Marketers have been concerned about their promotional emails landing in Gmail’s Promotions tab since Google launched Tabs in 2013. Back then, the concern was almost a hysteria, with rampant fears of Tabs causing a crash in email engagement and email revenues.
Thankfully, concerns have cooled, with marketers seeing little to no bottom line impact from Tabs. However, we still see marketers asking about how to get their promotional emails into the Primary tab and our clients occasionally see tabbing as a deliverability issue in need of a fix. Since December, our Email Deliverability Services team has experienced a spike in questions about Tabs due to inconsistent placement of emails.
“We’ve had a number of our clients ask, What’s going on?” says Clea Moore, Director of Deliverability Strategy for Email Deliverability Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “We’re seeing our promotional emails in the Primary tab, our promotional emails in the Social tab, and our transactional emails in the Promotions tab.”
She added that all the inconsistencies have caused a few clients to ask, “Is there a way for our promotional emails to continue going to the Primary tab?”
Comments like that make us hope that this episode at Gmail won’t encourage marketers to try to manipulate their tab placement, because we believe concerns over Gmail’s Promotions tab are overblown. Here’s why:
When Gmail first launched Tabs, marketers were concerned that subscribers wouldn’t know where to find their emails if they weren’t in the Primary tab. While that was perhaps a legitimate concern back in 2013, it’s a fairly patronizing view today, as consumers have had more than half a decade to get used to Tabs and other inbox providers like Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail have adopted or experimented with tabbed interfaces, too.
Consumers’ behavior toward their junk folders—the original second “tab”— should give marketers great comfort. Email users understand full well that inbox providers’ spam filters aren’t perfect, so they check their spam folder often and rescue wanted emails by marking them as “Not spam” routinely. They do the same thing with their Tabs, checking them even more often and moving emails from one tab to the tab they want those emails to be in going forward.
I’m sure that by indirectly comparing tabs to junk folders I’ve excited any deliverability concerns you might have around Tabs, so let me immediately dispel those concerns.
Stemming probably in large part simply from the name of the “Primary” tab, some marketers have always thought of the other tabs as being secondary folders akin to junk folders. That’s not true. Tabs simply represent the partitioning of the inbox into several smaller inboxes. Where a brand’s emails land within that inbox is irrelevant in terms of deliverability.
However, that’s not to say that inbox placement can’t affect deliverability. Indirectly, it can. That’s because...
“Tab users expect their promotional messaging to show up in the Promotions tab and look for it there,” says Brian Sullivan, Strategic Director of Email Deliverability Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “An expectation that placing promotions in the Primary tab will get better engagement or conversions is misguided.”
In fact, not only are brands unlikely to see positive benefits from having their promotional emails in the Primary tab, they are likely to see negative consequences, says Moore.
“There is a bigger risk of increased attrition compared to any potential lift in opens you might see when promotional email is placed in the Primary tab,” she says. “We would expect higher unsubscribe rates, and probably higher spam complaint rates, too, since that’s unfortunately a common unsubscribe mechanism.”
Not only is having your promotional emails in the Promotions tab less risky, but...
This was one of my central arguments in an August 2013 MediaPost column I wrote when lots of major brands started asking their subscribers to re-tab their emails into Gmail’s Primary tab with the aim of increasing open rates.
“By asking subscribers to move your email from the Promotional to the Primary tab,” I wrote, “you’re essentially closing your store at the mall and deploying door-to-door salesmen that interrupt your subscribers’ conversations with their friends and loved ones. You’ll surely be more visible, but also probably more intrusive and ultimately less welcome.”
Any dip in top-of-the-funnel engagement that’s caused by being in the Promotions tab—and it’s not clear that there is any—is made up for in an increase in bottom-of-the-funnel engagement from higher conversion rates. That’s a trade that every brand should be more than happy to make.
A new benefit of having your promotional emails appropriately land in the Promotions tab is...
One positive thing that has come out of the ongoing concerns that marketers have with their emails landing in the Promotions tab is that it partially spurred Google to create Email Annotations. It’s a nice carrot, especially considering that marketers are rarely offered anything but fewer sticks from inbox providers.
By adding JSON and microdata coding to their promotional emails, brands can enable special content when those emails appear in the Top Promotions portion of Gmail’s Promotions tab, but not when they land in other tabs. The image previews and deal badges powered by Email Annotations help your emails standout compared to those without them.
“We are excited to see our clients testing annotations using our platform,” says Heather Goff, Strategic Director of Email Deliverability Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “As long as your reputation is good enough, when you include the annotations code then your email will show your logo and coupon codes and featured images and really stand out among the other emails in the promotions tab. Why not test it out and potentially gain a higher engagement and conversion rate?”
While we can’t wholeheartedly recommend that every marketer fully adopt Email Annotations for every email, we do recommend that all marketers use a baseline amount Email Annotation coding in every email they send. Read our full discussion of the opportunities and concerns around Email Annotations.
So that’s the carrot. Now the stick...
There are lots of “tips” out there about how you can trick Gmail into placing your promotional emails in the Primary tab, such as by removing all the images from your emails. Hopefully we’ve already convinced you of the benefits of being in the appropriate tab, so you won’t consider radical changes to your email design that are likely to hurt performance and your brand’s image. However, if we haven’t, you should absolutely keep in mind that any perceived success you’re able to achieve in tricking Gmail will likely be short-lived.
“Any energy spent attempting to reroute your promo emails to the Primary tab will be futile when Gmail tweaks their algorithm or its users just move your messages back to where they want them,” says Sullivan.
And, honestly, that’s the best-case scenario. The worse-case scenario is that Google penalizes your Gmail reputation—or your Google search ranking as well. It’s been known to happen. Gmail has even penalized other Google brands that have manipulated Gmail’s algorithms.
Our Email Deliverability Services team is usually able to convince our clients to leave this issue alone and be at peace with letting Gmail and their users tab emails where they deem them most appropriate. We hope we’ve convinced you too, as any attempts to manipulate tab placement is likely to end up poorly, in addition to distracting you from focusing your attention on wiser tactics and more pressing trends.
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Find out more about email deliverability and success by visiting: https://www.oracle.com/marketingcloud/.
Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.