For this month’s post, we thought you might appreciate having 10 bonafide experts of their craft, people who live in the trenches and eat, sleep, and breathe email deliverability discuss the complexities of Gmail tabs.
There seems to be a lot of confusion around Gmail tabs, especially the Promotions tab, and considering Q4 is just around the corner, we felt the need to tackle some common misconception as quickly as possible.
And for those that saw my Linkedin rant, maybe we will stop seeing so many posts that open with something like “can anyone say for sure why, for example, Gmail sends some emails to Promotions and others straight to the inbox?”
Now when your bosses or coworkers get their feathers ruffled about landing in the Promotions tab and urge you to research how to “get your emails back into the inbox”, you have an informed article to send them to ease their anxiety.
Hopefully, deliverability experts from ConvertKit, Word to the Wise, Netcore, Campaign Monitor, TrueAccord, Pardot, Pepipost, ActiveCampaign, Zeta Global as well as yours truly will help them feel better about landing in the Promotions tab.
So let’s begin…
Quit Trying to “Trick” The System
If you’re wondering how to get out of the promotions tab, the most important thing to understand is that it’s actually not a bad place to be.
As marketers, it can be tough to accept the idea that your lovingly crafted marketing newsletters, webinar invites and sales announcements are promotional.
But if they contain content that is supporting your business, then they are just that: promotions.
Embrace this concept and understand that the Promotions tab is not the spam folder. This is not where your emails go to die. Just like the Primary tab, the Promotions tab is part of the inbox.
If you put yourself in the recipients’ shoes for a second, consider when you are typically browsing messages in the Promotions tab: when you’re in the right frame of mind to purchase something. This means you can expect higher conversion rates!
Still wearing those recipients’ shoes, consider that you’re generally not in the right frame of mind to receive promotional content when it’s mixed in between emails received from friends and family.
You might see a slight uptick in open rates on that unicorn campaign that landed in the Primary tab, but this can lead to elevated spam complaint and unsubscribe rates as well.
Gmail’s filters are very heavily focused on engagement, so you’ll want to be sure you’re keeping negative forms of engagement from your recipients as low as possible.
Lastly, any success you have in trying to trick Gmail’s filters is anecdotal at best, because their filters are changing in real-time. What worked yesterday might not work again tomorrow, so you’ll mostly just end up frustrated because you can’t replicate whatever you think may have worked that one time.
In other words, quit chasing your tail.
Instead of trying to avoid the promotions tab, focus on creating emails that your readers want to engage with. Here are a few suggestions:
- Follow your past engagement metrics to identify which campaigns drove the most opens, click-throughs, and (most importantly) conversions. Dig into those campaigns to identify what made them so successful, and try to adopt that style in more of your campaigns going forward. Was it a great piece of copy? A strong CTA? A unique discount or offer? Let your recipients tell you how you should market to them through their actions!
- Use segmentation and personalization to ensure you’re delivering the right message to the right person at the right time. Identifying ways to make your campaigns more interesting for your audience by tailoring the content, adjusting the frequency or only sending select types of offers can go a long way to showing Gmail that their users love your emails.
- Use annotations to your advantage – According to Google, email annotations “let you include images, deals, expirations dates, and other offers to help bring your promotional email to life.” Anthony Chiulli from Iterable created a nice summary of annotations if you’re interested in learning more. Keep in mind, these are only available within the Promotions tab.
- Leverage AMP for email – Added by Google more recently, AMP for Email allows senders to create dynamic and engaging emails, making modern app-like functionality available right within the email. Email on Acid provided a helpful deep dive into what AMP is and how to use it when it was released last year. Much like Annotations, AMP can be a great way to stand out in Promotions tab!
The goal that you as a marketer have in common with Gmail is to deliver a good experience to recipients by delivering wanted and valued content. Spend your time and energy on delivering content your recipients love and you should be just fine, no matter where you land.
It’s Time To Shift Your Focus & Adapt
My advice would be to shift your focus and adapt to promotions tab placement.
Gmail’s algorithms are complex, and trying to outsmart them doesn’t work. To save yourself time and headache, think about how you can stand out in the promotions tab and build an engaged audience that wants to interact with your messages.
The Gmail promotions tab can actually be helpful
A lot of senders complain that their open rates decrease when their messages are sent to the promotions tab. I’d argue that the types of opens you receive in the primary tab aren’t as high quality as the opens received in the promotions tab.
Oftentimes, when your message lands in the primary tab, it gets opened while the recipient is trying to get to inbox zero, and it’s surrounded by emails from their clients, colleagues, or family and friends.
The recipient might not be in the best headspace to engage with your email, and it actually might be standing between them and their productivity, leading to more unsubscribes or spam complaints.
An open in the promotions tab, though, is a much stronger signal. Emails in the promotions tab don’t contribute towards the “unread messages” count, meaning recipients feel no pressure to open each email in this tab.
Instead, they often scan the sender names and subject lines to pick which emails they’d like to engage with. If yours is chosen, it means the recipient is prepared to engage with your email, is more likely to convert, and less likely to unsubscribe or mark as spam.
Shift your focus to providing value
Instead of worrying about whether or not your email landed in the promotions tab, shift your focus to delivering valuable, relevant content to your audience. Send emails that are so loved by your audience that when they see your sender name in their promotions tab, they’re sure to open it.
Landing In Gmail’s Promotion Tab Is Not Punishment
This seems to be THE question lots of groups are asking these days. It was even the subject of an investigative article done by the Markup.
My answer hasn’t changed since I talked to the reporter: we have no idea what makes Gmail put mail in the promotions tab and therefore we have no advice on how to avoid it.
Many organizations have tried to manipulate the sorting and classification engine, but as yet no one has actually come up with a way to stop delivery to the promotions tab.
There are some things that can affect classification for a short period of time, but nothing seems to work permanently. The best recommendation we have is to have subscribers create a filter to deliver mail to the inbox. But, that only affects mail for that user, not globally.
When working with clients I talk about a few different things.
- A study done by 250OK (now Validity) indicates only about one-third of Gmail users actually turn tabs on.
- Studies done by Return Path (now Validity) and a number of ESPs show increased engagement and revenue when mail is delivered to the promotions tab.
- Users can always filter your mail how they want and once you send the mail, you don’t get a lot of choice in what they do with it. This is just Gmail automating that filtering.
The promotions tab is not a punishment. In fact, it’s the only place that annotations works on the Gmail platform. If you pull your mail out of the promotions tab, you lose access to annotations.
The inbox belongs to the user and, to a lesser extent, the user’s provider. Senders cannot expect to control every bit of the delivery of email, and this is one of the very bright examples of that.
The best advice I have is: take advantage of getting into promotions to improve your marketing and engagement with recipients.
Don’t Waste Your Time Worrying About Tabs
I have a little secret to share with you all regarding tabs… ready?
The Gmail Promotions tab is still the inbox.
Understanding how your consumers are reading your mail will give you insight into the potential impacts of folder placements.
According to recent email client market share report, Gmail topped the list of email clients used (35%) by consumers in July 2020 but the vast majority of consumers are reading emails in places that have no idea what tabs are.
For example, email clients ranked 2 through 7 include: Apple iPhone mail, Apple Mail, Outlook (desktop) and Yahoo mail all share something in common – NO TABS.
Well over 55% of emails are read on devices that have no idea what tabs are and they focus on Inbox or spam folders. Another article by Active Campaign earlier this year, shows that only 20% of Gmail users even enable tabs in their inbox.
There are other reasons to look at tabs as a beneficial solution as well:
- Almost 50% of tab users read the promotions tab daily
- Trying to skip the Promo tab also removes any possibility of using Gmail’s Annotation feature, which is only available to messages that deliver to the promotions tab
- Consumers express outrage when mail goes to the wrong tab as we saw with some filtering issues in late June.
Fighting to get marketing communications out of the promo tab is something that you will spend a lot of time and effort to accomplish only to have the Gmail sorting algorithms update in a short period of time and have you starting over again.
There are things that require a lot of effort and time when it comes to getting emails delivered, but trying to predict or change the tab you’re landing in isn’t one of them.
It’s better to spend your time focusing on getting messages to your consumers inboxes and staying out of the dreaded spam folder, let the system figure out the tab placement – should the user even have then enabled.
Focus On What You Can Control: Delivering Personalized, Relevant Content
As Deliverability specialists, we work to ensure that wanted and relevant emails are accepted for delivery by the recipient server and then filtered to the inbox rather than the spam folder.
It’s important to understand that the Promotions tab in Gmail is the inbox.
Gmail defines the Promotions tab as “Deals, offers, newsletters and other “call to action” emails”. If a sender is emailing this type of content and their emails are landing in the Promotions tab, then Gmail’s filtering system is working as intended.
Gmail uses machine learning (ML) algorithms to determine how to filter incoming emails based on hundreds if not thousands of factors, as mentioned in its 2019 article “Spam does not bring us joy”, and it uses similar ML to place emails in the various inbox tabs.
Attempting to find a “workaround” to bypass these ML filters is futile. It is nearly impossible to determine what exact combinations of factors, or lack thereof, would allow your emails to be placed in the Primary tab.
Even if this were possible it’s only a matter of time before the ML algorithms will have identified this pattern and placed the emails back in the Promotions tab.
In my experience, people are particular about which email should appear in their Primary tab and they react strongly when the “wrong” email is filtered to it.
A sender runs the risk of their audience leaving the email unopened, unsubscribing or marking it as spam if they expected to see the email in the Promotions tab and found it in the Primary tab instead.
Low open rates or high spam rates directly impact Sender Reputation and the success of future emails landing in the inbox.
Ultimately the various tabs in the Gmail inbox are there for the benefit of Gmail users, and the user can customise the appearance of their inbox and how they want to view their emails.
As such, a sender could ask their audience to:
- create a custom filter to display the sender’s email in the Primary tab
- move the emails from the Promotion tab to the Primary tab
- set their inbox to display unread emails first
- deselect the Promotions tab in inbox settings
It’s important to remember that the recipient is not obliged to make the above changes to their inbox.
Rather than deliberating on how to avoid the Promotions tab, a sender can instead concentrate on sending personalized and relevant content, focusing on their active subscribers to improve user engagement and regularly sun-setting their dormant contacts.
Gmail Primary Tab & The Need to Get In
For years, this has been a question on so many marketer’s minds, why are my emails going to the Promotions tab and finally what can I do to avoid getting in there.
I want to start with some background information on this. The fact is Gmail Primary tab depends on the user and their email account habits. There is no secret sauce to getting into the Primary tab.
Also, the promotions tab is there because Gmail wants marketing-related emails to be in one place so the user is able to go through all their favorite brands and look through the content.
The objective was not to shun email marketing, actually the opposite, it was meant so when the recipient is ready to shop they have a place to do so without mixing it in with peer to peer emails.
If the objective is to be in the primary and get mixed in with the recipient’s regular emails, think about this, do you want your brand to be a hindrance or one that when the consumer is ready they can go in their own time and engage. All matters on perception when it comes to your end goal as a marketer.
Now, let’s discuss this desire of getting into the Primary tab and how to achieve it. Gmail has this tab again to give email recipients a place to have peer to peer emails and specifically mail they engage on a regular basis. Gmail users control their inbox, so the following steps can be taken to help push a user out of the Promotions tab and into the ‘holy grail’ that is Primary tab:
- Target content specifically for Gmail users to move their email physically from Promotion tabs to Primary. This will assure that future emails going to their inbox will land in the Primary tab.
- Ask your subscribers, possibly in your Welcome email, for the recipient to add the from address to the contact list. Gmail’s intent for Primary is for peer-peer messaging. This task will help with creating that intent.
- The only way to improve your campaign’s chances of landing in the Primary tab is to maintain a healthy audience. An engaged subscriber may be willing to make changes in their Gmail account to move your campaigns to the Primary tab.
- Make sure to have the email personalized with the recipient’s name.
- Make sure to have your content be more driven that you are writing to a friend instead of a customer.
The fact and bottom line is if you have great list management and have subscribers who want to receive your email, they will engage whichever tab they receive your email.
Gmail Promotions Tab, a Haiku
I shall start my advice with a haiku:
Oh, promotions tab.
“They will never see my mail!”
Actually, I will.
The promotions tab tends to be considered a dreaded thing because there is the pervasive belief that if an email is not immediately front and center, in the inbox, it’s going to be ignored by the end user, and that’s not accurate.
Before the promo tab, I was more likely to immediately delete marketing email because it was causing clutter in the flurry of mail in my inbox. With promotional mail going to an organized tab, I can take a moment at the end of every day, look through my promotional mail, and see if anything stands out there in that inbox.
“Skyler, you’re an email person, of course you check all your inboxes! What about everyone else??!”, you may be thinking.
I’m actually not alone in that! There’s some fascinating research by Bluecore that indicates my inbox behavior is actually part of the majority. “Consumers check the Gmail Promotions tab frequently: 47% of all survey respondents do so at least daily, while 53% of Millennials check it at least once per day.”
By giving me control to look at promotional mail in one place, when I want to look at it, I’m actually more engaged and interested in the content you are sending.
Personally, I’ve found the promotions tab has changed my behavior as an inbox user. I recently signed up for Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s emails to get a coupon for a fondue pot (don’t tell me you haven’t made a weird pandemic purchase). I immediately went to my promotions tab, expecting the mail to be there, and it was!
If it had gone to my inbox, it’s entirely possible it would have gotten lost, and I’d have been upset and annoyed over not getting my coupon. In this case, it was actually a really positive thing that I had an entirely separate segment of my inbox dedicated to that mail.
One of the most important lessons in organizing is that there is a place for everything and everything has its place, and the promotions tab is what helps keep me, as the end user of the inbox, organized.
Ultimately, my inbox is an extension of myself, and it’s critically important for marketers to know and respect that. Putting something right in front of my face (and trying to trick Gmail into doing so) is going to result in more of your mail being ignored or immediately deleted.
Love you, promo tab
You help keep me organized
Stop Chasing the Gmail Primary Tab
Primary tab placement and deliverability issues
When Gmail tabs were announced in 2013, marketers felt like their promotional campaigns might suffer from reduced engagement. But this did not happen. In fact, according to a study, the report to spam complaints in the promotions tab were half as compared to the primary tab.
Gmail will look into providing the best user experience to their users and hence they have sorted the emails into different groups. Gmail delivers the messages to the tabs based on internal algorithms. Subscriber engagement, content type and sender information is considered in making the decision.
Thus, marketing emails have a higher probability of landing in the promotions tab than the primary tab. No email sender has the control to decide which Gmail tab their mails should land inside. Despite this, many brand marketers misuse the primary tab to further their visibility and get their “open rates” and click conversions.
This could present huge headaches of Gmail deliverability…
In my experience of dealing with email spam issues, there have been instances when a marketer tried to hack their way into the primary tab. The audience got irritated on seeing the messages they normally browse in the promotions tab land in their primary and reported them to spam. Not only this, there was a high amount of unsubscribes, leading to a high churn problem for the brand.
Consequences are much grim with Gmail’s advanced spam filters detecting any spam complaints and downgrading your deliverability and reputation. This could be a show-stopper for your email program within days! The folly leads to a lot of ruin for a marginal increase in engagement and ROI.
To counter the growing cynical views on the promotions tab, Gmail decided to make it a friendlier place where a marketer can promote the brand to its full potential. Gmail annotations is one way in which the marketer can add the below to their email inside the promotions tab:
- Image preview
- Brand logo
- Expiration dates on deals
- Deal badges and promo codes
This should provide a boost to an email marketer hoping to stand out from the crowd in the promotions tab.
Which brings us to the way Gmail looks at the tabs…
Gmail tabs and the user experience
When you send a marketing email to a Gmail inbox, the spam filters will not be deciding on your email based on the tabs. All tabs are the same for Gmail regardless of the message. It will filter your email content based on their own algorithms and sort them accordingly.
If you as a marketer are forcibly trying to put your emails into the primary tab then you are contributing to a bad user experience. Imagine a user like me suddenly receiving a bunch of mails from a brand they normally browse in their leisure time in the promotions tab? They could be surprised and a little annoyed. Also according to a survey, the readership in promotions tab is only marginally lower than the primary tab. So as a marketer you don’t have much to lose in terms of getting engagement.
Every tab in Gmail will have its own readership. A marketer should try to focus more on sending relevant content to their audience segments rather than trying to forcibly land their emails into the wrong tabs. I have seen a few brand marketers who repeatedly root to get into the primary tab and then lose all their mental peace in the process.
Google will not put the interests of marketers ahead of their customer experience. Promotions tab is created for marketing type emails, and your audience is smart enough to understand it. People do look at the promotions tab for deals and offers and it does not reduce the need to buy anything.
Gmail is like a soccer coach who knows the best position for each player on the team. If you try to overrule the coach and try to play the forward when you can’t score goals, then you are out of the team! That means the spam folder for many over ambitious marketers. What does not suit the system, is out of the system.
According to a study done on Gmail tabs experience, users were actually liking the new interface and buying products by switching to the promotions tab. Thus, the tabs didn’t kill the promotional activity of email marketers, it actually improved it.
My advice to marketers will be to stop chasing the primary tab and stick to the tab appropriate to the type of communication you are sending. You will receive the engagement because each tab has its own readership. Get over the obsession with engagement and focus on the right metrics to create your brand fans. They will switch tabs to read your emails regardless of which tab your email lands in!
Gmail’s primary tab is a double edged sword. It gets your brand visibility and engagement, but it can also potentially screw up your email program. If you are forcibly trying to get the attention of your readers, they could end up clicking on the ‘wrong buttons’ which could lead to long term problems for your email activity.
Embrace the Promotions Tab & Leverage Its Benefits
While only ~20% of Gmail users have this feature enabled, it’s certainly growing in popularity as other mailbox providers look to develop their own version of the Promotions tab (I’m looking at you, Microsoft).
With that said, rather than spending so much time, energy, and sanity points trying to get your marketing emails out of the Promotions tab and into the Primary tab, I would encourage you to embrace the Promotions tab and leverage it to benefit your campaigns.
Instead of losing prime real estate in the content of your emails on options like including directions for your contacts on how to move an email over to their Primary tab, consider that the Promotions tab is an opportunity to better connect with your contacts.
It’s a place for your contacts to go when they are in the right frame of mind to engage with marketing emails. Respecting your contact’s freedom to engage with your email when they are in the right state of mind has become more important than ever in the world we’re living in.
I am one of the ~20% of Gmail users who have the Promotions tab enabled.
While delivery into Primary vs Promotions is determined by Gmail, if a marketing email lands in my Primary tab I often find myself annoyed with the brand for intruding into a space that is intended for my one-to-one communications, transactional messages, and emails I highly engage with.
Depending on the brand’s intended message there are three possible outcomes:
- Move the email over to the Promotions tab to remind Gmail that this is where it belongs.
- This option still leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the brand. I am now less likely to pursue that brand when I’m ready to explore my promotional tab and/or make a purchase. I find myself disengaged from the brand’s emails for several days, weeks, or even months. My loss of interest in engaging with the brand’s marketing emails will be seen as a negative signal to Gmail.
- This happens when I’m too busy to teach Gmail where that email should be delivered in the future. I simply want to declutter and don’t want to expend any additional time and energy. When I archive I am pretty much sending the email into a black hole. It is no longer in my Primary tab OR my Promotions tab. That means zero engagement unless I go out of my way to search, which is again, unlikely at this point. This sort of action is a negative signal to Gmail.
- When a marketing email lands in my Primary tab that is a reminder for me to consider unsubscribing. This is the fate for brands I don’t regularly engage with or when they send me too many emails. This is especially true if I’m waiting for an important email and this is what I see instead.
With all of that said, I want to assure you that I regularly interact with the Promotions tab, at least once a day. The addition of the Promotions tab is not preventing me from engaging with mail and that’s why the Promotions tab is not to blame for low open rates.
Having the Promotions tab enabled means I get to interact with the email on my terms. I have found that I am far more likely to consider engaging with marketing emails when I am in the right space to do so. For example, I am not going to be as receptive to marketing emails when I’m busy reading through work emails, personal emails, or reviewing transactional messages about my recent purchases or upcoming bills.
Going through cycles of trying to outsmart Gmail’s machine learning often proves futile. Gmail has such an extensive amount of behavior data associated with email addresses it would be difficult to sustain it… and even if you could influence for a campaign or two, Gmail will catch up.
You can certainly take steps to try to hop over into the Primary tab, even if only for a short time, but I would advise caution. You might bring unwanted attention to your emails.
I would say your focus should be on ensuring best practices, testing subject lines, using personalization and dynamic content to form a real connection with your contacts. Leave them eager to check out your latest email when they sit down to actively engage with the Promotions tab.
I could write about Primary vs Promotions tabs for days, but alas, my post must come to an end. If you want to learn more fun facts about the Promotions tabs usage and research, check out this article by Alex Burch called ‘The hype and truth about Gmail tabs’.
The Promotions Tab is a Great Place to Land
You’re in the promotions tab? HIGH FIVE. “Celebrate good times, come on!” Wait, you want to leave? Hmmm, well, that puts a damper on our little celebration there.
The promotions tab, whether you are ready to accept it or not, is a great place to land and there isn’t much you can or should do about it.
Before I go into why, first and foremost, we need to be clear, the promotions tab is NOT the spam folder. Don’t fear it, embrace it. It’s not this place where emails go to die, that’s the spam folder.
It’s where emails live with fellow bulk emails that hold value for your customers. They just have a different purpose than a confirmation email or a letter from Mom. Customers do see your email in the promotions tab, it’s just on their time, not yours. And when they are looking, they are more engaged in a positive way.
There are some suggestions out there to help make your mail look more 1:1 to help you make it to the primary tab, but you can go hunting for them on the interwebs as I’m not a fan of promoting tactics that try to go against the ISP’s design. Instead let’s focus on why you should be happy about landing in the promotions tab and steer clear of trying to manipulate those filters.
- It’s where you’re meant to be. No matter how much you try to get around the filters, eventually you’ll end up right back where you started or somewhere worse. Even temporary successes are often fleeting and your messages will make their way back from whence they came. Gmail’s filtering and machine learning algorithms are gooood and will catch on if something is miscategorized. And if you do find a temporary solution, it could backfire if you end up generating complaints, which you will then find your messages making their way to no-man’s land.Embrace your inner you and be proud of your bulkiness. You have a unique purpose and value so own it! The next step is making sure that when you do have your customer’s attention, make an impact.
- An overflowing inbox is not desirable. A customer’s digital mailbox gets a lot of traffic. The world is literally at your customers’ fingertips and that world is in their inbox. If every email lands in one place and bulk mail is getting in the way of finding what is needed or important notifications, messages will fatigue sooner and start to be seen as something customers want to complain about or it may lead to an abandoned mailbox. Keeping users from being inundated with messages and instead keeping them organized is a much better experience for all.
- Gmail is doing the work for you and for your customer. If you think about it, categorization isn’t a new concept. Up until Gmail rolled out their tabs, placement alterations were still happening, but on the customer level. Instead of dealing with the massive amount of mail in one location, customers could create filters, some even used a secondary email to sign up for offers, and some went another step further and started using disposable emails. All the promotions tab did was remove the manual manipulations making it less cumbersome for the customer to manage. Automated categorizations may even be helping to keep your customers from creating filters or mailboxes that will keep you out of touch with them for longer periods than you’d prefer.
- Gmail users are already conditioned to look for your email in the appropriate locations. They know where to find you and they will engage when they are ready. “But my message is looked for in the primary tab!” If this is indeed true, likely Gmail will course correct if there is a misclassification. However, there are ways senders can submit a request for review. Go to the source instead of around them.
- Promotions tab is tied to Gmail, but not all Gmail customers are impacted. I recently was doing some analysis on another feature and made some connections that shouldn’t have been made (I blame my kids for me being tired). Thankfully, it was wisely pointed out that the metrics I was looking at could be impacted by the device someone is using. It rings true here too. If your customers use their device apps to read their emails and not Gmail’s app, tab placement and the work to get to the primary inbox, really has zero impact. Native apps and operators don’t sort/categorize the same way or with the same decisioning, if at all.
- Finally, and probably one of my fan favorites, you can do things there you can’t in any other tab. I’m talking about promotions annotations that allows you to add an avatar, promotion end dates, coupon codes or additional labels, and a preview image. Use Gmail’s own offerings to help your mail stand out. Those that use annotations and are selected as a top offer will also be highlighted in the primary tab. So even from the promotions tab, you can make an impression in the primary tab, driving a friendly reminder that you have something to share. Plus, even if you can’t track the activity driven by the annotations, Gmail can. Any positive interaction they can see will help in the end make sure you stay in the inbox.
Keep your list healthy and boost campaign performance by regularly cleaning your email list. We’ll let you know which email addresses are good, bad and risky, before you hit send.
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