Although there has been no shortage of prognostication about the impact of Gmail’s Tabs on email marketing, supporting data has been scarce. So Return Path compared Gmail users’ read rates in the first week of Tabs’ general rollout to the previous 17 weeks to see whether consumers started ignoring marketing messages en masse after July 22nd.
Of course the results of the study are more complicated than that. (Click here to download the full report.) As many predicted, Gmail subscribers that didn’t read much marketing email before Tabs’ rollout read even less of it a week later. On the other hand, highly engaged users that historically read high percentages of marketing messages actually read more after Tabs’ rollout. The bulk of subscribers fall between these groups, but while read rates dipped slightly among users with medium levels of engagement, they didn’t plummet. The study found that these users read 10.55% of their marketing email before the launch of Tabs, and then 9.81% of their marketing mail after the rollout. This decline was partially offset because they received more of the mail sent to them: Inbox placement rates increased slightly after rollout.
It’s too early to understand the real influence of Tabs on Gmail users’ behavior, but in its first week this feature didn’t stop many from seeking out commercial messages and reading them. One factor that may help explain the relatively low impact of the shift is that Tabs actually helps engaged Gmail users do something they enjoy: shopping. By collecting marketing messages in one place, it creates an environment where shoppers can review them without having to sort through other types of mail.
Another factor that may soften the effects of any email UI changes is the continued shift toward mobile. Mobile devices accounted for 44% of email opens during the survey period, and the vast majority of mobile users wouldn’t have been affected by Tabs. Soon most email will be opened on smart phones and tablets, and changes to webmail and desktop interfaces won’t trigger anything like the punditry and panic that Tabs has inspired.
Short term, emails may be opened less, but long term, I think both Gmail users and marketers will benefit.