Gmail Open Rates in a Pre & Post Tabbed World

Gmail new tabbed inbox

On May 29th Google announced a new tabbed inbox that categorizes all incoming emails into Primary, Social, and Promotional tabbed folders.  This made Email Service Providers and their clients anxious about the potential negative impact on open rates; the assumption was that users would check secondary folders less often thus viewing and opening less promotional emails – the assumption was correct.

Gmail Open Rates in Flux

Since 2011 Gmail open rates have fluctuated from a low of 2.9 percent to a high of 5 percent according to Litmus.  Their data shows that despite an overall positive trend, Gmail open rates have decreased 7.75 percent since the May 29th tabbed inbox roll out.      

Mail Chimp analyzed 1.5 billion email deliveries to Gmail for a six week period around the time the tabbed inbox was launched.  The company had been experiencing open rates of 13 percent or above for 15 weeks prior to the switch, three weeks of post switch data showed open rates down almost a percentage point.        

Email Service Provider ExactTarget states in a recent white paper that “So far, open rates and click rates do not appear to have significantly declined.”  

No Big Deal…Maybe

Despite the 425 million active Gmail accounts, not everybody is a Gmail user.  Additionally, not all Gmail users open their email through the Gmail webmail client that supports the tabbed inbox.  According to Litmus, as of 2013 about 4 percent of total email opens occur via users of Gmail webmail, and only 41 percent of those opens happen through email clients that support Gmail tabs. 

Litmus recently analyzed five million opens to understand where users are opening their mail; 66 percent of Gmail opens occurred on mobile devices that don’t yet support tabs (34 percent of that iPhone, 20 percent Android), 19 percent on web browsers, and 15 percent on desktop clients that often don’t support tabs.  A percentage of a percentage is being affected, it is not a huge deal.        

Is There a Workaround?

Trying to fool Gmail and get your email communication to land in the Primary tab versus the Promotions tab is probably a wasted effort.  You can test varying configurations of headers, content, unsubscribe links, and authentication, but the tabbed inbox will inevitably win.  The best way to get your emails out of the Promotions tab and into the Primary tab is to have your subscribers consciously route them there.   

We have already seen evidence of company’s doing just that.  A teammate of mine forwarded me an email the other day from a clothing company that started out something like “Hey Gmail User…” and went on to ask the user to drag a Loyalty Program email from the Promotions tab into the Primary tab and respond “yes” to the prompt “Do this for future messages from [email protected]?”  The company embedded a 20 percent discount coupon in the body of the email as a token of thanks.  That is just one example, there are several ways companies are trying to mitigate weaker open rates because of the tabbed inbox: 

  1. Provide step by step visual instructions on the Drag and Drop process from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab.
  2. Use your website, blog, and social media outreach to inform your subscribes that your emails are now landing in the Promotions tab and can be routed to the Primary tab in two easy steps.
  3. Be even more aware of the first few words of a subject line.  While subject lines are always important, Social and Promotions tabs sometimes show the first few words of the subject lines of the latest two emails to arrive in those tabbed folders.      
  4. Send a numbered sequence of email communications.  If a user reads one email in a sequence and likes it s/he may go searching for others in that series previously missed or stay on the lookout for those coming.
  5. Push more time-sensitive discounts, offers, opt-ins, etc.  If what you are offering is of value this strategy could incentivize a subscriber to watch more closely for emails or direct your emails to their primary folder.
  6. Alert your audience to important emails through other touch points.  Use social media channels to occasionally arouse more attention about an important incoming email.
  7. Although obvious, give your readers a reason to open your e-mail.
Jared Shusterman's picture
Jared Shusterman, Managing Partner, CEO
Jared is the Founder and Managing Partner of SproutLoud. Since 2005, he has been primarily responsible for strategic direction of the Company, as well as the oversight of SproutLoud's Partner ecosystem. Prior to SproutLoud, Jared worked in Thomas Weisel Partner’s internet and online advertising investment banking practice in San Francisco. He served as the lead analyst on a number of Corporate Finance and M&A deals including Newscorps’ buyout of Intermix Media ( Jared graduated with a B.A. in Finance and Marketing from the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. Jared has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and is a member of the Young President's Organization (YPO). Jared has been honored as one of a Top 40 under 40 Entrepreneur by South Florida Business Journal and a Top 50 Entrepreneur by Business Leader Magazine.