Gmail Tabs: 7 Tips For Business Communications

Aug 01, 2013 (08:08 AM EDT)

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One of the first appearances of Google's new Gmail ads in my inbox was a wonderful marriage of old world and new: Publishers Clearinghouse invited me to "Enter to Win $5,000 a Week 'Forever'!"

(I'm not sure why "forever" was in quotes, nor am I holding my breath waiting for the Prize Patrol to knock on my front door, but I digress.)

What I found remarkable from a business standpoint was how long it took for me to see my first ad given that I seem to have Gmail open, on one screen or another, for 10 to 12 hours a day. That's because I've already become desensitized to the new tabs included by default in Gmail's updated interface -- in this particular case, the Promotions tab. I've also got the default Social tab and recently added the Updates tab for testing purposes.

[ One user's love and loathing of Gmail tabs: Gmail Inbox Update: Hopes And Fears. ]

I've actually begun to like the new tabs, which caught me by surprise. I anticipate that I'll need to tweak my settings as time goes on, but at the moment I'm content to more or less watch how the defaults work. They automatically slim down the daily inbox without needing to create and manage custom filters or adjust other settings. (I should note that much of my experience outlined here is based on laptop-and-Web use, rather than smartphone or tablet clients. Your results may vary.)

When I did recently remember to take a peek behind the Promotions tab, a few things jumped out at me that seem critical for any organization that sends email to customers, prospects, and other external groups.

First, these messages are much easier for Gmail users to ignore for days at a time without any filtering or other user action. Second, businesses that send email to external lists are now effectively competing with Google for Gmail users' attention because of Google's new email-like ad format. Third, the tabs work -- perhaps a little too well for the tastes of marketers and other business interests – as a means of diverting certain types of messages to these secondary inboxes.

I can't recall a single notification from the likes of Twitter, Quora or LinkedIn that hasn't been snagged by the Social tab, for instance. Just about any mass-blast marketing email I'm signed up for (and some I'm fairly sure I never signed up for) end up in Promotions. Since adding the Updates tab, I don't think I've seen a single email sent by an organization (rather than an individual) land in my primary inbox.

Which, if you're one of those organizations, is kind of a big deal. Gmail's tabs might be good for some users. If they stick, you'll know that means they're good for Google. But what about businesses that send email to external lists? It's hard enough to stand out in a crowded inbox without being assigned to second class.

I asked Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact, for her take -- the online marketing firm has been doing email since the first dot-com boom. She stressed that it's too soon for anyone to say with certainty how Gmail's tabbed interface will impact businesses. Which is, in fact, lesson number one.

1. Don't Freak Out.

"We're in the very early innings of understanding the new Gmail tabs metaphor and how that's going to impact consumer behavior," Goodman said in an interview. Most Gmail users have only recently seen the new interface and are just now getting used to it -- or turning it off, in some cases. Google, too, is going to watch closely and likely make its own tweaks based on behavior and feedback, Goodman said. So don't rush out and make wholesale changes to your outbound email strategy just yet. "I don't think we're at a steady-state understanding yet," Goodman said.

2. Monitor Your Open Rates.

Now is a good time to watch your email data -- and specifically your Gmail segment, which is likely considerable for some businesses -- for changes. Start by monitoring open rates to look for any significant variance, particularly during the last several weeks. Goodman said that Constant Contact's own internal monitoring has found "modest changes" but nothing drastic to date. She noted that engaged recipients -- in other words, the people that actually want to hear from your organization -- are still opening their emails, tabs be darned. (See also: Number 3.)

But if your audience includes a significant number of Gmail users, you do need to watch your data closely. Another email service provider, MailChimp, noted in a recent blog post that Gmail open rates -- which typically remain consistent over time -- have ebbed since the widespread rollout of tabs. "The new Gmail inbox is bringing down open rates, but the change isn’t dramatic at this point," the company said. "Time will tell if the trend lasts."

3. People Will Still Read Compelling Emails.

Goodman gave Google points for doing a good job of notifying users when new messages appear behind tabs without being intrusive. As a result, businesses that send email to audiences that actually want to hear from them -- not necessarily a given, unfortunately -- will continue to get their messages across.

"Relevant content wins," Goodman said, noting that relevance varies widely from one organization (a charity, for example) to another (a yoga studio). "If people enjoy your messages because it's relevant to them, [they will still open your email]."

4. This Could Be A Good Thing.

At face value, Gmail's default tabs and their own email-like ads wouldn't appear to favor other businesses and their email communications. It's logical to think: "This makes it harder for people to see, much less read, my email." Again, Goodman said it's too soon to say for certain whether that will prove true. But she offered a happier potential outcome for organizations that rely on external email: Tabs might actually boost engagement with mass email over the long haul while reducing the number of messages that get lost or deleted simply because they're received in the middle of a busy workday.

"Rather than necessarily looking at it during the day in the stream that we all follow, it just may be that I don't go to that [tab] until I have a little more time," Goodman said. "But maybe then I actually do it with more intent."

5. You Can't Control Everything.

You've got plenty of control over your email strategy -- messaging, frequency, scheduling, audience, and so forth. You can't do much, however, about Google's UI, message categorization and other factors. "As an individual business, it's probably out of your hands," Goodman said.

It's worth understanding how Gmail works from a user standpoint -- and how that might play out in your favor over the long run. For example, the new tabs, much like Google's success with keeping spam out of inboxes, really work: they're an effective dragnet for just about any kind of mass-blast email. However, they group together a bunch of messages under, say, "Promotions," that don't necessarily have much in common -- aside from the fact that they were all sent via some type of mass-email service rather than from one individual to another.

A quick sampling of my current Promotions tab includes: A public relations pitch, a newsletter from a local nonprofit organization, the weekly specials at my grocery store, and a daily deal offer. You could make the case that the nonprofit newsletter, for one, belongs under "Updates" -- where most of my other non-sales-y newsletters are now appearing. But the organization probably can't do much about that. (In an unintended coincidence, that particular email was sent via Constant Contact.)

Goodman did note that Google listens to marketers and businesses in aggregate fashion. As the broader industry begins to wrap its collective head around Gmail's changes and offers feedback, Google will likely be receptive.

6. You Can't Control Google's Email Ads.

Your audience is, for better or worse, also Google's audience. Unless Gmail users opt out of the new ads, they're going to start seeing them with increased frequency.

The new email-like ads are, in standard Google fashion, subtly yet eye-catching (although only vaguely relevant, in my experience to date), thanks to the offset background color and the preview-pane text breaking onto a standalone second line, giving the ads more vertical real estate than everything else that follows. It doesn't hurt, either, that the ads I've seen so far are always at the top of the list.

Again, you need to be aware they're there and how they affect the appearance of your own messages -- especially if your emails are of the sales-and-marketing variety and likely to end up in Promotions. But don't expect Google to stop selling ads, even though it will likely to hear from businesses and consumers alike if those ads become a little too visible.

"In terms of [Google] giving themselves preferential treatment in the email inbox, I think that is something they're going to need to be very careful about," Goodman said.

7. Mobile Is The [Much] Bigger Deal.

Significant Gmail updates are no small concern for external email communications. But Goodman notes that email strategies are already undergoing sweeping changes due to mobile consumption -- 40% of emails are now opened on a mobile device, according to Constant Contact. That creates a wide range of content-strategy considerations. Particularly for marketing emails, Goodman said "one topic at a time" is the new golden rule. "The days of the two-column, seven-article newsletter are long gone," she added.

In the Gmail context, the mobile boom means that UI changes such as the new tabs aren't in fact universal. (Reminder: Don't freak out.) "Just because someone has a Gmail address doesn't mean they use a Gmail client to read that email," Goodman said. "They may very well have it going to the Apple native inbox, which will not be tabbed."