August 8, 2013, 4:13 PM

Gmail’s new tabs for filtering e-mail have done marketers little harm

But read rates among consumers dipped at first, Return Path says.

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Changes Google Inc. made last month to its Gmail service have not significantly altered how often consumers read promotional e-mails, says e-mail analytics company Return Path Inc. Google on July 22 introduced an inbox organization for Gmail that automatically filters different types of e-mails into tabs based on message content, with one of the default tabs being “promotions.”

Gmail consumers who previously read retailers’ promotional e-mails frequently read them even more with the new tabs, Return Path found. Conversely, those who rarely read marketing e-mails to begin with read them even less. The majority of Gmail consumers, those whom Return Path counts as moderately engaged with marketing messages—including 88% of all Gmail users—continued reading them at about the same rate after the switch, the company says.

Return Path tracks information from 2.2 billion inboxes worldwide to analyze how consumers engage with e-mails. It measured the changes in how many marketing messages Gmail users read before and after the e-mail service provider updated its inbox organization and included the results in a report titled, “Gmail Tabs Don’t Stop Shoppers: So Far So Good for E-mail Marketers.”

The new Gmail inbox layout has five tabs that separate e-mails into “primary,” “social,” “promotions,” “updates” or “forums.” Primary e-mails are direct and personal messages; social e-mails come from social web sites; promotions e-mails are ads and offers from marketers; updates are e-mail receipts, bills, account updates and the like; and forums are alerts or digests from online message boards. Consumers may select as many of the tabs as they’d like to include in their inbox. The Gmail mobile app also supports tabs.

In the first week for the new Gmail inboxes, the average e-mail recipient read only slightly fewer marketing messages  than on average in the 17 weeks prior, 9.81% of messages now versus 10.55% earlier, Return Path says. For the 11% of Gmail users who historically read lots of marketing messages (they read more than half of the messages that hit their inboxes on average), read rates increased slightly, from 58.64% to 59.88%, the study shows.

The biggest change in the first week came with the Gmail users who rarely read marketing messages, the company found. The 1% of users Return Path classifies as having the lowest engagement with marketing e-mails went from reading 2.19% of them to reading 0.42% of those messages.

Airlines appear to have benefitted most from the initial changes. Their marketing read rate doubled to 34% in the first week with Gmail tabs, Return Path says. It did not offer any explanation for this jump.

Meanwhile, daily-deals site operators had their highest read rates in the last four months, though they were only slightly above average, about 12% versus about 10.5% since April. After the first week of tabs, retailers’ read rates stood at 12%; their rates had been fluctuating between 10% and 17% since April 1, the company reports.

“Given the freedom to ignore classes of e-mail, most Gmail users are choosing to seek out and read the marketing messages that interest them,” Return Path writes in its report. “This is promising for marketers who should expect consumers to increasingly customize their e-mail experiences as features like these become widely available.”

The company does note that, because the feature is so new, the data might not reflect exactly how Gmail’s new tabs will ultimately affect marketers. Consumers in the first week may have been curious about how the new feature worked, it says, and thus read more messages than they would have otherwise in order to fine-tune the filters to their preferences.

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