Email marketing trends: Gmail ‘teaching consumers to shop from the inbox


Despite fears that a segregated inbox for marketing messages would switch off consumers, Gmail users are actively searching its new Promotions tab, reading as much commercial email as before, according to new research looking at email marketing trends.

The study, from Return Path entitled “The Tabbed Inbox: How Gmail Changed the Way Consumers Engage with Promotional Messages” found that the forecasts of email marketing’s decline in the tabbed inbox are largely wrong.

According to Return Path, although some industry sectors have seen slight declines in key email marketing metrics since the introduction of tabs, most—including apparel and entertainment marketers—have maintained their performance levels. Some are even seeing higher read rates heading into the holiday season.

Many commercial senders—especially marketers—worried that their messages would stop reaching users’ Primary tabs in the new Gmail inbox and wind up in a secondary tab where they’d be ignored. They were half-right: Return Path data shows that a whopping 90 percent of commercial email winds up in Promotions, while only 0.3 percent goes to the Primary tab. But contrary to expectations, Gmail users are actively searching for marketing messages in the Promotions tab and reading them at almost the same rates at which they did before tabs. Gmail has essentially taught users to use the tab to shop from their inboxes.


“The relatively low impact of Gmail tabs on marketing performance obscures a shift in the way users experience commercial email, said George Bilbrey, Return Path co-founder and president. “By placing promotional messages in their own tab, Gmail has effectively created a personalised catalogue of email offers, and consumers are using it.”

Consumers Totally Unmoved by ‘Move Me’ Campaigns

Since the deployment of Tabs, some marketers have attempted to coax subscribers into moving their email messages into the Primary tab to avoid being lost among other marketing emails. Despite their persistence, they have failed to convince Gmail users to move their messages.


Return Path monitored the delivery of marketing messages to recipients of major retailers’ ‘Move Me’ campaigns and found that only 61 of 65,507 messages from those senders landed in Primary inboxes in October 2013 – less than 0.1 percent.

Those messages may be better off outside the Primary tab, though. Not only are their read rates roughly the same as they were before tabs, they’re far more likely to be delivered: 93 percent of commercial messages to the Promotions tab avoided the spam folder; only 77 percent made it through to users’ Primary tabs.

The Exception: Consumers Less Benevolent Toward Social Networks’ Email

Gmail users were significantly less likely to read messages in their Social tabs than in their Promotions tabs, but they were far more likely to complain about them. Only 0.12% of messages in Promotions were reported as spam, while more than seven times that many – 0.87% of messages – in the Social tab triggered complaints.

The report also looked at the before and after effects of the Promotions inbox across sectors, showing it had little impact on the performance of most email marketing campaigns (see below).


The complete study, including infographics, can be downloaded here

To understand the impact of Gmail tabs on consumer behavior and email marketing trends, Return Path analysed data from its panel of email users—approximately 3 million people who agree to anonymously share their aggregated inbox experience. This study includes 400,000 distinct Gmail inbox configurations from users whose email engagement scores fell between the 5th and 95th percentiles during October 2013, eliminating the least and most active accounts from the analysis. The 55 million email messages included in this analysis were limited to those sent between April 2013 and October 2013 by known merchants that could be categorised according to NAICS industry classifications. Messages from campaigns that were found in the Gmail Updates tab, indicating transactional content, were also removed from the analysis to eliminate the influence of non-marketing email.

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