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Up Close With Gmail Inbox Tabs: What’s Caught As Promotions; What Gets Into Primary
Gmail’s new “tabbed” inbox is designed to ensure that your most important email makes it to the main “Primary” tab while lower-priority messages from marketers get diverted into a “Promotions” tab. It generally works as advertised, though in my testing, I’ve found some surprises along the way. Come along for a personal look at Gmail Tabs in action.
Google launched the new tabbed interface for Gmail on May 29. When my inbox changed, I hated it. I felt like it was making more work for me, not less. I have a fairly clean inbox, with usually between 20 to 50 messages in it. Going between three different tabs was more work than dealing with a single inbox, at least until my habits changed. Plus, like many marketers, I also disliked the idea that Google was somehow deciding that my own company’s messages were second-class inbox citizens.
I quickly turned the tabs off. But then, the marketer in me wanted to understand how most Gmail users were viewing their mail, since my guess is that most Gmail users will probably stick with whatever is the default setting thrust upon them. I turned the tabs back on.
Learning To Like The Tabs
After using the new system for about two weeks, I’ve come to appreciate it more, at least in the places where it’s supported. That means on my iPad and my Android phones. But with my desktop mail client, Postbox for the Mac, life continues as normal.
I’ve found that I like having all my messages from various companies in one place. Those that I like, I probably engage with more, because when I go into my “Promotions” area, I’m in the mindset that I’m ready to review these emails. When they’re in my main or “Primary” inbox, they can feel like interruptions that I just want to delete right away.
However, I’ve also found that I’ve been far more inclined to unsubscribe from promotional emails now that I realize how many I get from businesses. It seems every hotel I’ve stayed in, every airline I’ve flown with, every store I’ve purchased something from — they all want to email me. And many want to email me some pretty lame stuff.
I’ll revisit this issue in a follow-up article. In fact, I have several follow-up articles in this look at Gmail: what made me unsubscribe from lists; what content made me stick around; what happened when I dealt with unsubscribe forms, plus I’m planning a Q&A with Google itself about how the tabs work.
But for now, what was Gmail catching?
What Promotions Caught & Should Have
Many things that filtered into Promotions didn’t surprise me, such as newsletters and messages from companies including:
- Queen Mary
- Virgin America
- Daily Burn
- Google Play
As I’ll explore more later in a separate article, as I took a closer look at many of these messages, I realized they weren’t offering me any value. Consider this, for example, from Target:
I love shopping at Target. But I don’t shop there that often. This newsletter didn’t really offer me anything that compelling. In my regular inbox, it’s the type of thing I would just delete. In my Promotions tab, ironically I spent more time evaluating and wondering, “Why do I need this again.” Then, I looked for the unsubscribe link, as I did for many things filtered into Promotions.
What Promotions Caught & Shouldn’t Have
Promotions also caught messages that were of high-value to me, that I considered to be really suitable for the Primary tab, including things like:
- AMC interviews
- InsideHook newsletter
- Chartbeat updates
- Newport Beach Fight The Dock Tax newsletter
- One of my credit card statement alerts
- comScore press releases
- Some Amazon emails
- Urban Spoon newsletter
- Warby Parker’s LA opening
- One of our Marketing Land editors’ email discussion threads
- A message from one of my editors about taking time off, perhaps triggered perhaps by an embedded calendar
- Muck Rack newsletter
Consider this email from AMC:
That’s not promotional to me. That’s content I deliberately signed-up for, expected, wanted but which got grouped in with other promotional stuff. That’s probably the biggest disappointment of the Promotions tab. It can’t really seem to distinguish between in-depth, valuable content versus real promotional mailings.
Teaching Gmail What’s Good
The good news is that a user can train Gmail to prioritize stuff like this. You just drag an email from Promotions and drop it onto your Primary tag. Then you’ll get a little message, like this:
The bad news for the marketer is that you can’t automate this. Many companies are now urging readers to do this, and that’s probably not a bad strategy.
The other bad news is that after you’ve done it, there’s no way to see what you’ve organized into Primary. You can’t change a mistake or edit your list, at least not at the moment. I’ll be talking with Google about this more in the future.
Things That Got Through: The Non-Profits
Interestingly, one pattern I noted was that if email came from a non-profit group, it had a better chance of getting past the Promotions tab, even if the email was just as “promotional” in nature as some others. Things that made it:
- Donors Choose
Here’s an example from TED:
There was nothing really that different from the TED mailing that made it through to Primary and the AMC mailing that was caught, other than AMC is a for-profit while TED is a non-profit. However, not every non-profit group got a pass, including mailings caught from these groups:
- Mayors Against Illegal Guns
- Partners In Health
- Newport Beach Public Library Foundation
- Save The Children
- Harlem Children’s Zone
- Charity Water
Things That Got Through & Shouldn’t Have
Beyond the non-profits, plenty of email went straight to my Primary area that didn’t surprise me. But there was also some stuff that did, such as:
- Aden Business School’s “HOY-Invitación personal a concur” message, written in Spanish, which I don’t speak
- “I was reading an article on marketingland.com and I wanted to know if you offer guest posts from different authors” and other useless guess post requests
- Someone trying to pitch me on being in an ad network
- “I just uploaded this document for you using Google Docs” spam / phishing attempt
And then there’s this:
I hate this type of SEO-pitch spam to the degree I recently wrote a rant about it: How To Spot Crappy SEO Pitches You Can Ignore. It’s so obvious that you’d think Gmail’s spam filters would catch it. Nope. Worse, it gets sent into Primary rather than routed into Promotions.
Here, I desperately wished I could make my own tab to drag-and-drop this crud out of my box, rather than making filters for it. I could use the Spam button, of course. There are also custom filters that can be created.
The Social Secret
I haven’t talked about the Social tab yet, which is one of three primary tabs you can enable by default (Updates and Forums are also options, as shown by the Google help illustration below):
Many things ended up in Social that I would have expected, such as:
- Twitter mailings, such as Favorites notifications or my week on Twitter
- Klout moments
- Facebook mailings, such as “interesting pages” and more
- Quora notifications
- News.me newsletter
- Yelp mailings (which felt odd)
- LinkedIn mailings
The LinkedIn mailings especially caught my eye. Look at this:
That’s a mailing our Digital Marketing Depot sister-site made, to those on its LinkedIn group. It’s the type of thing that Gmail would normally route to Promotions. But because it was sent via LinkedIn, it got routed instead into Social.
There’s perhaps a lesson here. Fearful you’ll be lost to Promotions? Maybe social networks offer you a chance to get your message out into the far more friendly-sounding Social area, if you can’t make it all the way into Primary.
If you’re looking for the secret to avoid the Promotions tab, I don’t have that. It soon became clear after watching carefully what was caught, and what was not, that there was no magic formula. Writing your email in text versus HTML isn’t likely to increase the odds of going into Primary. Nor, sadly, is sending out high-quality email. That still may end up in Promotions.
Actually, there was one consistent thing common to all emails hitting the Promotions area. They all had some unsubscribe option added. Offering this seems to be a helpful sign for Google to put your stuff in Promotions, almost like a punishment, while spam without it gets by. That’s unfortunate. That sucks. But unfortunate or not, I wouldn’t recommend dropping unsubscribe links as a way to avoid Promotions. That doesn’t guarantee you’ll reach Primary. It’s also not a best practice and, in fact, may be illegal in some places.
Instead, my advice so far is that you have to expect to be caught. Accept this, and think carefully about the content you’re providing. If you’re nabbed, at least maybe you’ll stand out from the others and get read. More importantly, perhaps you won’t be unsubscribed. And again, I’ll have more about things to consider about dealing with unsubscribes in a follow-up story, based on my personal experiences.
Stay tuned for more. And if you have questions about the new inbox you’d like to see Google address, please leave them in the comments below. A Q&A with Google will be the next article in my series.