The hype and truth about Gmail tabs


Gmail launched its tabs feature in the summer of 2013 and we're now able to look at some hard statistics about adoption and behavior that debunk some of the myths and confirm some suspicions surrounding the Promotions tab.

1 in 5 Gmail users has the Promotions tab enabled.

This number is constantly decreasing because the number of people disabling the Promotions tab far outweighs the number of people who enable it. It's turned on by default and many users simply turn it off.

Of those few users who have it enabled, 45% check it daily.

In other words, they treat it as an extension of their inbox. There's a misconception with many email marketers that the Promotions tab is basically the spam folder, but that's just not true. The average Gmail user appreciates having their valued promotional offers sorted nicely in a different folder.  In fact, users checking the Promotions tab have a higher propensity to buy.

On average, the Promotions Tab does have a slightly lower read rate.

Although some industries actually see a higher open rate in the Promotions tab, the Promotions tab does have a lower open rate overall, although not by much.

But think about this. Only 1 in 5 Gmail users have the Promotions tab enabled, and 22% of the addresses on a typical email list are Gmail users. That means that only about 5% of the normal ActiveCampaign user's contacts have the Promotions tab enabled. Therefore, on average, Promotional placement would only lower your open rates by about one-half a percentage point, at the most (and those users will probably convert more).

This last point is perhaps the most important. Taking all these statistics together, Gmail tabs would never cause a major drop in open rates. Even in the most drastic circumstances, it might hurt your open rates by 1 or 2 percentage points, but that would be extremely rare. So, it's important to keep in mind that if you've seen a drop in open rates, the cause of this is probably not an issue with Gmail tabs. Rather, it's most likely related to something else, which you can explore here.

To backtrack, why are messages sorted in the Promotions tab?

Google has a very advanced algorithm that manages this sorting, and it's impossible to track it. This algorithm is very smart and looks closely at the type of mail each particular Gmail user reads most often. It tries to determine what belongs to the “Primary Inbox”, and what is commercial mail and is, therefore “Promotions tab” material, using the traditional metrics (what's opened, what's deleted, what's marked as spam, etc). There are thousands of factors involved, and there's no one “key” or “trigger” that causes messages to be sorted one way or another (don't listen to anyone who tells you they know the secret).

In fact, this sorting algorithm is very good. 9 out of 10 Gmail users say that it sorts mail correctly.

At a very basic level, Gmail just looks at the mail you open most often. If this seems like something you need to see urgently, it gets sorted in the Primary Inbox. If there is a certain type of email you don't open as often, it's sorted in the Promotions tab. 

Bottom line?

The Promotions tab is not worth fighting. It has a fairly small impact on your open rates overall. And even if you did want to fight it, there is simply no way to trick Gmail into sorting your messages differently.

Is there anything I can do to try and go to the Primary Inbox?

The best thing you can do is send engaging, well-timed, valuable content to a clean list of contacts who want to receive it. If these users really want to receive your messages, Gmail will notice this and place your emails in the appropriate tab.

While there is no way to force yourself into the Primary inbox, you can try to land in the Primary by following some basic principles, but there's no guarantee these will work:

  • Remove images, and use just text
  • Make the message as personalized as possible, using automations, conditional content, and timed sending. Bulk campaigns have almost 0% chance of going to the primary tab
  • Remove promotional language
  • Make the From and Reply address match

You can also advise your contacts to simply disable the Promotions tab for their account. 

Please also note that if you are sending commercial emails, landing in the Promotions tab is the expected behavior. 


For more information about Gmail tabs and more suggestions on how to handle that feature, please see this blog post.

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