The other day I opened my Gmail to find a brand new inbox. All of a sudden, there were five tabs across the top — Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums — and my mail had been presorted into them.

As I write this, the new tabbed inbox is rolling out to Gmail users everywhere. That means that all the marketing emails, associated mailing lists, and marketer’s communications in general are about to be confined to the Promotions tab, a prospect that is already sending shivers through the industry. This is especially true for those brands for whom email use comprises the majority of their marketing mix.

Is there any escape from the Promotions tab?

When it comes to email marketing and mailing lists, I always turn to MailChimp. Those guys know their field and do their research. They noted a sustained drop in open rates over a period of three weeks, which is worrisome but not conclusive. They also addressed the question highest on the minds of marketers:

I’ve heard a lot of people asking how they can get out of the Promotions tab and into the Primary tab. There aren’t any good answers here, because Gmail is really good at what they do. I’ve messed around with a ton of different content and header configurations, and anything that looks like it came from an ESP (has a list-unsubscribe header, unsubscribe links in the content, etc…) goes to either the Promotions tab or the Updates tab.

If the subscriber has tabs but they didn’t opt to include the Promotions tab, Gmail will deliver to Primary instead. That’s good news. Other than that, we’re definitely testing the new inbox and trying to figure out how it works. My sense is that Gmail wants all marketing email to go to the Promotions tab. Even if we did find a tricky way into the Primary tab, they’re smart over there, and they’d more than likely address any reasonable workaround.

I have to agree: Google is excellent at finding attempts to game their system and neutralizing them. It is their job after all. This means that getting a handle on how that will impact your campaigns is of paramount importance.

Didn’t we see this before?

Cast your thoughts back to the year 2011, when very similar fears were rippling through the industry. At that point in time, it was the introduction of Priority inbox causing the hubbub. Since it allowed users to mark email as important or not important, there were a lot of justifiable worries. The introduction of “smart labels” came quick on its heels, adding Bulk or Notification to incoming messages where appropriate.

While caution was indeed warranted, the feared fallout never materialized. Campaign Monitor even notes that open rates have increased slightly overall since then:

The concerns back in 2011 were no different from the concerns that have arisen with Tabbed Inbox now. Just as senders viewed having their campaigns marked as ‘Bulk’ as being nearly as bad as having them marked for deletion, so the thought of having email campaigns ushered to a ‘Promotions’ tab has caused a collective shiver.

However, in the period since Priority Inbox’s introduction, the predicted open rate Gmailocalypse has never come to fruition. In fact, we compared statistics for Gmail subscribers between September, 2011 and May, 2013 and found that the average open % had increased during this period. Nonetheless, the potential impacts have kicked off some interesting discussion in our forums, especially around having all email campaigns categorized as Promotions, regardless of the true purpose of the message.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

The first thing to do is to adopt a Douglas Adams attitude: Don’t panic! The histrionic warnings of an email apocalypse are everywhere online right now, along with a few calmer voices here and there. As the fevered flood of YouTube videos and tutorials on how to bypass tabs and get back into the primary inbox flood the Internet, there does remain one really useful thing you can do.

Christopher Penn is someone you should read if you are involved in online communications, and his response to all this was a wonderful little step-by-step on how to measure the impact on your campaigns. It’s really easy and uses data that any mailing list program should be able to provide easily.

Once you have taken the pulse on your own efforts, we would love to see you share it here. Let us know in the comments how things are looking for you in the tab-enabled era!

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