How To Survive the Gmail Tabs Marketing Apocalypse

In June, Google began rolling out a big restructure of the Gmail inbox, and many email marketers panicked. The Promotions tab that has been showing up in more and more Gmail accounts over the last two months has been repeatedly heralded as, "the death of email marketing."

A couple of months later, however, we can step back from the apocalyptic rhetoric and take a look at what this really means.

  • Is the Gmail Promotions tab truly a bad thing?
  • How do we keep tabs on the impact of the tabs?
  • What should email marketers do in response?


If you are sending out old-fashioned, "batch and blast" messages to email addresses that you bought or tricked people into giving you, then, yes, the Promotions tab is bad for you. But if you have spent time building a list of customers who trust you, and who have opted-in to your communications to receive your relevant, quality content, then Gmail's Promotions tab is probably not going to ruin you - it may even help.

Google Is Working For You

The Promotions tab makes sure that your customers see your email at the best time and in the best context. In a way, Google has done some of your targeting work for you.

Don’t forget, Google uses email marketing too, and so far they’re playing by their own rules.

"The fact that Google has put its new email-like Ads in the promotional tab means they want, intend and indeed need users to go to the promotional tab. Right now Google has a strong incentive to ensure users do review their promotions tab." - Tim Watson, Zettasphere (@tawatson)


“Email marketing is most effective when you send the right message to the right person at the right time.” - Robert Burko, Elite Email (@eliteemail)

People are not ready to shop all the time. And people are rarely ready to shop at the same time of day, or the same day of the week. Thanks to Gmail's Promotions tab, your email will not be overlooked in the inbox when a customer is trying to sort through work emails. Rather, it will be at the top of the Promotions tab longer, and ready when that customer is in "shopping mode."

Berko continues, "Gmail didn't create the 'marketing' tab to hide marketing messages. For all intents and purposes, Gmail created the tab to make sure people saw those messages when they were ready to interact with them at a time that worked for them."

Customers might not see your messages as quickly as they did before, but when they do get to your email, they are ready to listen to what you have to say.


The Definitive Guide to Engaging Email Marketing explains that top executives aren't really interested in Open or Click-Through Rates anymore. You can read more about strategic email here, but remember: it's not about Opens, it's about sales. When your customers do open that Promotions tab, they are looking for your deals, your sales, and your resources, so your email gets the benefit of added context.

"One of the phrases I find myself saying in client meetings more and more these days is, 'If content is king, then context is queen.' Identifying user behavior, and how and where they interact with content, allows us to deliver our messages when and how a target audience is most receptive." - Kevin Sleap, Gilroy (@GilroyHQ)

The Promotions tab guarantees that your customers will see your emails at the best time, every time, and that they will interact with your content when they are most receptive.

Keeping Tabs on the Tabs

How do you determine if Gmail’s new inbox tabs are killing your email marketing or destroying it? Just look at the numbers. Now that many Gmail users have had a month or two with the tabs, it’s possible to dive into some metrics.

MailChimp analyzed the Open Rates of email campaigns sent to Gmail addresses before and after the launch of tabs and found a decrease of about 1%. That’s not the apocalypse many were expecting - but again, we should be more interested in ROI than Opens.

"To really understand if your activity has been impacted, check your conversion and revenue metrics; look at whether the revenue per Gmail subscriber per month changes. If you can't check your revenue, then check your click rate. Some email platforms provide a report out of the box to segment campaign performance by domain." - Tim Watson

DJ Waldow of Waldow Social (@djwaldow) has five recommendations:

  1. Don't panic.
  2. Create a segment of your email list showing only subscribers with a Gmail address.
  3. Run some reports to see what the historic (pre-Gmail changes) open, click and (most importantly) conversion rate is of your Gmail subscribers.
  4. Run that same report, but change the start date to May 29 (when Gmail first announced these changes). Keep in mind that the May 29 date was when it was announced. Gmail has slowly been rolling it out ever since.
  5. Compare your historic metrics for Gmail subscribers (#3) to the new report (#4).


If you're not sold on the benefit of the Promotions tab, there are ways to get your emails to show up in your customers' Primary inboxes.

Talk to Your Customers

Gmail users are still in control of their email options, and if they want you in their Primary inbox, they can easily make that happen. Some brands have already sent out email campaigns to their Gmail customers explaining how and why people can get their emails in their Primary inbox.

Sundeep Kapur, the Email Yogi (@emailyogi) recommends that marketers send their Gmail recipients a message with a few guidelines:

  1. Remind the recipient that they opted in, and that your messaging is important.
  2. Use subject lines that stand out. Your consumers need to be attracted to your message.
  3. Tell your consumers what to do: Find the message, click and drag the message to the Primary folder, and confirm with Gmail to save this setting.

There are other simple ways customers can move your emails into their Primary tab:

  • ‘Star’ the email in the Promotions tab.
  • Right-click the email in the Promotions tab, and select which tab to move it to.

All of these options will help your customers shift their Gmail settings so that your emails don't get filtered out to the Promotions tab.


That sounds like a tall order, but it's actually fairly straightforward. All great email marketing shares the same basic attributes. To be engaging, your email has to be trustworthy, relevant, and conversational.

Think of your email program in terms of relationship-building. All relationships begin with trust. So set expectations during your (crystal-clear) opt-in process, and then fulfill them with every email you send. In Gmail tabs, consumers can actually drag a marketing email into their Primary inbox, acting like a third opt-in. Sure, consumers said they wanted these emails, and confirmed they wanted these emails, and now the emails appear in their main inbox.

Regardless, be relevant and conversational; think of your email in the same vein as your "human" interactions. No one wants to hear you drone on about boring topics that interest you but nobody else. No one wants to hear the same story you told them last week. And no one likes it when all you do is talk about yourself. The same applies to email.

Know who your audience is and what they want from your emails. Send personal, human, well-timed messages that show that you "get" them. Send those messages on their schedule, when they're interested, rather than when you have a campaign scheduled. The best marketing emails are about the consumer's needs, not yours.

Finally, remember that your customers see you outside their inbox, too. Marketing is no longer just about being multi-channel. It's about being omni-channel - delivering an integrated customer experience across every single platform. This requires a single, cross-channel view of the customer and the ability to coordinate messages and interactions across touch points.

Sundeep Kapur encourages marketers to "strive to connect and engage consumers. That is the best way to arrive into the inbox. You do this by being consistent with the following:

  1. Get them to open your emails.
  2. Force interaction - a click or, better yet, a reply"

Which brings us to what always has been, and always will be, the first rule of email marketing: Content is (yes, still) king.


The best thing you can do for your email marketing campaigns in the light of Gmail's new inbox tabs is the best thing you could have done for your email marketing before Gmail's new inbox tabs.

Create good content.

"As long as I work hard at writing stand-out headlines and compelling, relevant emails, I'll be in better shape than the other marketers competing in that inbox (or promotions tab). No question, we'll see some small decline in open rates, but unless you're doing list segmenting, split testing, personalization, or mobile-optimization you're focusing on the wrong thing!" - Mitch Tarr, ZinMarketing (@ZinMarketing)

If you are not providing the kind of content that your customers are looking for, the benefits of Gmail's new Promotions tab - communicating to your customers in the best time and context - will be lost. If you are not taking the time to create important and meaningful communications, all your hard work getting into the Primary tab will be worthless.

"The key ingredient in the post-Gmail tabs era is really the same as it was before. Send high-quality, relevant emails with good content." - Robert Berko

Whether you choose to embrace Google’s new inbox tabs, or try to work around them, the focus of a good email marketing campaign remains the same. Gmail's Promotions tab may have changed the name of the game with email marketing, but it hasn't changed the rules.


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