When Google changed the layout of its Gmail inbox in May 2013, email marketers wisely took careful notice. What was once a single email inbox had become a tabbed interface that auto-sorts incoming Gmail messages into one of several categories. This new structure provides Gmail users with a quick and convenient way to manage messages, but email marketers may view the change with alarm. If Gmail places messages into different categories before they reach readers, how can marketers be certain their emails will reach their intended targets? All levels of email marketing must adapt to this new structure or messages could be left unseen and unopened.

The new Gmail inbox structure: five categories

Gmail tab selectionThe Gmail inbox now consists of five tabbed categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, Forums and Updates. The first three are on by default, but the email user can turn any of them on or off. The Social tab includes messages from social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Forums include messages from online discussion groups, while Updates contains material such as confirmations, online bills, and account statements.

The Primary and Promotions tab are the two most important for marketers

The Primary Tab is mainly for messages coming from addresses that people have interacted with a lot. The other tabs are for new messages from addresses that people have not interacted with, that Google doesn’t automatically know what to do with. The point is to leave the Primary Tab uncluttered by unwanted mail.

The user has complete flexibility to change any defaults and instruct Google where to place move tomessages, including having promotional emails from preferred vendors land in the Primary Tab.

The Promotions tab contains marketing emails, deals, coupons, and offers from businesses, marketers, and promoters. Email marketers are concerned that if their messages are automatically sorted into the Promotions tab, their intended recipients may not see them. Gmail users might use the Promotions tab as a sort of quarantine zone where email marketing can be banished and ignored. Anecdotal evidence suggests business buyers who get a lot of promotional emails will visit this tab when they’re ready to, and so perhaps they’ll be in the mindset to consider offers.

Some industry sources, as cited in an online Inc. article by Stephanie Meyers, suggest that it may be too early to completely judge the effect this type of segmentation will have on email marketing efforts. Users have not yet fully adjusted to Gmail’s tabs, and it may be too soon to start planning ways to circumvent the tabbed email structure. Recent results indicate that open rates for Gmail have, so far, dropped only slightly. Marketers must also be prepared to contend with possible pushback from Google against anyone who tries to manipulate the Gmail system to direct their marketing emails into the Primary tab.

Also: Keep in mind that this affects people who read their Gmail in a browser, or on iOS or Android. If Gmail is their service provider, but they use another client (such as Outlook) to read their email, their email will not reflect Gmail’s tab choices.

In the meantime, there are several proactive ways that email marketers can adapt to Gmail’s new tabbed structure.

Ask your customers to adjust their Gmail settings

Some companies are finding benefit in a direct approach to dealing with customer adaptation to Gmail’s new format. For example, Hallmark used an email marketing campaign to tell customers how to change Gmail settings to direct Hallmark’s emails to the Primary tab. This type of approach will work well for loyal customers, and those who are particularly interested in receiving news and updated offers from a company they already know. Sweetening the request with a reward such as discount or other offer will increase response even further.

Directions you can send to your subscribers:

To adjust your Gmail settings back to the single-inbox format:

  1. Gmail settingsClick on the “gear” icon (settings) at the upper right of the screen.
  2. On the drop-down menu, select “Configure inbox.”
  3. Click on individual check boxes on the left to clear the box. Clear all boxes except Primary and Gmail will return to the old single-inbox format.

To adjust your Gmail settings so that you receive the email messages you’ve subscribed to from (this company):

  1. Find an email from (this company). Look first in Promotions; if one isn’t found, look on the other tabs.
  2. When you find an email from (this company), drag it to the Primary tab.
  3. A message will appear at the top of the screen saying the message has been moved, and asking if the user wants to do the same for future emails from that address. Click “Yes.”

Let customers know when you’re emailing

Tell customers when to expect email marketing messages and stick to that schedule. If a company starts emailing more often (always tempting, especially around the holidays or the last month in a quarter), the customer may get irritated and delete the emails or unsubscribe completely. Offer variable schedules, if possible, and let the customers choose a preference. For example, daily emails may be too much, but a weekly digest of the previous week’s messages could be more palatable.

Maintain mailing lists

Clean, up-to-date email marketing and mailing lists help ensure that marketing emails are getting to the right people without wasted effort. Maintain lists to remove addresses of bounced emails and known spam addresses. Assess the mailing list regularly to determine if inactive subscribers should be deleted or contacted again in a re-engagement campaign. Experts speculate that just as ISPs watch engagement rates to look for spam, Gmail may watch engagement rates to help determine which tab to put an email message in, when the correct tab isn’t obvious. This means that the cleaner your lists are and the higher your engagement rates are, the better positioning you may get in Gmail tabs.

Provide useful, valuable content

Email recipients who find actual value in your messages will want to continue to receive them. Avoid constant selling; instead, provide content that informs, assists, or entertains the recipients. Subscribers who welcome your email messages will be much more likely to make the necessary changes to continue getting your valuable content.

We hope these suggestions help you improve your email marketing and Gmail delivery rates. Have you found the Gmail tabs to be an issue? If so. do you have a success story for dealing with them?