5 Strategies for Dealing with the Gmail Promotions Tab

Mike Arsenault
July 21, 2021
minute read

When Gmail introduced tabs in 2013, many marketers were horrified. Gmail tabs meant that incoming marketing emails would get sorted into the Gmail promotions tab, rather than the standard inbox pane.

The Gmail promotions tab sounded like marketing purgatory. So, of course, email marketers started looking for ways to get their emails into the primary tab. And, on the surface, avoiding the promotions tab seems like a worthwhile effort.

However, getting your emails to place in the primary tab is often more work than it’s worth. And being in the Gmail promotions tab might actually improve your marketing email performance. But there are ways to get your emails into the primary tab, if you’re dead set on avoiding the promotions tab (but you may not like what you have to do).

Here’s what you need to know about Gmail’s promotions tab, so you can make a smart decision about how hard you’re going to work to get into the primary tab.

What is Gmail’s promotions tab?

One huge misconception about Gmail tabs is that your emails are not being delivered unless they’re being placed in the primary tab. That’s incorrect. Here’s what’s going on.

Google created five main Gmail tabs:

  • Primary inbox tab for personal emails and emails from contacts.
  • Social tab for emails from Facebook, Instagram, etc.
  • Promotions tab for marketing emails.
  • Updates tab for transactional emails like order confirmations and shipping confirmations.
  • Forums tab for emails from forums like Reddit.

Each of these tabs is the inbox. These tabs aren’t separate from the inbox. Gmail tabs simply sort the user’s inbox. So only successfully delivered emails get sorted into the five main Gmail tabs (users can create their own tabs, with sorting rules, if they wish).

If your email displays in any of these tabs, it was successfully delivered. In a way, landing in the promotions tab is a good thing. Your emails didn’t end up in the spam folder. And you don’t have email deliverability issues in Gmail.

How does the Gmail promotions tab work?

Google uses an algorithm to identify and sort emails into the most relevant tabs. It’s estimated that the algorithm uses between 450 and 550 different indicators to sort emails.

Obviously, Google keeps the email sorting algorithm secret. But the reality of the situation is that the algorithm is so thorough that it’s almost impossible to game the system and get a true marketing email to place in the primary tab.

However, if you want the best chance of getting your emails into the primary tab, here’s what to do.

How to escape the Gmail promotions tab

The email sorting algorithm evaluates your email content and subscriber engagement. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll get out of the promotions tab, here’s how to make your emails more primary tab friendly:

  • Use a person’s name in the ‘from’ field.

    If the email is from your brand, rather than a person, it’s a dead giveaway that it’s a marketing email. So send your marketing emails from a personal name rather than a brand name.

    But don’t make up some fake name to avoid using your brand name. Being deceptive will hurt your email marketing program in the long run.
  • Keep the images to a minimum.

    Emails with a lot of images look like marketing emails. Anything with more than one image will usually land in the promotions tab.

    Use plain text in your emails as much as possible. That way it looks like it was sent by an end-user from a standard email software client.

    Also, avoid using a branded masthead. And sign off with an ordinary email signature.
  • Include only one link in each email.

    Just like images, a lot of links makes your email look like a marketing email.

    It’s unclear if repeating the same link in your email affects promotion tab placement. But it’s very clear that using more than two different links (not including your unsubscribe link) will put you in the promotions tab.

    So your best bet is to use only one link per email.
  • Use simple HTML code.

    Advanced HTML code is not something people usually use in their personal emails. So, if your email code is complex, it will most likely get marked as a promotional email. Essentially, the less HTML code in your email, the better.

    Some personality-driven brands, like the No Pants Project, send plain-text marketing emails for exactly this reason.
  • Leave out the links to your social media profiles.

    Links to your social media profiles are an issue because you need to keep links to a minimum, overall. But links to social media profiles are most common in marketing emails. So these links might get your email sorted into the promotions tab, even if there’s just one.

    But there are better links to put in your marketing emails, anyway. So this one isn’t a huge issue.

You may have sensed a theme in all these guidelines: make your email look like a personal email that someone just typed up in their standard email client.

Ultimately, you may not want to do that. Email design matters. And you may see a significant performance drop if you reduce your emails to something you could type out in your email client (because that’s about as much as you can do if you follow these guidelines).

And this should go without saying:

If you’re going to simplify your emails to please the Google sorting algorithm, make sure that your subscribers don’t feel like you’re trying to trick them by impersonating a personal email.

If people feel that your emails are deceptive, you’ll probably get a lot of spam complaints. And that could get your domain and IP address blacklisted, which is far worse than the promotions tab.

So there’s a line to walk in getting your emails primary tab ready. However, there’s something you can do that helps get your emails out of the promotions tab without changing your email design.

Email Deliverability: The Ultimate Guide to Keep Your Emails Out of the Spam Folder
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The best way to get your emails into the Gmail primary tab

This might sound too obvious. But it’s the only method that Google endorses. And it works better than you might expect. Here it is:

Ask your subscribers to move your emails out of the promotions tab. Subscribers can move your emails to the primary tab by simply dragging an email from the promotions tab to the primary tab.

There are two ways to ask subscribers to do this:

  1. Run a campaign and ask your entire subscriber base to mark your emails for the primary tab.

    This is a good option because you only have to create and send a single campaign. So it’s a relatively efficient method.

    However, you’ll need to send this campaign regularly, so new subscribers know what to do.

    And you run the risk of irritating people who don’t have Gmail tabs (which could be a lot of subscribers), even if you only send the campaign to Gmail addresses.
  2. Include a request and instructions for moving your emails to the primary tab in each email.

    This works well because your request is fairly non-invasive. Your request and instructions can fit in the footer of your email where the unsubscribe instructions are. So it’s unlikely to annoy anyone.

    Though, you may want to consider putting the request somewhere more visible, since many people don’t read the footer.

    However, you’ll need to change all your email campaigns, which means this method might take more work if you have a lot of campaigns to update. Though, it can be easy if you use email software like Rejoiner, which enables you to template your footer and apply it across all campaigns.

Asking people to move your emails to the primary tab can be remarkably effective, especially if you send high-quality emails that your subscribers want to read.

Lastly, there’s one more strategy for dealing with the promotions tab that’s even better.

The best way to handle the Gmail promotions tab

Ultimately, the best strategy for surviving the promotions tab apocalypse is not to worry about it.

Yes, just keep sending the same quality marketing emails you’re already sending. It might sound counterintuitive. But here’s why the Gmail promotions tab isn’t really a problem in the grand scheme of things.

  • Many of your subscribers don’t even have Gmail tabs
    The Gmail tabs feature can be disabled. And many users disable the tabs. In fact, it’s estimated that about 35% of Gmail users have the tabs disabled.

    Not all of your subscribers use a Gmail account. So it’s likely that only a fraction of your subscribers even has a promotions tab in their inbox.

    That means that changing your email design to avoid the promotions tab could negatively impact the experience for all of your subscribers. But only a small portion of them even have a Gmail promotions tab for your emails to dodge.
  • The promotions tab may actually improve email marketing performance
    Google claims this is the case. However, third party studies have verified that the promotions tab can improve email deliverability, increase open rates, and reduce spam complaints.

    If you think about it, this makes sense. The promotions tab enables users to see your emails when they want to see marketing emails.

    Consider the number of articles on the internet about how to make your email inbox less distracting and disruptive. In short, the promotions tab ensures that your emails don’t annoy people when they’re trying to work, which likely increases spam complaints and unsubscribe.

    So the Gmail promotions tab is most likely helping you more rather than hurting you.
  • Sending good marketing emails is the best way to get out of the Gmail promotions tab
    Subscriber engagement is a big part of the Google email sorting algorithm.

    If you’re sending good marketing emails, people will be opening, clicking, and maybe even replying to and forwarding your emails. That’s the sort of subscriber engagement that tells Google that your emails belong in the primary tab.

    Because, if you think about it, people usually open, click, reply, and forward personal emails and emails from their contacts.

    At the end of the day, sending the best possible marketing emails is your best bet for getting into the Gmail primary tab.

The promotions tab isn’t so bad

Ultimately, the Gmail promotions tab isn’t your enemy. On top of that, the amount of effort it takes to get your marketing emails to consistently place in the primary tab simply isn’t worth it. At worst, getting your emails into the primary tab might actually decrease your email marketing performance.

The best thing to do is to embrace the Gmail promotions tab. It improves the overall user experience. Therefore, it indirectly improves your subscriber experience.

If you want to improve your email marketing performance, focus on sending the most profitable email marketing campaigns and following the best practices that reliably improve your email marketing ROI, regardless of whether or not your subscribers have tabs.

What to do now

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Mike Arsenault

Founder & CEO

For the last 10 years, Mike has worked with brands like Moosejaw, Hydroflask, Peak Design, Triumph, Hearst & Guthy Renker to provide the strategy & technology with which they use email to drive revenue growth. He's also the Founder of Rejoiner, a SaaS marketing platform built for ecommerce businesses.

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