Gmail's Tabs Are Hurting Marketers, an Epsilon Study Finds

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Since their introduction in May, Gmail Tabs have been hurting email marketers, according to a study conducted by Epsilon, a marketing services firm. The Gmail Tabs, an inbox sorting tool that removes marketing messages from users' primary inboxes and stores them behind a separate Promotions tab, are negatively impacting click and conversion rates for brands across the board.

Epsilon's study, which looked at four million sets of emails over a period of seven months, evaluated Gmail's performance in comparison to competing providers Hotmail and Yahoo!, and found that while the three experienced similar open rate patterns throughout the study's duration, Google's click rates dropped in June and never recovered.

"During the summer, especially around July and August, we typically see click and open rates drop because everyone's away on summer vacation and things generally just slow down," Quinn Jalli, senior vice president of digital marketing services at Epsilon, explains. Once the seasonal downturn is over by early September, though, open and click rates typically return to normal, Jalli says. "Open rates bounced back as predicted for the most part. With the click rates, though, we saw some troubling results."

In June, Gmail's click rate was 4.6 percent while Yahoo, which had the second highest number of clicks, posted a 4.0 percent rate in the same month. By October, Gmail's click rate was only 75 percent of its June rate, while both Microsoft and Yahoo! recovered stronger; the two posted 87.5 percent and 82.5 percent October over June numbers respectively, according to the study. Though Gmail ultimately led runner-up Yahoo! by 0.1 percent at the conclusion of the study, the email giant could not regain the 0.6 percent advantage it boasted in April, before the tabs were introduced.

"Gmail's tabs are no doubt hurting marketers. Because of the timing of their introduction, many were quick to blame the expected seasonal decline for the dropping click rates," Jalli says. "But, by accounting for seasonality and extending our study well into the following months, we've shown that this isn't the case. The problem goes far beyond the summer season."

One of the primary reasons the tabs have become such a hurdle for marketers is that the transition from the old mailbox to the tabbed structure was sudden but seamless for consumers, leaving many unaware that a change had been made, Jalli posits. The tabs are not as invasive and severe as a junk or spam folder, but simply "create an 'out of sight, out of mind' scenario that is reducing the effectiveness of email marketing programs," the study states.

It's not all bad news for email marketers, however. The study also found that in June and July, approximately 60 percent of consumers opened their emails on a smartphone or tablet, where secondary applications like Apple's Mail app do not recognize the tab feature and show all emails as before. In October, the number grew to more than 66 percent. "Mobile presents marketers with an opportunity to engage with consumers through a channel where the tabs won't stand in their way," Jalli says. Still, even this silver lining has a caveat: "Of course, this leaves [marketers] with the task of optimizing all content for mobile, which is a major challenge," he adds.

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