In May, Gmail began gradually rolling out a new layout for their popular email service. The changes are for both the desktop and mobile clients and have created something of a stir in the email marketing community. People are worried.

Chiefly, marketers are concerned about one feature in particular – tabs. Google describes them as a way to “put you back in control so that you can see what’s new at a glance and decide which emails you want to read and when”. The premise is pretty simple – it boils down to making the experience of dealing with and viewing emails an easier one for the user.

But how does it work? Well, Google now offers users five optional tabs, which the search giant has predefined as follows:

Primary: person-to-person email conversations and messages which don’t appear in other tabs.

Social: messages from the likes of Twitter, Facebook, online dating services and media-sharing websites.

Promotions: offers, deals and other marketing emails from businesses advertising their wares.

Updates: personal notifications including confirmations, utility bills, receipts and statements.

Forums: messages from online forums, user groups and mailing lists.

Gmail automatically sorts a user’s inbox into the above tabs, using some clever algorithms. Google are understandably coy about exactly how they work out into which tab an email should be delivered, but it is safe to assume that it borrows heavily from their existing Smart Labels feature, which is impressively accurate at filtering bulk, notification and forum emails.

For email marketers, this new feature is understandably concerning. That ‘promotions’ tab is where most emails from businesses advertising their products and services are going to end up, like it or not. Will they ever see the light of day? Are Gmail users really going to be inclined to click that tab, particularly when your carefully-crafted email is nestling amongst less ethical messages?

It’s easy to forget as email marketers that we don’t own our subscribers’ inboxes. As arrogant as that may sound, as soon as a feature like Gmail tabs appears, we fear losing all control. In reality, such features are introduced with the entirely admirable aim of putting the user in more control – and that’s a very good thing indeed.

So, no need to panic. Users with more control can actually result in more engaged subscribers. Here’s what we think about Gmail tabs:

You’re competing with less clutter

Will your email really be surrounded by a sea of spam? Yes! But it always has been! Only, with a standard inbox, it is also competing with Facebook notifications, out of office replies and the jokes your aunty keeps sending. You can’t control what other businesses and people send, but sharing a much smaller space with them can work to your advantage; get your message right and it will stand out – positively.

‘Promotions’ doesn’t mean ‘spam’

The promotions tab is simply a designated place where Gmail groups similar emails. Spam should still end up where it belongs. Those users in a buying mindset will be inclined to click the promotions tab. Once again, if you’ve got your subject line right, they’ll click!

Tabs will make users more engaged

Like any new feature which offers a genuine benefit for the user, Gmail’s tabs will create intrigue at first, followed by ingrained second nature. Users will learn to search for messages which matter to them and will be guided by the tabs. If you can create time- or news-sensitive offers, use auto responders to create suspense and excitement about what is to come or write simply awesome subject lines which are enough to get anyone clicking, Gmail tabs will become your best friend.

Monitor your reports

You may be surprised to discover that your open rate isn’t affected, but keep an eye on those reports. If the rate drops and you’ve got a fair number of subscribers using Gmail, it may be just the kick you need to review your sending policy. For example, personalising emails will really help with tabbed email clients like Gmail.

Not everyone uses Gmail

Let’s not forget this important fact. In February, it was reported that emails opened via Gmail increased by 24%, but that isn’t indicative of it being a preferred email service. Take a look at your subscribers. You’ll likely have a healthy mix of Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, ISP and business addresses in there. Also, those that do have Gmail aren’t necessarily using the default client to view emails – they may well have their account set up in Outlook or their mobile email client, thus negating the use of tabs.

How to get in the primary tab

Lastly, we have perhaps the most important piece of advice to offer email marketers. If you have already established a good relationship with your subscribers, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Gmail users can decide which tabs emails are sent to. We recommend sending your loyal Gmail-using customers a polite email asking them to move your emails to the Primary tab. It’s no different to requesting a presence on their whitelist and when they’ve done it once, Gmail remembers the rule and will ensure your message is always delivered to the first tab they see upon login.