7 Ways to Survive Gmail’s New Promotions Tab

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So I’m going to guess you’ve heard about the new Gmail Promotions tab.

Not least because a bunch of smart content marketers have probably emailed you in the last week with some very … concerned messages about you getting their emails.

In a nutshell, Gmail has decided they’re better than you are at organizing your mailbox, so they’re sorting your messages into five categories that they’ve come up with — one of which is called Promotions.

For now, I’ll gloss over the irony that the most powerful and successful direct marketer on the planet seems to be on the warpath against marketers.

Frankly, you probably have a much more pressing question. Is this change going to completely tank your email marketing?

And the answer is … that depends.

It depends mostly on how good your email marketing was in the first place. Some marketers strongly believe this change is a good thing (Taylor Lindstrom articulated this point of view nicely the other day on Men with Pens).

If your readers are engaged, they’re not going to stop thinking you’re a good egg just because your email is in a different tab now. And putting your email newsletters (and blog posts) into a special tab might allow your readers to devote more attention to them.

But the fact is, since the rollout of the new tabs, email companies are reporting a drop in open rates. Not a drastic drop, but a percent point or two can make a very material change to your bottom line.

So don’t panic … but do be smart about getting your messages in front of your best customers and prospects.

Here are seven ways you can make sure your business doesn’t get whacked by the Promotions tab. And if you’ve come up with a strategy of your own, I hope you’ll share it with us in the comments!

1. Create anticipated content

This is the big one, of course.

Going back to the cookie concept principle — the content that you send your audience every day needs to deserve their attention.

It needs to be useful. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be so good that they’re looking around for it if they don’t immediately see it in their Primary in-box.

The Promotions tab is going to make it very clear if your audience has tuned you out, either because you stopped making a commitment to first-rate content, or because your promotion-to-usefulness ratio got out of balance.

We “train” our audiences to open our emails by putting really good stuff in there.

2. Focus on your most engaged customers

Every business has customers who are insane, crazed fans … and customers who tried something once but aren’t really all that connected.

(Except telecom companies. All of their customers hate them. If you’re not a telecom company, keep reading.)

You need to be giving more love to your rabid fans. Instead of appealing to the generic, lukewarm “mushy middle” of your audience — go for the ones who think you’re amazing. Feed the outliers. The most crazy-committed.

Instead of trying to write for everyone with a pulse, write for a narrow, well-defined, and passionate segment of your audience. And knock their socks off.

Whether your business is fountain pens or fitness or frog wrestling — there’s a sliver of your market that you serve incredibly well. Focus on that sliver, and make them even crazier about you.

3. Write a numbered series

Want to make sure people are looking forward to the messages in your autoresponder sequence?

Put numbers on them.

If they got messages 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 … they’re going to email you wondering what happened to message 5.

Obviously, this trick works about 962% better if you have a solid handle on points 1 and 2 above.

4. Make your blog subscription available via email

At first glance, it’s sort of a bummer that our blog posts, and not just our email newsletter and free marketing course, get sent into the Promotions tab. They’re sent via a bulk email provider … which means Gmail thinks that Promotions is the right spot for them. (That’s true today. It may not be true forever. Google does like to change things up.)


That also means that when our amazing, smart subscribers don’t see their Copyblogger post in the morning … they go looking for it. They start clicking around these tab things to see if they can figure out where it went.

And when they find the blog post, they also see our email newsletter — which we try hard to make sure is incredibly useful. (Heck, we put a whole dang marketing course in there.)

Your audience doesn’t think of your blog posts and your email newsletter or autoresponder as two different things. They’re all just “good stuff from this publisher.”

Getting your blog posts into their in-box along with your newsletter and promotional material is a great way to make yourself a familiar and valued face.

5. Create more time-sensitive offers

Want to make sure that your audience makes your emails a priority?

Make sure you’re sending time-sensitive offers to them. (Really good offers, for stuff they want, that’s relevant to why they signed up for your material in the first place.)

If you send out juicy deals with an expiration date attached, your audience learns that they don’t want to miss out on the good stuff. They’ll do what makes sense for them to see your material more regularly — whether that’s moving you to their “Primary” in-box, or keeping a close eye on that Promotions tab.

6. Provide blog and social media “cover” for important emails

Those rabid fans we talked about? They love hearing from you in their favorite social media channel, too.

And since you’re already there anyway, make sure to give a shout-out to your best folks about important emails that are coming to their in-box.

Don’t do this for every message. That’s just lame. But if you have a tight time-sensitive offer, or just something really interesting you want to make sure they see, use your social media accounts to remind your subscribers to check those in-boxes.

(And remember, don’t always point them to promotions. Point them to interesting “pure content,” too.)

7. And yes, educate people about changes to their email box

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting people know how to move your messages to their Primary in-box.

As content publishers, we’re actually pretty savvy about how email works, and how to make Gmail work the way we want it to. You don’t want to assume that all of your subscribers are as savvy about Gmail as you are. And letting people know what to do next is always wise.

This is especially important for new email subscribers, whether to your blog or your email list. The opt-in confirmation message will typically come to the Promotions tab for Gmail users, not their Primary email box. And Gmail may handle as many as half of your subscribers’ email addresses. (Remember, it’s not just folks with a gmail.com address.)

Make sure you’re getting our emails!

If you want your Copyblogger blog posts and Internet Marketing for Smart People messages to go into your Primary in-box, you can just drag a message from the Promotions tab into the Primary tab, then click “yes” when it asks if you want to do that for all of our messages.

And if you don’t have tabs yet — my account doesn’t, as it happens — you’ll know what to do when they arrive.

Kristi Hines is one of the many smart marketers who outlined other options for handling your Gmail tabs, including turning them off completely, so check her post out if you want to learn more about that.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Joel Kramer

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Reader Comments (59)

  1. says

    This is something that my team and I have been talking about a lot lately, and some of these points have come up. Thanks for adding to our list of things we can do to help – and you’re right – Google does like to change things up so I’m hoping a better solution comes up. Thanks for such an informative post!

  2. says

    Wow, I didn’t know about this until now. I don’t use Gmail as my primary email address so just logged in and checked it out. Not sure I like the fact that Gmail has decided they’re better than me at organizing my mailbox (although I love how you put that Sonia!). Thanks for the heads up from a marketing point of view.

  3. says

    Google actually out my NSTAR gas bill in “Promotions” so I don’t trust them to handle actual promotional emails! I appreciate that they are trying to make things “easier” for their users but it always ends up more complicated than it needs to be. Just let me label my own emails!

  4. says

    I have recently set up an email autoresponder using some of the techniques and ideas I learned from reading this blog and was wondering why some of my emails to Gmail addresses were not having quite the same level of impact as my emails to other addresses.

    And now I know!

    Thanks for sharing this Sonia. It has stopped me scratching my head over why certain, previously eager, subscribers had stopped responding.

  5. Dave says

    How hard is it to change your email accounts? How many people really use Google mail? Resellers are asking their customers to download products purchased thru a different mail carrier. Google continues to make online business more difficult for everyone.

    Stop using Google! If you don’t need them for traffic you don’t need them for mail. Make up your mind, do you need Google?


    • says

      Lots of people use Google mail. And many who don’t have a “gmail.com” address are using Gmail to process their mail.

      Our audiences aren’t going to quit using a tool they like and that works for them, so it’s our job to make sure that we’re earning their attention.

      • says

        Exactly. Gmail has something of an invisible stranglehold over email.

        Just because their email address isn’t joebloggs (at) gmail.com doesn’t mean that joe (at) joebloggs (dot) com isn’t routing through joebloggs (at) gmail.com to piggy back the spam protection filters and other free stuff that Google provides.

        Personally I see this move as yet more of an indication that Google wants to control everything – even the order in which we read email – and that isn’t cool.

    • Laura Chittenden says

      The reason I use Gmail is it looks more professional, even though I prefer other email providers. I believe a lot of people feel this way as well.

  6. says

    I still found this in my promotions tab, but I think I may have found a more sinister reason why google have made the changes.

    At the top of the promotions tab was some “pretend” emails that were a different colour, and it turns out these were paid email adverts. I’m pretty sure the companies involved are heavy spenders with adwords, so if they get results expect to see “guru courses” on how to get your adverts here.

    After nearly 10 years with gmail I might have to start looking for alternatives or get used to the paid solution that will remove the adverts similar to the models used by other “free” services.


    • says

      Yes, the Promotions tab is a new way for Gmail to place ads, and that’s the one aspect I would unambiguously say is a bad thing. The ads look and behave like email. It’s deceptive, it’s spam, and it ought to be regulated by CanSPAM, even if it isn’t “real” mail.

  7. says

    I turned off my tabs. Having all of my emails go into my inbox works for me. Instead of having to click on three tabs, I just open my email. Voilà! My emails are in my inbox. :)

    I can understand why some people may enjoy Gmail tabs — to each their own. I sent an email to my subscribers that outlined the steps they need to take to turn-off the tabs or how to ensure my emails wind up in the right spot.

  8. says

    I was totally perplexed when I had read a gmail on my iphone and then couldn’t find it later when on my desktop monitor.. I had to google “my emails are missing in gmail” and that’s how I found out about this. I think its awful, really, but I am glad to know I can undo it!

  9. says

    As a Gmail user, I like that my emails are categorized. In fact, I am finding that I am more responsive to promotional emails and I notice them more. So, maybe it could be a good thing.

    • says

      I suspect it depends a lot on your audience. Our audience, for example, is very email savvy and tends to get a lot of email — for many of them, the tab function could be helpful in letting them see our stuff in a better frame of mind.

      If your audience is not so technology savvy in general, the tabs may throw them for quite a loop.

  10. says

    I like the key message you make about earning your audience’s interest.

    If people miss your emails and get concerned, they’ll look for and find them wherever they’re hidden. :)

    Some people I’ve spoken with who are just users of GMail and aren’t marketers love the new tabs. They like the “spam stuff” put into a bucket they don’t have to review daily. And some people have a god hate on for them.

    I searched my list in Aweber and about 47% of my subscribers have a gmail.com address.

    This current situation is not a new problem. My domain and emails routinely get blocked by employer firewalls, for example, because it’s in the gaming niche.

    I think it’s important to converse with your audience across multiple channels. If your community is spread across different devices and mediums (i.e., email, social, blog, meetups, app) I feel the relationship will always endure long-term despite short-term hiccups or interruptions.

    • says

      When you’re in a niche like that, it *really* pays to make your stuff so enticing that people will do whatever they need to do to make it work.

      Multiple channels definitely help, it gives the message more potential pathways to get through to your audience.

    • says

      Yes — as I mentioned in point 4, even though blog subscriptions are not Promotions, Gmail seems to be handling them in the same way.

      I’ve also seen reports that different blogs are going to different tabs for different users, so nothing is set in stone yet. Again, you want *as much value as possible* in that Promotions tab, so having your blog posts in there has some benefit.

    • says

      It’s actually not my favorite, but we do use it for our work mail, for various reasons, and the reality is, many many of our audience do too.

      So we deal. :)

  11. says

    Sonia, you are right. I do look for CopyBlogger emails in my new promotions tab. I like keeping them in the promotions tab for when I want to keep abreast of internet marketing.

    Honestly, the minute drop in open rates make sense to me. I don’t always open emails from CopyBlogger. I open the ones that look especially interesting to me. When I don’t see your emails in my primary inbox, I don’t see your hooked title, and that can make it harder. As you said, there are tricks around this.

    What I can see happening is you offering time-sensitive great new stuff that I will be sure to look for. I believe that is a great way to keep people looking out for great content.

    Thanks for your practical advice

    • says

      We’re very fortunate to enjoy such a committed, engaged audience.

      Of course, we’ve built that by working our tails off to make sure we make our content as useful as we can. :)

  12. says

    I like making my own decisions. Every time someone else makes a decision for me, I always regret it! I don’t see this as any different. I am going to keep an open mind and try to work with my gmail account and their new changes, but, if I still don’t like it after a month, I will close my gmail. However, if I happen to like it more, I may end up sending ALL my email there!

  13. says

    Thanks for the link, Sonia.

    I’m curious to see how this plays out over time. For one thing, that minute 1% downtick in the open rate may not translate to sales – for example, I sometimes open things in my inbox simply by moving from one email to the next, deleting or moving it to a new folder as I go, which means I open all the emails, even ones I’m not interested in. With the Promotions tab, I don’t do this any more, which means I am opening fewer emails – but buying, reading, and paying attention at the same rate I always did.

    It’s a little early for that data, of course, but I’d be interested to know if the sales rate goes down as well as the open rate. I have a suspicion it may actually hang steady.

    • says

      I think it might as well, because I think the people who become your customers are the ones who are interested enough to find your content.

      I liked your non-crazed take on it. :)

  14. says

    In my free giveaway videos, I break it up in two video series. I “briefly” let my subscribers know about the update in the beginning and at the end of the video. The first part they get when they subscribe and the second part they get the next day. If they like the first part they will be looking for the second..

  15. says

    Sonia: Well said. I also really like Taylor’s take. Spot on.

    I think this point you make it KEY:

    “If your readers are engaged, they’re not going to stop thinking you’re a good egg just because your email is in a different tab now. And putting your email newsletters (and blog posts) into a special tab might allow your readers to devote more attention to them.”

    The second part is what I think will be VERY interesting to watch play out over time.

    Also, I think many of the early “freak-out”ers are focused on open rates. First off, open rates in and of themselves are flawed (as you know). Second, many marketers care more about clicks and conversions than opens … depending on your business, of course.

    I wrote a blog post about this last week that I’m happy to share, but not sure how you all feel about link dropping in the comments. Let me know!

  16. says

    Love the survival tips!

    I’m sure not a few marketers panicked about this new promotions’ tab thing that Google suddenly incorporated, and that’s normal. Who would want their emails to not be opened and left stinking on that unknown tab? NO ONE.

    So about this article, learned so much! Lots of things I find really useful and that includes the numbered series suggestion, putting expiration dates to make sure your audience get the point that if they don’t look at it now, they’re letting a very good opportunity pass, and that your audience love hearing from you in their favorite social media channel.

    What I’m concerned about though is this advise: letting people know what to do next is always wise. I mean, not all readers would love it if you assume that they don’t know how their email works.

    All in all, good stuff in this article!

  17. says

    Adblock does a good job of making my gmail inbox appear completely ad free: adblockplus.org

    When I first saw those tabs, it took me about two seconds to decide to turn them off. I process my inbox to zero every day and am irritated by the extra crap on the screen.

  18. says

    This line made me laugh “In a nutshell, Gmail has decided they’re better than you are at organizing your mailbox, so they’re sorting your messages into five categories…” Well, Google seems to think that they know better.

    As for my two cents, why not fix something that’s not broken? I’ve always used my Gmail account as my primary email address and I was also fine with it before the changes. Not that I’m saying that these changes aren’t good but we’d be all better without it.

    I have to agree with you that marketers may have to start changing their email marketing strategy because of this. As I’ve noticed, most emails from companies and brands go directly to the Promotions tab.

  19. Archan Mehta says

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it.

    I am not sure I am one of those blokes who likes change for the sake of change.

    If change happens, it should make sense. And change should be for the better. I don’t like other people calling the shots and dictating terms to me.

    Having said that, I have not had a change to check out my gmail account in the longest time, so go figure. But, in general, I am not tech savvy enough to judge right now. Maybe I will like the old way better, maybe not. Time will tell. Cheers.

  20. says

    OK so I just discovered this. We have a double opt-in newsletter and have sales a few times a year to pay for our work. I just noticed in my g-mail (which I only use for testing, BTW 😉 that Google has routed the sale announcement and all of our newsletters since then into the “promotions” tab. Does anyone know if the newsletters will likely return to “primary” once we stop mentioning the sale?

    Is the algorithm smart enough to know when we’re not promoting?

  21. says

    Congrats on being one of the two subscriptions that I pulled into my primary inbox when they made the switch :)

    Love the list. When it comes down to it, it really is all about the value you are providing in your emails. Time-sensitive offers and social media cover is a great strategy too.

    I wrote a post on my blog with a similar sentiment as this article. Once they work out the kinks, this could actually be a good thing for certain email marketers that are providing value.

    Thanks again for the list!

  22. Anne says

    I like to organize my inbox according to what I think is best for me. Not what Google thinks is best for me.

  23. Julie says

    I actually really like the new tabs. Having all of my emails in one long list stresses me out – having to sift through everything to look for something that might be the most pressing.

    I still always check my other tabs. I especially like to look at my promotions tab. When everything is lined up, I can see which places have the best deals.

  24. says

    Our email communications tend to be targeted at smaller groups and warm leads so hopefully we stay in Primary inboxes. Saying that, we noticed a recent campaign was low on open rate which started the Gmail update discussion. Your points on regular and timely mail are very true. We found those who receive emails from the blog every week made up a very large part of the open recipients whereas there were substantially less new ops than normal. A possible sign that recipients didn’t see the mail arrive because it went straight to Promotions.

  25. Matt says

    Is this being rolled out in phases? I have one Gmail account I use at work and it started showing the promotions tab, etc. a week or two ago, but I have 4 additional Gmail accounts I use for personal purposes and none of them have switched…they still look the same as ever on both my home computer and my smartphone.

  26. Traci says

    I LOVE the new promotions tab. I shop at one particular clothing store about once a month. They said email coupons every day (seriously). I don’t mind, but they tend to clutter my inbox. Now when I happen to be in the store, I can go into my promotions tab and pull up the most recent coupon.
    Same with the Social tab. I tend to look at those at my leisure…

  27. says

    Hi Sonia,

    I appreciate your article and I’ve taken your advice on board. However, I have an altogether more cynical viewpoint of this. I believe that the tabs are part of an aggressive and covert plan to ensure that if anyone is going to be doing any form of direct marketing, then it’ll be on Google’s terms.

    I’ve referenced your article on a blog post but I won’t leave a link in case it looks like I’m fishing for links.

    Thanks again and may the Force be with you!


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