Gmail’s New Tabbed Inbox – Sweat It or Forget It?

A few days ago, Google announced a major change to the Gmail Inbox – the introduction of tabbed sorting for emails. All mail received will now be sorted (automatically) into predefined tabs including Primary, Social, Promotions, and Updates.


Since the announcement, email senders have been buzzing with speculation over how the changes will affect deliverability. Many feel that promotional messages, now relegated to an out-of-sight tab, will see drops in engagement as they lose focus. Others point to the low adoption rates of features like Priority Inbox and Smart Labels as evidence that most users will likely never see Tabbed Inbox. Whichever viewpoint you take, there are some important things to consider about Gmail’s new interface.

Who will use the tabbed inbox?

It’s true that similar Gmail features have seen low adoption rates in the past. Most people, including Gmail users, are resistant to change and even fewer will actively seek it out. It’s probably a safe bet that most of the current active users of features like Priority Inbox and Smart Labels are very email-savvy and know exactly which emails they want to read – but what about everyone else?

While Gmail hasn’t made an official announcement on how Tabbed Inbox will roll out, their blog post hints that it could eventually be turned on by default for most users. Unlike previous features, Tabbed Inbox would represent a major change to the user’s existing Inbox view. If users are presented with this view by default, most are likely to accept it and adjust their habits instead of actively seeking to disable it. If the feature must be actively enabled, though, it’s likely it will have far less impact.

What does it mean for engagement?

As I mentioned in a recent article on Gmail deliverability, good delivery rates at Gmail rely heavily on recipients engaging with your emails. Upon first glance, Tabbed Inbox seems likely to decrease engagement rates as users are not able to see promotional emails in their primary view. Since this would happen to the majority of marketing emails, the relative impact should be low. If open rates for all promotional emails decrease at similar rates across the board, deliverability should remain fairly constant as well.

However, there’s also a strong possibility this could lead to a different type of engagement. Instead of viewing promotional emails as a distraction in their main email view, Tabbed Inbox could allow users to view the Promotions tab a couple of times a day or week, or only when they are interested in making a purchase. This could eventually shift the focus away from marketing copy that encourages immediate action (limited-time sales, etc) and move toward fostering longer-term engagement.

What about mobile users?

One area getting little attention in the Tabbed Inbox discussion is the mobile Gmail application. Android and iOS versions with the updated interface were rolled out just after the desktop version. The mobile version enables inbox tabs by default but handles them a bit differently, placing them inline at the top of the message list.


Users can tap a specific tab to view all emails with that designation, or swipe the notification away to dismiss. If a tab has no new emails, the user must open the menu (by tapping the Gmail icon or swiping from left to right) and select the desired tab to view.

Previously, the Gmail application would generate a notification (alert sound, flashing LED, etc.) for any email that arrived in the inbox. Now, the default is to notify the user only when mail is received to the Primary tab. This can be changed by editing the settings (under Manage Labels), but it’s likely most users will lack both the know-how and the desire to change this. As a marketer, that makes it more important than ever to set proper expectations. Your subscribers should know when to expect your email and notice if it doesn’t show up then. This could also encourage many marketers to migrate towards building relationships and long-term engagement.

It’s too soon to tell exactly how much traction the Tabbed Inbox will gain, or what impact it will have on senders and email deliverability as a whole. In any case, it should serve as a good reminder that senders who set clear expectations, send relevant content, and prioritize user engagement are best equipped to thrive in a constantly-changing email landscape.

Brad Gurley
Director of Deliverability, WhatCounts


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