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.

By default, Gmail enables three "tabbed" areas to organize email: Primary, Social & Promotions

By default, Gmail enables three “tabbed” areas to organize email: Primary, Social & Promotions

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:

  • Petco
  • Hertz
  • Queen Mary
  • United
  • Virgin America
  • Swatch
  • Daily Burn
  • GoPro
  • Classmates
  • Angels.com
  • Target
  • Zagat
  • Roku
  • Equifax
  • Google Play
  • iTunes

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:

target bleh

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:

  • Change.org
  • ACLU
  • CARE
  • Greenpeace
  • Kickstarter
  • Ted
  • PKD
  • 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
  • USO
  • Save The Children
  • Harlem Children’s Zone
  • Charity Water
  • Kiva

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:

ranking spam

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):

Gmail Tabs

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:

dmd via linkedin.png

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.

The Takeaways

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.

Related Topics: Channel: Email Marketing | Features & Analysis | Google: Gmail | Top News


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

    When I received a lot of snail mail, I saved loads of time by sorting out the bulk rate from the first class. I usually looked at all the bulk mail, but could choose how long at what amount of attention I gave it. Without such a process I would like end up leaving all mail unopened when I found one bill or letter that need attention

    For Emil senders to think they can control how I sort my mail is insulting. I learn to hate the guy who puts and ampersand before his name or pretend to be sending an order receipt.

    Spam only accelerates this. I’m now looking for reasons to ignore a message

    If a person contacts me with a message for me, I’m thrilled. I don’t care that he contacts others, just that he knows me and my needs if he cants take the time to know he’s sending to me, he doesn’t deserve as much attention.

    The attitude of thinking you deserve a spot is a remnant of the “own the market” mentality. We never did own or control markets. Thing like the gmail tabs just remind us of what people wanted all along

  • Alfred Ingram

    Gmail seems to discriminate against nonprofits targeting the inner city or even urban issues. That’s a strange algorithm.

  • duane forrester

    I’m kind of in the same head space – not sure the new tabs are helping, or if they’re making more work for me.

    I am learning to scan across the top of the page/tabs now (I have all activated), and have to admit they do a reasonable job on the Forums page. Updates is a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times, but its easy to check.

    Like you, I can’t fathom why some things end up where they do. The “training” aspect is over simplified – they simply flag that sender/item and shuffle them into the new location you spec’d. No logic, per se, behind it, as the quality control is down to the sender, after all.

    On my Windows Phone, all is as it was in the past – one mixed bag. Actualy makes it very easy to select and delete the stuff I don’t want to consume “this time”. Easier, in fact, that scanning the tabs for updates…

    Which brings me to a pain point.

    If you get new email, say in the promotions tab, once you enter that tab, the “new” disappears. So if you exist the tab, those “new” emails are still cluttering up the space. I like to keep my inbox clean, and I use “unread” as a flag to come back to the email at a later date. In this new layout, unreads end up cluttering space accidentally, which I then spend time reviewing later wondering why they’re unread…sigh.

    Nothing is perfect. This is a mild PITA to me, but a bigger one to businesses. In the end, though, it isn’t that hard to deal with. As people are trained to use the new tabs, so too they will be trained to open them and deal with the content in them.

    Your message is still there, after all.

  • Melissa N.

    This has actually taken a toll on my company. I work as an independent publicist and this has already put a big damper on my business as every newsletter I send out to writers and editors, immediately gets buried in their promotions folder. We are currently struggling due to this. Thanks Google.

  • Valentina Lepore

    Analyzing the email in my inbox I noticed that almost all those who send newsletters by well known services, go into the tab Promotion.
    How Google recognize them? Probably by the group of IP that these services use.
    Instead, there are others who use unknown IPs (that could be the case of spammers, but also of newsletter that are send from private ip) and go into the Primary tab.

    Can this deduction be right? What do you think?

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