This is a guest post by Zoran Orak, a renowned email marketing consultant, who will help you to understand better if your emails will end up in the promotion tab or the primary inbox in Gmail.

I would only like to add that I usually mark as SPAM or delete any promotional emails which get trickily into my primary inbox. So if your email is genuinely a promotion, just let it stay in the promotion tab to avoid pissing off those who prefer to get only really important emails into their primary inbox.

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Let me hand the mic to Zoran now.

Why do some emails end up in the promotion tab, while others get right into your inbox?

Why would you care anyway?

If you don’t know yet, the tab where your email lands make a pretty big impact on your Gmail open rates. And since Gmail is the most popular client right now, there is a good chance that the majority of your list is using Gmail.

That’s why you should care.

Emails that arrive in the primary inbox send a notification to the user’s phone. Emails that arrive in the promotion tab go silent.

The primary inbox is a more personal environment, while the promotion tab has loads of noise. Basically, if you want your email to be read inside the promotion tab, the user has to decide to switch to that tab. And then, your email has to stand out among a bunch of other promotional emails. And let’s be honest, they all scream for attention; that’s their goal, after all.

So I got curious: What can I do to increase the chances of that email landing in the primary tab instead of the promotion tab?

Here is what people on the interwebz are saying; there’s lots of the same advice everywhere:

What are some factors that affect primary tab placement?

  • Don’t sell — Logically, if you are selling in your email, it’s promotional; I can’t argue much here.
  • Authenticate your domain with DKIM and SPF records — If it’s not set, you’ll usually see something like “via service provider” next to the sender’s name in email clients. Check this out for more info. Doing this might be a good idea to make your emails look more genuine and increase deliverability, but I don’t think it actually impacts Gmail’s primary tab placement that much.
  • Greet recipients by name — The reason for this is that it makes the email more personal. Meh! Not really that important in my opinion and certainly doesn’t mean that the email is coming from a real person just because it addressed you by name.
  • Have no more than one link in the email — what they are saying here is that personal emails usually don’t have a lot of links. I don’t know about you, but I do tend to send loads of links sometimes in my regular emails.
  • Don’t include pictures — Because real people don’t send a lot of images in emails.
  • Don’t use RSS campaigns — I’m not sure about this one either. Once the content is generated through your email platform, it’s just regular text and links; there’s no way I can tell if this was RSS-generated or not, other than using my keen observation skills, which Gmail certainly doesn’t have.
  • Keep the email short — This might be good practice, might not. It just depends on the way you communicate with your subscribers; it doesn’t really tell if the email is promotional or not. We, humans, send long emails too.
  • Don’t use heavy HTML — They might be on to something here; we have lots of code behind this one which Gmail can easily detect. Learn more about light and heavy differences here.

Let the testing begin

If we want to know what really triggers Gmail to send an email to the promotional tab instead of primary, we have to do some testing. For this test I used MailChimp, and I’ll explain why.

It’s the most popular email marketing platform, so Gmail and other email clients are well familiar with emails coming from that platform. They are always promotional by type, so I believe they will be the best indicator of what triggers Gmail tab placement. We’re playing this on hard mode.

Heavy HTML email

I’ll start with this format, as it’s probably the biggest indicator that the email is promotional. I created a very simple HTML email, with Mailchimp’s default template. Nothing too fancy, just an image and some text in a basic template. Where did it end up?

html heavy tab

BAM! Right in the promotional tab. Here is what the email looked like:

html heavy example

OK, that was expected, to be honest. Most of the promotional emails are HTML heavy. Let’s try removing the image to confirm it’s more about the code than about the image.

no image html

Still hitting the promo tab. This is the email:

html no image

Also, notice how Gmail has marked my emails as important (with that yellow arrow thingy in the inbox), but they were still sent to the promotional tab.

Doing any other variations to this email type would be pointless since this was the starting point for heavy HTML email. If these didn’t end up in the primary tab, adding more “promo type” content definitely wouldn’t help.

Light HTML email

Even without many other variables, HTML-heavy email ended up in the promotional tab. You can notice I didn’t do DKIM and SPF authentication (by that “via” in the from name), but I’ll prove to you that it wouldn’t really matter.

So let’s move on with light HTML email. I’ll start with a simple message and move on from there.

One note here: when I say light HTML, I’m referring to something that people usually like to call plain text emails. They do look like text emails, but your text and links are still formatted through HTML and CSS elements, so calling them plain text wouldn’t be right.

👉 Read more | Choosing between plain text and HTML emails.

I sent a very simple email, and as I expected, it ended up in primary tab.

light html

light html preview

No links, no images… easy mode.

Also take note that even though I haven’t authenticated my domain, the email still landed in the primary tab. We can cross that variable out entirely, as it’s not something that would affect the inbox placement.

What would happen if I changed the content of the email? What if I made the subject line more sales, and added some price signals and a stylized link? All these elements are usually found in your typical promo email.

salesy light email

Still in primary tab! Here are the contents of the email:

salesy light email contents

Okay, so we had salesy subject line, we had some more HTML elements in the email — like bullet points — and we had a stylized link.

I even left Mailchimp’s badge in all the emails. If that doesn’t give away that the email is sent from an email marketing platform used for promotional emails, I don’t know what does!

Let’s try adding some images to our email and move forward from there. Will it land in the promotional tab?

light html with images inbox

Still in the primary tab.

light html with images inbox

Multiple links? Check.
Multiple images? Check.

The only thing we’re missing is the price inside the email. I left it out on purpose here because I wanted to make sure that adding images isn’t something that would affect email placement. Links are common in everyday emails, so I considered them safe.

So if I add a price in there, will it make any difference?

light html price inbox

Oh yes, it will!

light html price preview

Once I added in the price tag, along with links and an image, the email was placed in the promotion tab.

Oh Gmail, you are pretty smart.

Does RSS matter?

One last thing that made me curious was: would using RSS-generated content really tell Gmail that the email is promotional? I don’t know, but to me, and to the email that lands in the inbox, that’s just regular content. There is no special code in there that says: “Hey, I’m RSS-generated!”

So I added in some MailChimp merge tags for automatic RSS content, just to be sure we have that covered. Here is what happened with my email.

rss inbox preview

rss email preview

So we’ve got that covered too. It doesn’t matter if it’s RSS generated or not; when the email is generated, it’s just a regular email like any else. It’s not something that will affect where your email lands.

What about all other guru advice?

I’m not even going to go over the amount of text in email or greeting recipients by name. I’ve received walls of text in my primary inbox, and it doesn’t really matter.

The length of an email doesn’t even have a best practice rule.

Some will say keep the email short because people don’t have time and so on.

Well, guess what? If the content in the email is valuable, and I can’t find that content on the website, I sure as hell will read it in my email, even if it’s 3000+ words.

Some people even prefer reading stuff in email, everyone is different and so is your audience. It’s up to you to find out what length fits best for your email content and your list.

Greeting someone by name might be good practice and adds a little more human feel to it, but that’s it. It’s not going to make or break your email tab placement or even deliverability as such. And to be serious, personalization is a lot more than just first name.


How smart is Gmail tab filter?

It turns out it’s pretty smart; most of the promotional emails have those critical elements we saw in testing, and we can say it’s doing a good job recognizing which are which.

To summarize, here are the things that really have an impact on Gmail primary tab placement:

  • Heavy HTML email (usually no matter what kind of content is inside)
  • Combination of images, links, and price tags

That’s about it. If your email looks like it’s selling something, you can be sure it will most likely be placed in promotion tab.

What can you do to have a promotional email, but still increase chances to land in the primary tab?

Get creative and try different things. You can always send yourself a test email, or to multiple emails around the office and see where it will land. Try changing some of these variables and see what works and what doesn’t for you.

If you are running a big sale, try creating a simple email message with a link leading to a sales page on your website. This would work best for industries where there is a single service/product.

Run A/B tests against an email with prices and images and see how your subscribers react. Do they really need images and prices to be enticed to click through or are they already familiar with your products and know that they’ll get a great deal?

This is why you need to do those tests, so you are not blindly doing things, but have real hard data to back it up.

Knowing all of this, what can you do?

You understand now which variables have a real impact on Gmail tab placement.

But how can you find a perfect balance?

Can you have both nice-looking emails with visuals and good open rates (no matter the tab placement)?

Yes, you can.

But it involves a lot of work (which is really just doing good email marketing).

Make damn sure that every email you send has real value for your subscribers and be consistent with your sending days.

I cannot emphasize this enough, and so many are failing at this, either because of lack of time or not really understanding what is important.

Because if your emails are valuable, even if they are looking all fancy and end up in promotion tab, your subscribers will be eager to receive them. Don’t just sell, sell, sell. Switch into give, give, give mode. Build that relationship all the time!

And be consistent!

When your subscribers know the usual days your emails arrive (and you get that through consistency), even if it ends up in promotion tab, they’ll make that decision and look for it in there.

That leads me to one more important thing that I couldn’t really test out, which is the holy grail of good email marketing.

User engagement.

Every Gmail user will have different interactions with your email, and Gmail’s filter will take that into account when deciding where the email should be placed. It has those general rules we found through testing, but they can be overridden through user interaction.

So once again, the emphasis is on:

  • Creating as much value as you can in your emails
  • Being consistent with your send times
  • Working on engagement with your subscribers

Doing that, you’ll get to keep having nice looking, on-brand emails and still have good open rates.

Because email is about building a relationship with your subscribers, and that’s what matters the most.