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The Great Gmail Tab Debate: Cool Organizational Tool Or Marketing Doom?

By August 14, 2013June 29th, 2015Email Marketing
The Great Gmail Tab Debate: Cool Organizational Tool Or Marketing Doom?

I’m all for productivity and things that make my life easier. But sometimes I get tired of apps deciding how I want to do things.

One of Gmail’s coolest tools? Filters. I’ve got them set up by the dozen.

I send client emails to special folders.

I send Twitter emails to one folder and Pinterest emails somewhere else. I’ve even got my Twitter folder subdivided by personal and business.

I’ve got filters for alerts and for coupons and for newsletters and for just about anything you can think of.

It may seem a bit micromanaged but it’s worked out pretty darn well for me.

One of Gmail’s not-coolest tools? Tabs. I’m not sure what tabs do that filters don’t, except give me a Google-determined set of filters that now sit in a completely different spot in my inbox than where I’m used to looking for mail.

I’m also not sure why Google has decided that it wants to filter our mail for us – and by many counts wildly inaccurately – so that we have to “teach” it how to do it right when we could have simply done it right by ourselves in the first place.

And yet this isn’t a Gmail tab rant!

It’s really a reflection on the recent brouhaha and a bit of speculation about whether or not it matters and what we can do about it anyway.

To Use Or Not To Use?

What I discovered after about three seconds of using tabs is that I don’t need them and that my filters work just fine. So I shut them off.

I don’t know what other people have decided but I do know that it’s caused a ripple of discontent in the marketing world where people like me (and probably you) send out “real” emails – albeit through Mailchimp or Aweber or something similar – and are not in the same space as big retailers who send out the tab-determined “promotions”.

And so marketers and small businesses are a bit ruffled about the idea that their heartfelt letters, blog posts and “news” are getting filtered into a folder with Kmart coupons and recipes using Hidden Valley salad dressing.

There’s the question of whether this is of any value to the actual recipient. I don’t know about you, but I get a bunch of emails from fellow bloggers and business websites that have no place next to the Pier 1 sale.

For me, calling these two types of emails “promotions” is silly. I already have a folder for “promotions” and I call it “offers” and they accumulate by the hundreds.

If I need a toaster, I check the offers. Otherwise I usually mass-delete them.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t where you want your blog post or next business newsletter going, which is why I filter those separately. And why I don’t feel like I need Gmail to do it for me.

Then there’s the obvious issue which is that Gmail is really terrible at this actual guessing thing. So far there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what gets put where and instead of neatly filtered emails I now have a whole bunch of tabs I need to keep clicking through to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

And no, it’s not a huge amount of work to move them but it is unnecessary work. And any unnecessary work is too much work.

Do you feel differently? I’d certainly be interested in another perspective.

And Does It Matter?

Gmail tabs exist and there are going to be people who dismiss them out of hand, people who pay no attention to them whatsoever and probably never check the email that goes into them until something goes missing, and people somewhere in the middle who will leave Google to its own devices and teach the tabs to do their thing.

Does it matter?

It depends on who you ask.

Mailchimp did some number crunching and showed a distinct drop in open rates since the inception of tabs. Considering Mailchimp has billions of emails from which to extract data, they’re a pretty reliable source.

Their advice? It’s all quite interesting, but don’t panic.

Some companies have flown into a complete panic anyway and started sending out “please move our emails to you inbox” campaigns.

As if that doesn’t sound sad and desperate.

Other small businesses have actually found the opposite effect on their emails – now that they’re unencumbered from the sludge of the inbox, they get noticed and opened more often.

Here’s what we’ve found: a distinct drop in our open rates and a delayed open rate – which means that fewer people are reading our emails and when they do, they’re opening them later than usual.

That doesn’t surprise me. But does it relate to tabs or the ten billion other factors that affect open rate? Keep in mind that it’s the dead middle of summer here and for a lot of people that means vacations and shorter work days.

So are tabs or long weekends affecting our open rates? Ask me again in October.

In The Meantime, What Are We Going To Do About It?

Regardless of what we think or what we find, that leaves us – the small businesses and email-senders – to contend with tabs whether we like them or not.

I’ve seen a vast array of nonsense on how to deal with the change that includes mindless advice like “improve your newsletter”.

I’m sure there are a lot of businesses that could stand a newsletter overhaul but I bet most of us don’t set out to be dull and uninteresting. There’s a practical reality to how many somersaults we can turn in an email and how amusing we can be online.

Besides, improving your email still won’t help you compete with Quick Sunday Dinners From Kraft.

Rather than improve, I propose we rethink.

“Engagement” has crossed into email territory. It’s no longer sufficient to shoot off a campaign and wait for the open rates and conversions to mount.

It’s time for us to go beyond the send button and think about the people on our lists and how we can connect with them in a way that makes them want to move our emails to their inbox – not because we told them to.


More work I’m afraid, but if you’re dedicated to your business you’ll find a way.

Here Are Some Ideas

Respond to people when they subscribe.

We all send out autoresponders but what if we sent out a personal hello? Unless your list is growing by the hundreds per day, I bet you can spare a moment to write a personal sentence or two to your new subscribers.

It needs to be uncanned.

If they subscribe with a domain-based email, visit their website. Say something relevant to them about it. Ask something relevant about their business.

If you can locate their site or blog or their email address is tied to a social account, visit that account and see what they’re posting. Comment on it. Circle/Like/Follow them and be present.

Follow up a few days or weeks later. You can reach out to someone reasonably within a few weeks without coming across as a stalker.

It really is about connecting everywhere. It’s work. It’s going to add another layer to your marketing efforts. But then, it’s going to add another layer to your relationships.

And in the end, maybe Google deciding to sort our mail for us will be a catalyst to get us paying more attention to our people and actually increasing our open rates.

What do you think? Love or hate the new tabs? Have you seen any changes in your open rate as a result? Are we looking at the demise of email marketing (especially as more email clients start to jump on the pre-filtered bandwagon) or is this nothing more than an overreaction to any change? I would love to hear your thoughts!