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Nine tips to keep emails from Gmail’s Promotions tab

The Gmail Primary and Promotions folder helps recipients organize their email. But is this folder really as bad as everyone makes it out to be? We’ll break down Google’s tabs and explain how readers can prioritize your emails.

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The Gmail Promotions tab – some people love it, some people hate it, and some people love to hate it. For many of us email marketers, when we find our witty subject lines and email campaigns filed under the Gmail Promotions tab instead of the Primary inbox, we say something along the lines of "oh, fudge."

It all started a few years ago when Google, one of the main email service providers (ESPs), introduced new folders (also called tabs) to make Gmail account inboxes a little less chaotic. This is good because all too often important personal or business conversations get hidden in the clutter of coupons, shipping notifications, promotional emails, invoices, and social media updates. It’s all stuff you want to catch up on, but you have to take care of your boss and/or your mom first.

Inbox tabs give Gmail users a way to organize their email clutter into folders where messages are categorized, keeping the most important messages in the Primary tab. But is it possible to move our emails from Gmail Promotions to the Primary tab? Let’s break it down a little.

What is the purpose of the Gmail Promotions folder?

So, what is the Gmail Promotions tab and why are your emails being delivered there?

Google created five tabs with labels that correspond to the most common categories of emails. It all happens thanks to a proprietary Gmail algorithm that identifies which category an incoming message belongs to and automatically assigns that message to the appropriate category. Users who have tabs enabled will then see those messages collected under the corresponding tab.

What is each Gmail inbox tab used for?

Here’s a breakdown of the five inbox tabs and their intended uses:

Primary tab

The Primary tab is intended for person-to-person conversations from the user’s contacts or any other messages that don’t fit into the intended use of the other tabs. This is generally where a user’s most important and necessary messages end up, and pretty much all email marketers want their messages to land here.

Social tab

The Social tab is where a user will receive messages from social networking sites/apps such as Facebook, Tinder, LinkedIn, etc. These messages will most often be notifications of new posts, comments, or reactions that are associated with the user’s social media profiles.

Promotions tab

Any shopaholic will find their coupons and discount codes, special welcome email offers, and other promotional messages in the Gmail Promotions tab. This is where marketing campaigns tend to land if they don’t make it into the Primary tab.

Updates tab

The Updates tab contains what most would consider transactional messages such as shipping notifications, invoices/receipts, order confirmations, etc. If you share Google documents, Google slides, or other collaborative projects with other people, the Updates tab will notify you when they’ve made edits.

Forums tab

You’ll find all of your discussion forum, group, and mailing list notifications here. Messages and Google invitations sent to large groups of employees, friends, and other organizations will be found here.

Does landing in the Gmail Promotions folder harm your deliverability?

The short answer is no.

Gmail’s Promotions tab is all fine and great for the recipients, but most senders would say they’re not so fine and great. As a business, you want your message to get to the inbox. Well, the good news is that if you land in any of these tabs you did actually make it to the inbox.

Spam vs promotions folders

The promotions tab is not the same as the spam folder, and in terms of email deliverability, any emails going to the promotions tab do not count as spam. So you can’t get blocklisted because your emails end up here.

Spam is where emails go when they’re suspected of being spam due to various factors, such as sender reputation, sending IP address, email code and formatting characteristics, past spam complaints, and other factors.

Gmail’s tabs are simply the inbox broken down into categories. So, before you start fretting about your emails ending up in the Gmail Promotions folder, take a minute to celebrate making it to the inbox.

A few benefits of the promotions tab

And, there are some benefits to Gmail’s tabs. For one, ReturnPath found that these tabs actually improved deliverability (messages making it to the inbox vs the spam/junk/bulk folder), increased open rates, and reduced the number of spam complaints.

Since these emails are categorized, they’re not fighting for space with different types of emails. So, when people are in the mood to shop and look for deals, they know to go directly to the Promotions tab. This means Gmail users are more likely to open your message at a time when they’re ready to engage with that type of message.

It’s also important to remember that not all of your Gmail users are using tabs. 47% of users have this feature disabled. So, the Gmail Promotions situation may not be quite as widespread as you think it is.

“53.3% of people with Gmail accounts use the Gmail Tabs feature. Out of those, 79.7% check the Promotions tab at least once a week, and 51% do this daily.”

The path to email engagement 2021

How the promotions tab can harm your efforts

All that said, it’s far preferable for emails to end up in the primary tab, because that gets higher engagement and more immediate attention. Less engagement and visibility means fewer sales, less loyalty and brand familiarity, and lower long-term profits.

And over time, low engagement can impact deliverability. Repeatedly landing in the promotions tab could eventually cause your emails to stop being delivered to some subscribers.

How can I avoid Gmail’s Promotion tab?

We know Gmail categorizes messages based on an algorithm, and we know that tabs aren’t all that bad for senders. But if you’re like every human ever, you’re probably thinking, “how can I beat the system?”

Many “experts” will tell you to imitate important emails by changing your formatting to plain text, use simple HTML templates, send from a personal email address, and avoid sending bulk emails. It is true that a combination of these methods could trick Google into prioritizing your emails into the Primary tab.

But even though it may sound tempting, gaming the system isn’t a great idea. The more you make your email content and marketing emails look like personal messages, the more likely you are to get complaints about them and, eventually, be consigned to the spam folder or unsubscribed.

However, we do recommend improving your chances of getting your emails into the Primary tab.

How can I get my email campaigns into the Primary tab?

If you want to avoid the Promotions folder and get a premium spot in the Primary tab, there are several strategies you can employ.  

Here’s how to get your emails into Gmail’s Primary tab:

1. Use double opt-in

Start by only sending to people who want your marketing campaigns (double opt-in for the win!). Anyone who completes this process really does want to hear from you, and they’re more likely to look for and engage with your emails.

Double opt-in also reduces the chances of bad email addresses ending up on your list. If you’re worried you already have a problem with this, see how to keep your email list clean using email validation.

2. Ask subscribers to help

Encourage your subscribers to add you to their contact list. In Google, you just hover over the sender’s name and click the ‘add to contacts’ link.

You might also link to an article that talks about list verification or why you use the double-opt in approach so they know this isn’t a small matter. Include this request in your double opt-in email so they add you to their list right from the start.

Pro tip: Include directions and screenshots, or even a video, for how subscribers can add you to their contact list.

3. Send high-quality content

Send out useful email content that delivers value, solves problems, answers questions, meets needs, and makes the subscriber feel informed and valued. Your email content should relate to why the subscriber joined your email list.

4. Personalize it

The more personalized you make your emails, the more your subscribers will want to keep hearing from you. Make them relevant. Call attention to past engagement. Send relevant offers and opportunities consistent with their interests. Here are five super-practical tips for sending personalized emails.

5. Ask subscribers to move your emails

Once you’ve earned their trust, ask subscribers (as a friend) to move future emails from the Gmail Promotions tab to the Primary folder. If people are super excited to read your emails, they might just move them themselves. You can also include this in your welcome emails. Let new subscribers know to check their promotions tab for your emails, and then ask them to consider moving them.

Pro tip: On your post-signup page, tell new subscribers to check their Gmail promotions tab for your welcome email, and move it to primary. They can do this by just clicking and dragging.

6. Send emails in smaller batches

List segmentation (a type of personalization) allows you to reduce the number of emails you send out with each campaign. Your segments can be based on product categories, past engagement or lack thereof, purchase history, demographics, occupation, and many other factors. See best practices for email list segmentation.

Reducing the volume of emails you send out will increase the chances of Google shifting you over to the primary tab. You may even want to send out individual emails now and then to increase these chances even more.

And yes, it’s better to send emails from an email address with a name on it, rather than 'info’ or ‘admin.’

7. Use light HTML and plain text

Over-designed emails look more like promotions, increasing the chances of Google sending them to that tab. But emails with less HTML and mostly text look more like normal messages. If the best path to engagement is through the primary tab, consider making your emails look less like promotions, in the eyes of a computer algorithm. Get tips for designing HTML for transactional emails.

8. Use the same email address for sending and replying

When the reply-to email address differs from the sending address, it’s like a big flashing light telling Google this is not a personal email message. Don’t use no-reply addresses for your marketing emails and, ideally, make the reply-to the same as the sending address.

9. Give in and optimize for the promotions tab

There’s another option for dealing with Gmail’s promotion folder: Accept it and try to optimize for it. Google released a support doc for developers showing you how to annotate emails so readers will see your offers, coupon codes, and key information even without opening the emails.

No matter what you do, your subscribers ultimately have the final say over which tab your email messages go to.

Can Mailgun get me into Gmail’s primary inbox tab?

The first thing to find out is where your emails are actually going. Then, learn how to use the promotions tab to your advantage to stand out. Here are some tips for using Mailgun to help:

Use Inbox Placement

Landing where you want in the inbox can be tricky. However, Mailgun’s Inbox Placement service helps solve this problem. Use the Inbox Placement tool to predict which tab your email will end up in and then take steps like the ones listed earlier to ensure that your relevant emails land in your subscribers’ primary inbox.

You can also use this tool to analyze deliverability issues and test/tweak emails before they send. Easy, right?

But what if you discover your emails aren’t even making it to the inbox?

Use our email Deliverability Service

If you’re not ending up in the inbox at all, our Deliverability Service provides a dedicated account manager who proactively monitors your account for delivery issues, IP reputation management, throttling, blocklists, etc. And they’ll work together with you to develop a bespoke game plan and best sending solution. Learn more about it and talk to one of our email experts here.

Remember the purpose of the Gmail Promotions folder

The Gmail Promotions tab (and other folders) aren’t meant to be obstacles for your email program. They’re meant to help the recipient organize messages.

That means you can use the existence of these tabs to your advantage. Don’t try to beat the system – instead, engage your subscribers with quality content for optimal deliverability, and let them know that they can move your messages into the Primary tab with just a few clicks.

Inbox placement depends, first and foremost, on engaged subscribers and consistent messaging. If you keep this in mind and cultivate strong relationships with your subscribers, you will have no trouble keeping your messages in the Primary tab. And to us, that’s worth a major award or two.

Final thoughts

The Gmail Promotions folder wasn’t designed to make it harder on email marketers. It was designed to help subscribers stay more organized and feel less overwhelmed.

When you know, in advance, that your emails will likely end up in the promotions tab, mention it to new and existing subscribers. Let them know that they can more easily see your emails by switching them to the primary tab. And then keep sending them relevant, useful, valuable, personalized content so they don’t regret their decision.

With Mailgun’s Inbox Placement tool to help, you’ll be able to increase your email engagement and keep your subscribers happily engaged on their terms.

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