"The Sky is Falling" - C. Little upon seeing his Gmail 'Promotions' tab
By now the over-reaction to Gmail's 'Promotions' tab has run about full course. "The end of email marketing as we know it" has turned to "how to work within this new world order" to "it's not that bad... 50% of Gmail users access their email via smartphone or tablet for which tabs aren't designed". In full admission, I'm typically a knee-jerk reactionary to such news but had the foresight to wait this one out and see if time would provide perspective... it has. The expected outrage understandably arose from legitimate content providers who would now find their hard-work delivered to the 'Promotions' tab that would depress the number of eye-balls seeing their content (which was opted-into by the recipients) which in turn would reduce advertising revenue - the lifeblood of such companies. The blame here of course was the perceived 'Spammers', who in fact may also be legitimate marketers but who bend the spirit of the CAN-SPAM law to achieve the same goal as above: Increased ad revenue based on views and clicks.
With all due respect to these concerns, my sense is that 'Tabs' will ultimately become either a positive for email marketers or a hollow attempt to separate the 'good' email from the 'bad'. History tends to repeat itself and so I turn there for perspective. In what seems like pre-historic times in email marketing evolution, AOL used to block HTML from it's in-boxes and so it followed that we would suppress or omit any such email addresses from our clients' campaigns. What followed was a revolt of sorts from those AOL users. Desired email content that was HTML based (e-newsletters, special sales offers from favored retailers, even e-greeting cards from friends) were not being delivered and those subscribers led a revolt, if not by torch and pitchfork than by their actions of leaving the AOL ranks. I suggest a similar demand-side phenomenon (channeling my inner John Maynard Keynes); once Gmail users fail to receive desired content due to mis-handling of tabs, their discord will be felt. If an AOL-worthy blowback from consumers is the result, 'Tabs' will cease to exist.
Consider an avid Fantasy Football player, working feverishly to set her lineup relying heavily on breaking news from her league site regarding injuries, etc. She starts RGIII at QB only to learn that he's not playing due to re-tearing his ACL - the horror! There goes that week's game as it's a virtual lock of losing with 0 points from your QB! Or perhaps a 'flash sale' from a favored retailer anxious to move inventory with a 'end of day' sale, where savings could have been realized on a dress purchase that's been considered or perhaps some other technology gadget making room for the next season's version. Those recipients will not take kindly to missing such offers that wound up in the 'Promotions' tab.
Another way to consider the effect is very well summarized by Kara Trivunovic in her treatment of this topic just yesterday: "Can We All Please Stop Freaking Out About Gmail Tabs?". I'm particularly fond of her suggestion to take a 'wait and see' approach - "Don’t panic unnecessarily over a temporary dip, which could recover after consumers have figured out how they prefer to manage their tabs." In other words, the users will dictate whether this shift is permanent or a blip on the radar until they figure out where to access content and desired communications. After all, isn't a major benefit of direct marketing the ability to contact only those who are most interested/able to act on the offer? Why do we want to push offers to those who either have no interest in our offer or no interest in seeing promotions whatsoever? I suggest that conversions will rise while media spends remain unchanged (after all, there are a TON of interested email prospects who aren't Gmail users). And less we think we're the smartest in the room, Google employs some pretty sharp tacks so attempts at circumvention are futile and should be avoided.
After all, free markets are inherently efficient where the people will decide by their actions that which is most desired.