Jul 23, 2013

How Gmail’s New Inbox Is Affecting Open Rates

I wanted to understand the impact of Gmail’s new tabbed inbox, so I dug deep into our database and pulled every delivery to Gmail for the past year and half. That amounts to 12.5 billion emails and more than 2 billion unique opens.

It can be difficult to measure small changes in delivery because there are seasonal trends in email. Heck, there are hourly trends in email. As you might suspect, Gmail opens do follow these hourly, weekly, and seasonal trends, but on the whole they remain fairly steady. With that settled, I trimmed my data to a lean 6 weeks around the introduction of tabs. That’s about 1.5 billion emails, which is plenty of records for a good analysis.

I learned from my research that the new Gmail inbox is bringing down open rates, but the change isn’t dramatic at this point. Time will tell if the trend lasts. Here are the details:

What’s up with tabs?

If you haven’t heard about Gmail’s new layout, there’s a lot of info out there on how to set up tabs and what they do. In short, Gmail users have the option to group incoming emails into tabs like Primary, Social, and Promotions.

The word on the street is that business owners and marketers are worried about this new layout, and I get that. You want your email above the fold, on the cover, with a huge headline. You want to stand out to your customer, and instead you’re on the Promotions page with all the other ads. Hey, even Gmail puts their own ads in the Promotions tab. For marketers who are trying to establish a personal relationship with their customers, this change can be frustrating.

Changing open rates

So now for the big question. Is the new inbox affecting open rates?

Gmail published their blog post about the tabbed inbox on May 29, which was the 22nd week of 2013. The week after that announcement, we actually saw increased open rates. Everyone likes a new toy, and the added attention that changing the inbox brings probably skewed results that week. To compensate, I skewed my concept of the "event" to the week after the attention died down. That’s when I saw a small but definite drop.

Before the tabbed layout, open rates to Gmail had been above 13% for 15 weeks. They never dipped below that threshold unless there was a specific holiday. For instance, weekday opens for Gmail fell to 12.5% on the week of Valentine’s day. Open rates between Christmas and New Years are an abysmal 10.5%. Something about spending time with loved ones just isn’t conducive to combing through your inbox. Weird, right?

What bothers me in this case is that open rates stayed down for 3 consecutive weeks. From looking at a year and half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal. I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.

For any researchers out there who want to take a look at their own data, let me provide some background. Emails tend to roll in weeks and even months after a send. To avoid skewing the trend, I limited my query to opens within 7 days (to the second) of the campaign send. I made no distinction based on volume, engagement history, or any other factor.

The Primary tab

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.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know everything about it ;) We’ll keep an eye on the data and update you when we have more to share.

UPDATE: 8/1/13

A lot of people have asked how they can get their email delivered to the Primary tab. In response, I’ve heard several suggestions claiming to have found a solution, but none of those panned out.

I’ve tested something like fifty configurations of headers, content, and authentication and I’ve come to one conclusion. The best way to get into the Primary tab is to have your subscribers put you there. Luckily, our KB team came up with a great article that covers how to move an email from one tab to another:

How do I get my emails to the Primary tab in Gmail?