in Marketing

Gmail introduced their current tabbed inbox layout in May 2013. Since then, there has been a debate around how useful this feature is for marketers. Some marketers argue that this spells death for email marketing, while some others claim that this is a great way for the end user to seek out specific Promotional emails when they really want them. Another group of marketers keeps constantly looking for ways to land their Promotional emails in the Primary tab, which is meant for personal communication, in the hopes that their promotional emails will see better Open rates.

In this context, a recent survey conducted by Return Path promises to throw some new light on many of the burning questions in the minds of today’s email marketers.

Before we dive deeper, let’s take a look at the various Gmail tabs and try to understand their individual purpose.

With this categorization, Gmail aimed to help its 1.2 billion users sift through the clutter of emails in their Inbox and achieve a more organized layout so that they can focus on each kind of conversation separately. However, for the marketer, this results in their carefully crafted emails getting lost in the deluge of promotional emails that their users might be receiving.

This fear is not entirely unfounded since, as indicated by the chart below, more than 68% of all emails received by a user is Promotional content.


Making matters worse is the fact that the emails under the Promotions tab seem to have the lowest overall Read rate.


Under these conditions, it is clear that marketers face an uphill task when it comes to getting their audience to engage with their emails in Gmail. However, there’s some good news.

From the survey, it turns out users check their Promotions tab a lot more often than previously thought.


As you can see, almost 45% of respondents of the survey said that they check the Promotions tab at least once in a day. This suggests that a significant section of your target audience will still view your email even if it is placed in the Promotions tab.

Still, there is a good chance that the average user might never look into any tab other than their Primary tab, making the temptation of landing their email in this group a highly attractive one for any marketer.

Over the years, email experts have come to the conclusion that in order to maximize the chances of their campaign’s success, marketers need to find the right balance between the content and its placement inside the Gmail inbox. This can be achieved in two ways:

  1. Improve Open rates for the Promotions tab
  2. Adjust Promotional campaigns to land in the Primary tab

Let’s look at each of these options carefully to understand them better.

Improving Email Open Rates on the Promotions tab:

As mentioned earlier, all is not lost if your emails land in the Promotions tab. In fact, close to 20% Read rate in a category where close to 70% emails land, and which is opened at least once daily by almost half of all Gmail users, seems to be a pretty good place for your promotional email. Some salient benefits of having your promotional email placed in the Promotions tab are


being classified as a Promotional email lets your users have an easy path to your email if and when they are ready to shop.

Fewer Spam reports and Unsubscribes

Since the promotional emails do not clutter the main inbox experience of the end user, they are less likely to prompt an unsubscribe request or get marked as spam which keeps their sending reputation intact.

Healthy Open Rates

This might seem unlikely, but since half the users check their promotions tab at least once every day, highly engaged users now have an even easier path to your email whenever they need it.

Next, to get the most out of your promotional emails if they are placed in the Promotions tab, you need to make sure they stand out. This can be achieved if you follow good email practices.

Make sure you are sending the right kind of content

When your users subscribe to your website, give them a clear idea of what kind of emails they could expect from you (offers, promotions, newsletters, information, etc.) so that there is a higher chance of users expecting and opening your emails regularly

Use personalization

Emails personalized with the recipient’s first name and other personal information in the subject line as well as the body have a significantly better open rate as compared to generic emails.

Segment Users

Sending targeted emails to users after thorough segmentation results in users receiving relevant emails, tailored to their behavior and this improves their chance of engaging with those emails.

Use Organic Lists

Mailing lists acquired through inorganic methods always result in low open rates since the recipients never signed up for your emails. Also, with privacy rules getting stringent by the day, such actions can land you in a lot of trouble.

Stick to the right frequency

Receiving too many emails can put off any recipient. It is strongly advised that marketers clearly ask the users about the frequency at which they would like to receive emails from them.

Put quality above quantity

Always focus on the quality of your communication with your audience over the quantity. This will foster trust and build lasting relationships with your audience.

Have a clear unsubscribe link

Always respect the choice of your user regarding whether they want to continue receiving emails from you or not. Always remember, it’s better to let a user go than to annoy them to a point where they mark your email as Spam since that would adversely impact your reputation as a sender and influence the performance of your campaigns for your other users as well.

Note: To learn more about how to get the most out of your email program, check out our post on email sending best practices.

Landing Emails in the Primary tab

Gmail defines the Primary tab as a place where they keep emails from people the user knows. The two key words in this definition are “people”, and “know”. Needless to say, if you want your email to land in the Primary folder, you need to make it look like it has been sent by a person, and that the recipient knows the sender. Here are a few ways you can achieve this.


Most emails that land in the Primary tab are sent from real people (mostly your friends) and are not likely to be using some fancy HTML designs. Instead, they are largely text-based with basic formatting and a few links and images. This is the high-level benchmark that Gmail uses when evaluating whether an incoming email qualified for the Primary tab or not. So, if you wish to land your email in the Primary folder, the first step is to strip down all the fancy designs and stick to the basic content delivered in the simplest manner possible.

Use real names and email addresses

Outrightly promotional emails like can very easily be classified as Promotional content and will be placed under the Promotions tab. Instead, using real sender names like John Doe <> suggests that the sender might be a real person and the content might be non-promotional.

Avoid images

An integral part of promotional emails are images included in the header, body, and footer of the email. As a result, emails with a lot of images typically get classified as Promotional emails. Reducing the images increases your chances of landing in the Primary tab.

Reduce links

Like images, links too are an integral part of any Promotional email and are an important factor for Gmail when deciding whether an incoming email is genuinely a conversation with a real person or just more Promotional content. When trying to place your email in the Primary tab, try to use only the links most critical to your campaign.

Get Authenticated

Another important set of factors is whether the sender is acknowledged by the recipient as a legitimate sender and whether the sending domain is verified to be genuine. Emails sent by unverified domains are highly likely to land directly in the Spam folder. Emails sent from addresses that are not in the recipient’s address book are less likely to be placed under the Primary tab. To avoid this, get your SPF, DMARC, DKIM authentications in order. Most good email marketing platforms follow this as a standard practice when you sign up with them. Also, encourage your subscribers to add your email to their address book.

In short, Gmail uses some of industry’s most sophisticated AI and Machine Learning technologies to decide what email belongs in which folder. These algorithms decide on folder selection based on a combination of Gateway and Delivery Agent information. On the Gateway side, it looks at the sender’s global reputation, list quality, engagement, etc., and on the Delivery Agent (Inbox) end it measures things like subscriber’s relative engagement before deciding where to place an email. Therefore, marketers need to keep the various factors listed above in mind and design their email programs accordingly to ensure desired results.

However, it is still worth remembering that users who take their Primary tabs seriously may not like Promotional content sneaking in there, and might decide to punish the sender in such cases by unsubscribing from their mailing lists. In some cases, they might even mark the email as Spam, affecting your sending reputation severely. Seasoned email marketers are aware of how crucial a good Sender reputation is towards the long-term success of email marketing programs.

Image Source: Return Path Blog.