Email Open Rates Are Down? Blame Gmail.

A few weeks ago Google released an update to one of its most popular products – Gmail. The update is simple; Gmail will now automatically tag your incoming emails and assign them to one of five tabs:

  • Primary: person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs
  • Social: messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services and other social websites
  • Promotions: deals, offers and other marketing emails
  • Updates: personal, auto-generated updates including confirmations, bills, receipts, bills and statements. This will include your “transactional” product emails like Optify Daily Lead Report.
  • Forums: messages from online groups, discussion boards and mailing lists

Beyond your personal preference (as always with such a popular product, the reviews are mixed), if you’re a marketer, you should keep notice. Last year Gmail surpassed Hotmail as the world’s largest email service with more than 425 million active users. This means that, like it or not, some of the leads in your marketing database use Gmail.

Since Gmail now automatically tags marketing emails into the Promotions tab, you will find your emails in the same group as emails from services like LivingSocial, Groupon, Xfinity and all the other services you’re used to ignoring. If you’re like me, you never took the initiative to unsubscribe from them and clean out your inbox, but simply systematically ignore them time after time. Well, now your marketing emails joined that club.

So if you’ve noticed a drop in open rates in the last few weeks, don’t be surprised, Gmail’s new tabs have something to do with it. Actually, MailChimp did a quick analysis of their database (emails to Gmail only) and came up with the following results:


While these are only early indicators of a trend, there’s an alarming consistency in the results that indicate that open rates on Gmail are going down.

Now what?

There’s no magic solution to this and Gmail will continue to do its best to tag marketing emails as promotions (they use the unsubscribe links in the emails to identify them, as well as other indicators). But there are a few ways to mitigate the impact. Here are 5 ways to deal with the effects of Gmail’s new inbox on your email marketing:

1. Ask your subscribers to move your messages to Primary

There are several ways to do that (read this great post from Lincoln Murphy). The easiest way is to ask them to move one of your emails to the Primary tab and then tell Gmail to do this for all future conversations from that email.


Another way to do it is to ask them to “Star” your messages or even create a rule that Stars all your incoming emails. Starred emails will automatically show up in your Primary tab but these requests include a little more work and aren’t as simple as dragging and dropping emails.

2. Alert your subscribers about the change

On a Thank You page, in a blog post or in a personal email (not mass), let your subscribers know that they should look for your emails in the Promotions tab and explain why (feel free to send them this post).

3. Request business emails only

On your forms, request for business email addresses only. If you’re a B2B marketer, you’re only interested in business emails anyway, so require it on your forms. You can ask for it or even require it (using form validation). Just remember that this will have an impact on your conversion rates that might be bigger than the impact Gmail will have on your open rates.

4. Keep sending from the same email address (and domain)

Changing your From line can have an impact on your deliverability and email performance, but can now also have an impact on how your subscribers receive your emails. If you asked them to tag your emails as Primary (drag, Star, etc.), changing your From line will essentially deem that tactic as irrelevant since those methods are connected to a specific email address. So stay consistent with your From line (name and email).

5. Keep sending great emails to opt-in leads

At the end of the day, there’s not much you can do about it but keep doing the best marketing you can possibly do. If your content is good, if your emails have high open rates, if you have a loyal subscriber list, they will find your emails. Keep track of your performance stats and keep powering through.

[Update] Example of user communication – Alaska Airlines

It seems like the big brands, the ones that rely on email communication the most, are already taking note of this new change to Google’s inbox. Check out this email from Alaska Airlines instructing users to move their Milage Plan Dining emails to their Primary tab.
Alaska Airlines Gmail Email