention.

If you are sending marketing emails, you have to assume that they end up in the promotional folder, in many cases. The benefits and drawbacks are a bit of a toss-up. On the one hand, it’s true that there are fewer total messages in that folder, so your messages might not get overlooked as often. On the other hand, any message in the promotions folder will automatically have a lower perceived value than a message in the primary inbox.

So far, based on the MailChimp data, we can say that there’s a clear, but not catastrophic reduction in open rates, caused by the Gmail change.

What to Do, As an Email Marketer

So, how can you minimize the damage that this change could have on your email marketing campaigns? I recommend you take two steps:

1) Educate Your Subscribers

Let your subscribers know the two things you found at the top of this post. Tell them how they can make sure your emails go to the primary inbox. Also tell them how to get rid of the tabs. Again, from the reactions I’ve seen so far, there seems to be quite a lot of people who don’t like the tabs at all, so they’ll be happy to learn about this.

2) Write Emails People Want to Read

Yes, I know that’s basically a platitude. You can’t deny it’s true, though. This new change to Gmail inboxes is really bad news for marketers who have “churn and burn” email lists and just keep flooding subscribers with promotions or lifeless, corporate email updates. It’s much less of a problem for anyone who cultivates a true fan base and communicates with on a real, personal level.

To take it a step further, this change makes it all the more important to have a strong voice, no matter what your company is. If you put a bland, politically correct and replaceable message in the primary inbox, there’s a certain chance it will be read and acted upon. If you put that same message in the promotions tab, along with countless other bland, replaceable messages, it will probably get ignored.

Communicate in a way that appeals to and resonates with a small group of the right kind of people. For your true fans, tabs or any other update will not dissuade them from seeking you out, paying attention to you and yes, buying your stuff.

What’s your take on the Gmail tabs? Love them? Hate them? Seen an effect on open rates? Let me know in the comments below!

Shane's Signature

P.S.: Shoutout to Insider member Mitro for the idea of using animated gifs as a simple way to illustrate the steps above.

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Hot use of gifs! Very smooth move. Love it. No video, no need to click. I’m totally decaffeinated right now (trying to hold out the hour I have left to go) and it made the “yeah…got it” easy.

    • Oh… and I turned off the tabs almost immediately. I’ve been filtering my inbox with tabs and rules for years now so my rather intrenched system beats theirs hands down. I found myself searching for e-mails… hated it.

      I saw a few services playing offering this “NEW” tab/filter thing and because it was new people were signing up. I think Google saw this and thought “we can do this” and didn’t wait to see how the charm wore off. Rather like the “New” Coke fiasco (for those who experienced it)

  • I don’t think most people are going to go into the settings to do that.

    If they move a message into the primary, all other messages will go into the primary. That might be a better way to educate users that are not Internet savy. You won’t have that problem though Shane, you’re readership won’t mind tinkering with the settings.

    I’m oe of the few that actually like it. I turned mine off but then turned it back on. I like it for myself. I hate it for anyone I send an email too from my aWeber account. :)

    I suppose I had better do some educating and I’ll tell them to come watch your video here. Nice move Shane. :)

  • Hi Shane, most of the time I agree with you, but maybe its my age showing when I say this is nothing. Think back, do you really think Penguin and Panda etc were bad things? Weren’t they just steps along the way to getting rid of con-men out of the industry? Isn’t that a good thing?

    People will decide for themselves how they want to set up their emails and where they want our emails to go. This is a move that will continue to weed out the dickheads who can’t understand the difference between endless sales pitches and good content. Instead of sending content, they are sending disguised advertising. Why do you think Google has called the tabs ‘Promotions’?

    Quite simply, if someone really wants your stuff then ask them decide how it will be delivered when sending the initial welcome letter (don’t start issuing instructions unless you actually like being rude! I sure as hell will be offended if you tell me how I should handle my email thanks very much.)

    In the long run, this will weed out the spammers and blitzkrieg marketers which will be good for all of us. The snake oil sellers are finding it harder and squealing as a result.

    This won’t hurt the rest of us.

    • I’m not suggesting that you try and “order” your subscribers to move your emails to the primary inbox. I recommend that you inform them that this is an option.

  • Nice post, Shane!

    Curious, does anyone have their Gmail account synced with an Outlook application? If so, does the new tabs cause any changes inside Outlook?

  • Hello

    Ok, you can change your own Gmail account but what about normal email users (they are our clients). They are getting benefit from it as they do not have to separate promotional email from their primary email.

    Would love to know your view about that.

    Regards …

    • As I wrote, there are some people who like the feature and many who don’t. I’m not evangelizing for turning off the tabs, just recommending that you make sure your subscribers are aware of the options.

  • Shane:
    I also hate the new tabs. I’m glad that google made it so easy to turn them off. I had them all turned off within minutes of the news tabs showing up in my mailbox.

    I’m a big fan of filters. I already have more than 75% of the email I receive going into the folders that make sense for me.

  • hey Shane

    I like your tutorial… and I think marketers should not fret about this challenge, but overcome it (there are already solutions to this issue… as you well point out!)

    For my partner for e.g., this is not an issue. He integrates G-mail with Outlook Express (email client), and gets all emails into the INBOX :)

    He says it’s easy for email management than using the browser.

    Did you try an email client too?

  • Great post, Shane. When I first saw the tabs in my inbox I was mortified.

    I totally hated the update and quickly did a search on how to get rid of them. I’ve also noticed a significant drop in my email open rates. However, what’s surprising is when I send out a question for input on blog content to my list, I got a pretty good response rate. So I suppose that’s a good thing that my response and engagement levels haven’t really dropped, although my open rates have.

    Either way, I will overcome this and take the necessary steps to educate my current list and new subscribers.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Shane.

  • When I first heard that G was going to be using tab filters I was pleased as it would save me setting more filters up. However, when I saw what a bodge they made of it I switched them straight off. Apparently, they sort by whether an autoresponder sends them or an individual. What I was also finding was a lot of duplication. I was deleting/saving/reading the same email from different tabs.

    I suppose we could all bar G-mail from being signed up to when we ask people to opt in but that makes things even worse really.

    I stopped composing email in Gmail when they messed about with how you do that a few weeks back. I welcome change with improvements – but not just for the sake of it as that is what that change seemed to be.

    Like the quick gifs idea Shane.



  • Shane, thanks a lot. I have gotten rid of the tabs. I like it that way. Talking about solution to the problem, I found this in my inbox today:


    Guys, what do you think?

    • It’s very unlikely that they can keep the promises made. Self-hosted email sending is a very, very tricky proposition.

  • Shane:

    I think that the online marketers have to get a grip and start be pro-active instead of reactive. They also have to start become social instead of pushing out their message with a megaphone.

    Google Gmail’s tab system is good for your workflow. If someone don’t like the new features, change back to the old system.

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