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Gmail Tabs Not Slimming Email Just Yet

By Patrick Sullivan - October 15, 2013

Approximately one in four emails sent by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C., goes to a Google Gmail email account. When digital managers at WWF heard that Gmail would switch to a tabbed inbox format this past May, they, like others in the industry, became very wary.

Gmail now has four inboxes: primary, for direct contact and frequent correspondence; updates, for emails such as confirmations and receipts; social, meaning missives from social networks like Facebook and Twitter; and, promotions, for deals and sales offers, including fundraising appeals.

Nonprofit marketers have been worried that their crucial fundraising emails will be relegated to some pseudo-spam limbo. Analysts have a message for nonprofits: Don’t panic just yet.

“Don’t assume anything. Let the data show you what’s occurring,” said Scott Gilman, senior interactive consultant at Charleston, S.C. technology and financial application firm Blackbaud. “I think it’s too soon to say that one tab is better than another. Don’t be afraid that just because a change has occurred, it’s negative. And, don’t assume you need to go back to the way things were.”

Google is tight-lipped as to processes and algorithms, but according to Matthew Grove at email service provider (ESP) MailChimp, “Anything that looks like it came from an ESP (has a list-unsubscribe header, unsubscribe links in the content, etc…) goes to either Promotions or Updates.”

Blackbaud studied the open and click-through rates of five random clients with house files that consisted of between 10.5 percent and 20.1 percent Gmail addresses before and after the Gmail tab rollout. Variations of pre- and post-tabs were small. Two of the organizations experienced higher total and Gmail open and click-through rates in the post-tab assessments. In all cases, changes were less than five percentage points.

“We were looking to see if the panic was justified,” said Gilman. “We didn’t see a huge change. The change was not dramatic. It was gradual. It’s a small sample size, within a variation you’d see in any month-to-month.”

Of note is that, according to research from Cambridge, Mass. email testing firm Litmus, only 19 percent of Gmail users access their Gmail accounts via webmail. Approximately 66 percent read their emails on a mobile device, and the remaining see emails on a desktop program such as Microsoft’s Outlook. Though Gmail has an iOS app for iPhones and iPads, the most popular option, Apple’s default mobile mail, is used by 34 percent of Gmail users, and tabs are not supported by the default mail.

That means approximately one in five Gmail users are affected by tabs. For WWF, about 25 percent of email click-throughs to the site are on a mobile device, according to Jessica Sotello, deputy director of online marketing. In contrast to the panic regarding tabs, WWF’s Gmail open rate has seen a lift since the beginning of the year, from 2 percent to 7 percent. Sotello said she was unsure what has caused that lift, but tabs have certainly not had a detrimental effect on WWF’s Gmail open rates.

Julie Niehoff, director of field education and development for email giant Constant Contact in Waltham, Mass., echoed Gilman’s sentiments: Don’t panic just yet. “It’s so new, there’s no real big picture view,” said Niehoff, who works in Austin, Texas and is also vice chair of the Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations (TANO). “We’re seeing a slight drop in open rates, very slight, nothing a nonprofit email administrator would notice on their own.”

According to Gilman and Niehoff, six months is a reasonable timeline for measurement of inbox tabs’ effects. “Right now is not a true test because you can still piggyback off that interest and newness,” said Niehoff.

Gilman would prefer at least two quarters’ worth of data. “I think six months is a good time, but I’m concerned about including the end-of-year period,” said Gilman. Year-end, with so many campaigns, is “its own unique time period” and he’d like an extra month “to counterbalance” the increased volume.

MailChimp analyzed approximately 1.5 billion emails from three weeks before tabs rolled out and three weeks after. It found that open rates dropped from about 13 percent pre-tabs to just more than 12 percent post-tabs. MailChimp declined to comment further on the results, citing ongoing research.

A nonprofit with a small house file might not be able to get a representative measure of the tabbed inbox effect for a few more months. A representative from B-Corporation Change.org, with its 40-million email address file, said the organization has not noticed an appreciable drop in open rates of Gmail users and doesn’t expect to see it. Even then, it’s too early to truly measure the effects, said the representative, and Change.org has delayed an in-house analysis until later this year in order to gather more data.

It might be wise to prepare for more email inboxes looking like Gmail’s in the near future, said Gilman. “There’s no doubt that Google is a trendsetter,” he said. “It’s in providers’ interest to keep (consumers) happy. I think the days of the single inbox are probably numbered, and we’re likely to see better management tools.”

Many mailers are requesting that recipients move the emails from the Promotions tab to the Priority tab. This will ensure all future emails from the sender will go to the Priority tab. But Niehoff and Gilman don’t think this is necessarily the way to go for all nonprofit marketers.

“It may turn out that the promotions tab is beneficial,” said Gilman. “If you want to have faith in Google, you could say they did this to enhance promotions. Splitting into tabs makes the inbox more manageable. I don’t think we should be rushing to judge until the data tells us one way or another.”

Gilman advocates using this new wrinkle in email marketing as an opportunity to take a long, hard look at your house file. “See what percentage Gmail recipients make up,” he said. “Are there people on file who haven’t been engaging over, say, two years, but you continue to send them email? What are the strategies we can take to make content more engaging? It’s more of an opportunity to see how to measure and improve overall email performance.”

Niehoff recommended standard best practices for direct response: content is king, and test, test, test. “The same things that are going to help grow an organization are the same things that help them be noticed,” she said. “Engage and drive response by encouraging users to click, reply and print. We’re talking about the decision to take action as a result of your message. If you’ve been doing your job and if you’re relevant to (email recipients’) lives, they’ll find (your message) and will engage. Once they engage you’re more likely to end up in the primary tab anyway.”

Marketers are always interested in measurable results, and there’s a fairly simple way to test whether your emails are better off in the primary or promotions tab: test it. Niehoff suggests segmenting your Gmail addresses into two groups. One group gets your standard emails, and the other gets emails with the added request to move the email from the promotions tab to the primary tab. Track the results to see which gets better open, click-through or response rates. Let the data inform your decision to aim your emails at the primary tab or leave them in promotions. “You don’t want to inject guesswork,” said Niehoff.  NPT

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