42: Exit through the promos tab, even as a brand

In 2013, Google rolled out “A new inbox that puts you back in control” that allowed Gmail users to split incoming emails into different tabs. Today, 1 in 5 users enable the promos tab.

It’s got a bad reputation: The promotions tab. Companies that send marketing emails are still trying to find ways out of the promos tab and into the primary tab.

Here’s today’s main takeaway:

Most companies should accept that their marketing emails are destined for the promos tab in Gmail. Instead they should focus on standing out from all the other newsletters. –and consider themselves lucky they aren’t in the spam folder.

But there is good news. If your business is willing to radically change their HTML heavy templated email strategy in favor of a personal 1-1 text based strategy, brands can find a way into the primary tab.

To get there, you need to get past two gates:

The first gate is the spam filter and your reputation scores, the second gate is the category filter in Gmail and all the different signals that help classify incoming emails.

In this two part episode we’ll walk you through the best ways to get past both of those gates.

Gmail filter classification factors

Google has said that Gmail’s classification system is pretty complex. It uses machine learning to choose which tab to put an email based on a bunch of factors.

We’ll cover 4 main buckets over two episodes:

  1. Email content What’s in the emails, html, links, content types
  2. Personal actions Gmail says the most important factor in determining where an email lands in your inbox is your personal actions and preferences from that sender.
  3. Sender rep The first factor they list is who the email is from. We’ll cover domain and IP reputation as well as authentication.
  4. Other things in your ESP that could help you reach the inbox

1. Email content

The default tabs/categories

Gmail has 5 default tabs/categories. They provide loose definitions for both, but the titles are pretty self explanatory. 

Primary, social, promos, updates and forums. 

Still though, businesses sending marketing emails will be asking how they can bypass the promos tab and get into the primary tab.

Instead, businesses should accept that they live in the promos tab and they need to stand out from other newsletters and other onboarding emails. 

From the little bit we know about how Gmail classifies tabs, we can conclude that emails that land in the primary tab are:

  • From people you know, not businesses
  • Not from social network sites or forums
  • Not marketing or promotional based, not newsletters or CTA emails
  • Not notifications or updates or bills

That being said. There is room for marketing emails, or emails from brands in your primary inbox tab, if you treat that content from a brand like it was someone you knew and frequently communicated with.

How? Use as little HTML as possible. Write like a person to a person.

Instead of sending your email from newsletter@clearbit.com, they send it from Brad. An actual person on their growth team.

It doesn’t have a fancy HTML template with a bunch of images. It’s straight up, it’s funny, it’s helpful. It’s almost as if, despite working for a brand, this email came from someone you know.

That’s how you get in the primary tab. Get your users to interact with your email.
What are other content elements to keep in mind?

We’ve talked about this one before, most gmail users treat email as a personal medium. Google knows if you’re sending an email with the words “discount” or “promotion” or if your html/image to text ratio is way too heavy html you’re destined for the promos tab, and without a major overhaul in your email strategy, you’re staying in that tab. 

Google recommends the obvious like, follow internet format standards, follow HTML standards, make sure users know where they’ll go when they click links, sender info should be clear, subject should be relevant, etc… 

But one thing lots overlook is how Gmail treats dynamic content/hidden content in emails.

  • Don’t use HTML and CSS to hide content in your messages. Hiding content might cause messages to be marked as spam.

Many ESPs offer “dynamic” or “personalized” content, meaning you can change the message based on the recipient. Sometimes ESP are simply using CSS and HTML to hide parts of a message.

2. Personal actions

Past behaviour of the recipient

If you haven’t opened someone’s newsletter for a while or you never clicked in an email
Vs if you opened the first 3 emails and clicked on each and replied to 2 or you added the sender to your list of contacts 

Huge difference in signals to Gmail.

Spam filter: Add to contact list

There’s really just 1 tip listed by Google currently on how to help prevent valid messages from being marked as spam or going to the promos tab:

Messages that have a From address in the recipient’s Contacts list are less likely to be marked as spam. -> encourage new subscribers to add you as a contact in Gmail. Make it easy for them. Keep in mind though that using different senders makes things trickier in this case.

Category filter

Similarly, Gmail says the most important factor in determining where an email lands in your inbox tabs is your personal actions and preferences from that sender. They list 4 things users can do to teach Gmail over time to classify an email from a certain sender to your primary tab. One of them is the same tip to stay out of spam filters (add sender to contact list). 

  1. Click a drag a email from the promo tab to the primary tab, you can instruct gmail to remember this preference in the future from the same sender
  2. Create a filter that marks emails from a sender as important or destined for primary tab 
  3. Add senders to your contact list
  4. Reply to the email

Those are all great things to encourage your fresh email subscribers to do to encourage they land in the right spot in their inbox.

There’s something dishonest about asking right off the bat that a user adds you to their contact list, or drags your email out of the promo tab into the primary tab or even less create a filter and mark the sender as important lol.

Reply to the email seems as the most legit way to get users to tell gmail that you are legit and you deserve to be in the main inbox.


Google also lists how gmail users have interacted with similar content as a classification factor. 

You have little control over this one.

I think that’s enough for today, we covered half of the classification factors, the content you have in your emails, consider a radical change in strategy if you really want to get in the primary tab, if not, make the most of your spot in the promos tab and consider that users are treating it as an extension of their inbox.

Google also says one of the most important factors is how individual users treat and interact with incoming emails. That’s why it’s important to get subscribers to reply to the emails that you send from a human on your team.

Next week we’ll take a deep dive into practical tips for blowing past the first gate, the spam filter. Email sender reputation, authentication and we’ll also chat about tactics you can deploy in your automation platform to improve deliverability.


Intro music by Wowa via Unminus
Cover art created with help via Undraw

See all episodes

📫 Never miss an episode or key takeaway 💡

By subscribing to our newsletter we’ll only send you an email when we drop a new episode, usually on Tuesday mornings ☕️ and we’ll give you a summary and key takeaways.

Success! You're on the list.

Future-proofing the humans behind the tech

Leave a Reply