Advertisers Reduced To Begging By Gmail's New Tabbed Inbox

Gmail's new tabbed inbox is wreaking havoc on newsletter subscriptions. Companies are trying to claw their way back into users' primary inboxes.

Gmail-using Gap customers got an unusual email yesterday. It was a newsletter, like they get all the time, but it wasn't advertising clothes. It was advertising its own newsletter service. "Are you using Gmail's new inbox tabs?" the email asked. If so, it said, "just follow the two simple steps below."

The instructions are simple: mark Gap emails, which the new tabbed Gmail relegates to the "Promotions" section, as worthy of your primary inbox. It's a similar process to removing something from your spam folder, which speaks to what the tabbed inbox really does: It demotes newsletters. They're not quite spam, as far as Gmail is concerned, but they're close.

The tabs are already having a measurable effect on email marketing. According to an early report by the email marketing service Mailchimp, published in late July, open rates across its massive network had already fallen noticeably:

This, as the report notes, is coming before the Gmail feature is fully rolled out. An informal survey of the BuzzFeed office found that about half of respondents, almost all of whom use Gmail for both work and personal email, were using the tabbed inbox on at least one of them. Most weren't yet using it on mobile — it's only available in Google's official apps and not in, say, Apple's iPhone mail app. And while more than a handful of respondents hadn't yet heard of it, the reaction among those who were using the tabbed inbox was generally positive:

"Use it. Love it. Not afraid to admit it."

"I think it's a great improvement"

"I find it pretty awesome"

We still don't know the rate of the rollout, but it's safe to say it's far from complete: extending it to mobile email will have further impact, as will competing features from the other email giants, such as Live mail and Yahoo.

Much has been said about what the tabbed inbox does to social network notifications; emails that people both want and don't want in their faces, the value of which is often contained entirely in the subject line. They've been demoted, but in a friendlier way. They're treated as ambient information, and form something more like a feed than an inbox. For social networks this isn't ideal, but it's acceptable.

Getting relegated to the "Promotions" tab is a far more perilous for the newsletter crowd. Social notifications come from companies, but at least they originate from a human friend. Newsletters often come from a machine, and originate from a marketing department. Mixed in with your personal email, they're fine. Lumped together — the Gap emails with the Seamless emails with the airline emails — they feel spammy and kind of repulsive. The proximity to so much advertising even hurts the newsletters that you didn't just sign up for by accident but actually want to read. It casts them in a bad light.

This is terrifying for the email marketing world, not least because its customers' response seems to be one of relief. Their emails have been hidden at near-spam levels, and users seem more than happy with this. Marketing pros have fallen into a sort of denial, publishing subtext-ridden posts with headlines like, No, Gmail's Promotions Tab Didn't Just Kill Email Marketing. The CMO of Lyris, after noting a slight decline in open and click rates already, spun the news in a different way: "The promotions tab grabs attention for an audience that is more receptive and the action is done with intent and in a way that is respectful to the customer."

In short, things don't look great for email marketers. That Gap email is the first of many.

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