I Fought Gmail's Tabs, and The Tabs Won

May 22, 2017
Written by
Seth Charles
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

I Fought Gmail's Tabs, and The Tabs Won


Throughout my career in the email industry, I have had the opportunity to meet with thousands of senders, recipients, filtering company employees, deny list operators, and email service providers. And with increasing frequency, Gmail always comes up as a topic.

It isn’t much of a surprise, though, as despite being one of the newer inbox providers, they are one of the biggest on the planet. In fact, of the billion-plus emails that SendGrid deploys for our customers on a monthly basis, over 55% of them are directed to a Gmail recipient (not to mention the millions of G-suite hosted domains out there).

The conversations usually center around a handful of themes such as best practices, what Gmail looks for when they place an email into the inbox or spam folder (or reject it outright). But another thing that I’m asked about with predictable consistency is Gmail tab placement.

Some common questions I get include:

• What causes an email to land in the primary tab? • Why are my emails going to the promotions tab? • And more and more I’m hearing, “What can I do to make my emails go to a recipient’s primary tab instead of the promotions tab?”

I wanted to write this to help explain what the tabs are, why they’re important, and how trying to manipulate tab placement is something that senders shouldn’t preoccupy themselves with.

History of Gmail tabs

Announced in 2013, Gmail tabs were very initially thought of as a contributor to a death knell for email marketers. The tabs: Promotions, Social, Updates, Forums, and Primary took advantage of some serious algorithmic ninja-ing and began to utilize machine learning to sort a recipient’s inbox for them.

This certainly could have been seen as necessary, as recipients receive an average of 121 emails every day. Tabs were automatically enabled and utilized upon launch. Some senders indeed saw a decrease in recipient engagement while Gmail inbox users got used to the new inbox organization.

However, since the launch of this feature, there has been a steady decrease in the use of these tabs. According to a Return Path Research Report surveying over 1,600 Gmail users, just over one-third of Gmail users still use the tabs for sorting purposes.

That being said, of those users, over 90% described the tab “verdict” as accurately categorizing and sorting their mail. In other words, the tabs are doing their jobs. Senders need to understand these two key facts (*ahem*…that means you!).

Promotional tabs improve your engagement

In terms of engagement, which is one of the key drivers in Gmail inbox vs. spam folder placement, the promotions tab on average sees an open rate around 19%. For frequency of tab use, consider that over 45% of the surveyed Gmail users check their promotions tab at least once per day. And almost 19% check the tab several times every day. Over 70% of the tab users checked their promotions tab at least once per week.
The promotions tab is not a commercial/promotional purgatory where messages are destined to remain floating in obscurity forever. Mail there is checked and is interacted with.
Certainly, there are ways that mail deemed promotional at one point could start filtering into the primary tab, but without serious design and content compromise, it relies completely on actions taken by the recipient.

For example, if Gmail sees a user consistently move certain mail from one tab to another, eventually it will learn to start anticipating that preference and will do it for them automatically. So it stands to assume that if your recipients are not wanting to go to a different tab to interact with your mail and move it to their primary tab, over time Gmail will start mirroring that.

Stop fighting the tabs

Again, there are some (deceptive) things that a sender could try to get mail to land in the primary tab, but ultimately involve taking the “promotion” out of the promotional mail. Removing branding and links to your site (essentially the content that is instrumental in accomplishing the objective of the campaign) are all things that Gmail measures when applying the categorization.

I know that if you’re a designer or work closely with one, that idea just made your skin crawl–as it should! Also, consider what a stripped-out email looks like in your inbox, particularly if it’s attempting to drive back to a site with something like a plain-text URL to enter into your browser.

As a sender ask yourself, are you willing to risk looking incredibly spammy and risking SPAM folder placement and/or spam complaints by your recipients just to appear in one inbox tab instead of another? By the way, complaints would be much more damaging to your reputation than an *accurate* message categorization.

Ultimately, my point is that senders should not fight the tabs. If recipients happen to use them, they find the organization to be accurate, and will still interact with messages there. There are enough things to worry about as a sender, like creating engaging content, targeting the right segment of your list, and how to grow your user base.

And finally, remember senders should embrace the opportunity to interact with their recipients in whatever way they prefer because a happy recipient is a valuable recipient.

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