Customer-centric Growth by Lincoln Murphy

No More Email from Your SaaS App? Introducing GMail Tabbed Inbox and Categories

Attention SaaS Providers: If you use email in any way to communicate with your users, customers, and prospects, you should care about GMail’s recent additions: Tabbed Inbox and Categories.

As a SaaS provider, you leverage email for marketing with things like your newsletters and your Free Trial follow-up sequence. But you also send transactional messages like activity reports, password reset notices, and dunning messages.

So yeah, even in 2013, email a major communications channel between you and your customers, users, and prospects.

And since GMail has roughly 450,000,000 users with 5,000,000 Google Apps for Business users, chances are – especially if you sell to the SMB market, startups, entrepreneurs, freelancers, oh, and governments and schools – a non-trivial portion of your audience is probably using GMail.

If you’ve seen your open and click-through rates go down recently, it could very well be due to these changes. If you haven’t experience that, consider that you might as Google rolls out Tabbed Inbox and Categories to their Business users.

So, again, if you use email for anything, since a large portion of your audience is likely using GMail… you should absolutely care about these recent changes, what they mean for the future, and how to work around and with them.

Since I posted this, I’ve had a lot of feedback and some time to think about things…

(Update #4: August 14, 2013 @ 11:30AM Central) So it’s been a couple of weeks since I first published this post and it finally dawned on me why Google added Tabs to GMail. Some of you are ahead of me.

I was so caught up in the still very real issue of “Crap! My emails aren’t gonna get read…” that I didn’t take any time to think about why Google did this.

But over the last few days lot of people have been complaining about ads showing up in the different tabs in GMail that look like emails, only you can’t unsubscribe (because they’re not emails… they’re what allow you to use GMail for free; you’re the product.)

Some people are saying this violates the CAN-SPAM rules, but they clearly haven’t read the rules so who cares what they say.

However… listening to all of that made me realize exactly why Google did this… more tabs = more ads displayed. Duh. Sorry I didn’t catch that one earlier. So whether its a faux email that’s just a sponsored post in your “email feed” or something that looks more akin to traditional GMail ads, this is why Google did this.

The more tabs you have, the more ads you’ll see (and maybe click) in one GMail session.

Genius. Love it. But they’re still messing with my email engagement rates and for that reason, I still hate this change.

But it’s genius.

(UPDATE #3) From @the_neil on Twitter:
“In Google Apps w/o Tabbed Inbox, the categories are filters not separate folders. All mail still goes to inbox.”

My response was “hmm… not for me and others I’ve heard from. Good to know it works okay for you though.”

To elaborate on that a bit… It seems that how you’ve been interacting with the senders of email that would be marked Social, Updates, or Promotions prior to the rollout of these features will dictate whether they are tagged with “inbox” in addition to the other tags.

For instance, I get emails from several people and companies that I never open, but I like to see what they’re talking about, how often they send, etc. Since I never “interacted” with those messages in the past – or rarely did – they seem to end up in Promotions without the “inbox” tag, and therefor do not show up in my inbox.

My hypothesis is, then, if you get someone to subscribe to your list or sign-up for your app for the first time, you need to get them to open, click, and reply to your emails (as I say in the video) so that they will continue to show up in your inbox.

What we don’t know is this: will emails to your new subscribers show up (consistently) in the inbox as well as the other categories at first and then stop going to the inbox when “interaction” goes down? Dunno yet… but that’s a great reason to drive engagement with those emails!

(UPDATE #2) Another piece of feedback I got is this:

“Categories and the new inbox view don’t affect desktop mail clients and iOS mail clients, only people that use Official Google web/html client.”

Unfortunately, that seems to not be accurate – at least the iOS part – as I just checked my Promotions category, and there are emails in there that did not make their way to my iPhone. As I note in the video below, I don’t have tabs enabled in my primary GMail account, but categories are still there, and if you don’t have tabs… you would forever miss those emails. This is not cool!

(UPDATE #1) I posted one piece of feedback – and my response – about whether or not the node.js script I included here will find 100% of GMail users (spoiler alert: it won’t… but don’t ignore it, either). You can read that in the Code section below.

Okay, so I created several resources on this topic and I’ve embedded or linked to them all below.

Video: How gmail Tabbed Inbox and Categories Can Hurt Your SaaS Business… and what to do about it.

Slides from the video presentation

Code: node.js script to check if an email address uses GMail

After I published this, I got this feedback:

“BTW, you can’t be 100% sure that you will know if the recipients are on GMail by checking the MX records and the @gmail. For example, my company – several of us including me – use the free Gmail but we don’t have Gmail in our MX record and we also don’t have We’ve set GMail to hit our mail server and grab the emails. I’m not sure what percentage of folks do this.”

I hope I never said this was a 100% fool-proof solution… it’s a hack… a smoke test; at least the code part (below).

The bigger idea of paying attention to – and reacting appropriately – to GMail changes is not a hack and is the much bigger point here.

Remember, developers and vendors (you and me included) often have weird, convoluted setups… but that’s just us. It’s quite likely you aren’t your customer. (unless you are, then that’s fine… just know the difference).

Contrast that with ‘normal people’ who just follow the rules. And the rules state, when you add a custom domain to GMail, the default way is to use the MX records I’m looking for in the script below.

There will always be exceptions, edge cases, etc…. but the rules will generally be enough to show if this is an issue or not.

Okay, here’s the code

Oh, and when I ran my script on my mailing list, it told me that well over 50% of those with their own domain name actually use GMail; while your mileage may vary, that’s an awful lot of folks that might not get my emails, so I’m concerned.

You should be, too.

For immediate consultation and advice on how to deal with GMail tabbed inbox or email marketing in general, schedule a 60-minute meeting with me via Clarity. If you feel a more involved engagement is required for me to help you, email me with the specifics of your situation (as much detail as you’re comfortable giving) and we’ll setup a meeting to work through the particulars.


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