Why Email Marketers Can Relax About the New Gmail Tabs

A lot of people have been freaking out about the new Gmail tabs – namely, anyone who uses internet marketing:

This will ruin email marketing as we know it. Gmail’s out to get small businesses. My emails will never be read because they’re not in your main inbox. Get rid of those evil tabs and go back to a single-inbox format!

These people seem to think that because the Promotions tab exists, their emails will automatically end up there – and never be read.

This isn’t true, for several reasons. First, Gmail users are getting used to the new tabs. They’re fiddling around and figuring out where all their emails end up, and they’re deciding for themselves what belongs where. They’re not going to flat-out never see your emails in the Promotions section of Gmail tabs.

But that’s not what internet marketers are worried about. They’re worried you might leave their emails there.

That could be worrisome, but not for the reason you think. People won’t stop reading emails because they’re in the Promotions tab.

People will leave them there because they weren’t reading them to begin with.

How People Read Emails

When Gmail first announced the tab changes, I was thrilled. (Well, okay, first I had knee-jerk hatred. Then I was thrilled.) My inbox gets a solid mix of work-related emails, promotions, newsletters, social media updates, and personal emails on a regular basis.

When I start my day, here’s what I do:

  1. Read my personal emails. They’re both important and enjoyable. They’re the best emails.
  2. Go through all the work emails. These are important, but not always fun.
  3. Read all the other emails that are possibly fun or informational. They’re enjoyable, but not important.

You might flip #2 and #3, depending on how much you procrastinate, but one thing is for sure: almost everyone hates reading promotional emails.

That doesn’t mean we never open them.

Very occasionally, someone is offering me something at the exact instant I want it. I open these emails and write down the code or print the coupon.

I don’t read them. There’s nothing enjoyable or important to me to read beyond the useful  tool in this email – the discount or the offer. Once I have that, I’m done.

99% of promotional emails get deleted immediately, because I just don’t need them. They’re not important, and they’re not enjoyable. They are my absolute lowest priority.

These priorities haven’t changed with the new Gmail tabs format. The only difference is that it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to prioritize. Now I can start my day with personal and work emails in my inbox and get through all of them without being distracted by incoming emails that ruin my quest for Inbox Zero.

Primary Tab

(Click on that screenshot to see it big-time. Then check out that theme. Zen as anything. At night there’s a fox that does some t’ai chi on the porch. You can see I categorize my emails, too. Men with Pens clients in blue, Good Ink Inc. clients in Green, and the unmarked ones are personal emails from friends. Tessa sent me a quiche recipe. It was delicious.)

When I have a lunch break or it’s the end of the day, I can leisurely browse through the stuff in my Social folder, which now includes all my newsletters and social media updates. I enjoy that material much as I would read through an RSS feed full of blog posts.

Social Tab Take One

(See how Jon Morrow’s email has [SPAM] in front of it? Gmail did that. I told it that Jon wasn’t spam, but it still marks it that way. But you know what? I just ignore it and read them anyway, because Gmail don’t tell me what to do no-how no-way.)

When I’m about to close my email, I briefly glance in the Promotions tab to see if there’s anything I want to use immediately or in the near future.

Promotions Tab

(You’ll note that The Body Shop is in the process of trying to convince me that every day I’m about to miss out on a sale. It’s cried wolf too many times. I also put my social media spam here, because I don’t care about what updates I may be missing.)

If so, I open it. The second email from the top is a gym I’m thinking of joining in my city. I open that because if they have a discount to offer me, I’m likely to want to use it.

Promotion Email from CAC

(Way to get to the point, Colorado Athletic Club. You know perfectly well I don’t care about reading the rest of this email. Just show me what I need.)

Hey, look at that. They’re offering me a $100 discount. I don’t even bother reading the rest of the email. I just print that out for when I go visit the gym later to sign up for a membership.

Promotions that I want still get opened and used. They just don’t get read.

But that’s the problem! My emails are in that Promotions tab, which means you’re not reading them!

Silly rabbit. If I was reading your emails before, I’m still reading them now. I moved them out of the Promotions tab so they wouldn’t get lost in the unimportant stuff.

Oh, yeah. Didn’t anyone tell you about that?

Gmail’s Designation of Your Emails Isn’t Set in Stone

One of the biggest complaints about the new tabs is that Gmail automatically considers all newsletters as “promotional”, which means that all your emails will go to the Promotions tab and no one will ever read them and marketing as we know it is over.

Yeah, no. That’s not quite the deal, here.

When the new format first launched, Gmail thought that many of my regular newsletters belonged in the Promotions tab. Fair enough.

I subscribe to the following mailing lists: Men with Pens, Ittybiz, Copyblogger, Chris Brogan, and Jon Morrow’s Boost Blog Traffic.  Gmail thought ALL of these belonged in the Promotions category.

But Gmail isn’t God, even though they both start with G. And I disagreed with Gmail’s robotic algorithm opinion. I read nearly every single one of the emails these people send. They’re useful, they’re informative, and 90% of the time, when I open an email from any of these people, I want to read it.

So you know what I did? I used my brain.  I’m a person with independent thought and free will (I bet you are too), and I decided those emails don’t belong there.

You were wrong, automated Gmail sorting algorithm.

And – hold onto your hats, people – I moved those emails from the Promotions tab to where I wanted them to be.

Granted, this was a super-complicated process. I had to click and drag the email a whole inch from one tab to the other. Watch:

Move 1 Conversation Click

(Right-click on that image to see it full size. You can’t see the pointer, because for some reason my screen shot saver doesn’t show it when I hit prt scn. But it’s there. Oh, it’s there.)

Move 1 Conversation Drag

(See? Moving that conversation like no one’s business. Couldn’t do that without a pointer. Ghosts can’t move conversations. Everyone knows that.)

A little question appeared at the top of my inbox. It politely asked if I’d like to have all emails from this address sent to the Social tab instead of the Promotions one:

Move 1 Conversation Confirm

(They don’t offer you an option for no. The option for “no” is to ignore Gmail. Which I do with some glee on a regular basis.)

I clicked yes, and now all of the emails from Naomi reside in my Social tab forevermore.

Social Tab Take Two

(I know. That was exhausting. It took a whole split second. Someone give me a towel.)

It takes literally one second to rescue someone’s emails from the Promotions tab. That’s an amount that any of your devoted readers, even the busiest ones, can take out of their day to move your emails to the tab where they want them.

Even better, they’re already in a sorting frame of mind because the email tabs are new, and it needs some help – there are work emails ending up in the Social tab and personal emails going to Promotions left and right. You have time to piggyback on people’s willingness to sort out their inboxes and tabs and filters.

It’s almost like it wasn’t an earth-shattering disaster that Gmail put those emails in the Promotions tab to begin with. Which leads me to believe that people aren’t bitching because Gmail sorts their emails to the wrong tabs.

People are bitching because readers might think that the Promotions tab is exactly where those emails belong.

What Makes Your Emails Worth My Time

Not all emails that promote are relegated to the Promotions tab. Heck, look at that list above: Men with Pens, Ittybiz, Copyblogger, Boost Blog Traffic, and Chris Brogan. They’re all marketing experts. You think they’re not using their emails to market? Of course they are. Some of them are doing it right now.

And yet they remain in my Social tab – where I put them, thank you very much. Here’s why:

90% of the content these entrepreneurs send me is non-promotional. It’s useful information I can apply. And 90% of the time, when I open an email from one of these people, there’s an immediate payoff for me. I take enjoyment from reading and am glad I got that insight in my day.

These people are people I want to hear from. And that’s why I put them in my Social tab.

What about when they’re doing a promotion, though? What about when these people are actively selling me something?

I’m already conditioned to think of their emails as useful information from someone I like. So when they send me an email that IS promoting something, I don’t see it as promotional or spammy. I don’t see it as a sale.

I think this:

A person I like is offering even more useful information for a reasonable price.

Here’s what I don’t think:

This person I like sent one promotional email and has tainted my opinion of them forever.

One promotional email out of ten isn’t going to change my opinion of this person’s emails at large. If you knew someone who was grumpy in the mornings but an absolute darling for the majority of the day, you wouldn’t think of them as a grumpy person. You’d think of them as a nice person who is occasionally grumpy.

So if your emails are mostly sociable and helpful, I’ll think of you as a sociable and helpful person who occasionally promotes something.

Pay attention, because here’s what’s important:

If most of your content is useful, your promotions won’t change my perception of you as useful.  

I won’t leave your emails in the Promotions tab.

If, on the other hand, you promote and pitch and sell me 90% of the time, I’m going to think of you as a salesperson who occasionally says something nice or helpful. I think:

This person sends promotional emails, so this new email is probably a set-up for yet another damned promotion.

And you know what? I’m usually right.

Those people never made it out of my Promotions tab, and they probably never will.  (They shouldn’t make it out of yours either.)

Why Gmail Tabs Are Beneficial for Internet Marketers

I read approximately the same amount of promotional emails in the new Gmail tabs format as I did with the old format. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is this: I read far more emails from the people I want to hear from.

In the old format, all my emails were mixed together. I’ve got 8 work emails mixed in with 20 promotional emails and 10 newsletters and 5 social media updates and 3 emails from friends of mine.

That makes it harder for me to get to work. Those work emails are buried. If I don’t delete or archive the extraneous stuff, I’m likely to miss an important work email.

And frankly, with eight million emails, I feel overwhelmed – look how many emails I have to get through! So many emails! It gets kind of hard to get psyched about getting to work, because I have to sift through 8 million bits of stuff that isn’t important.

With the old format, I developed the strategy of deleting everything that wasn’t a work email just to clear my inbox. That included both the promotional stuff and the newsletters I actually wanted to read.

I didn’t want to read them right that second, which meant they were in my way. So they got deleted.

Or (and this is worse) I skimmed them.

Take Ittybiz, for example. Naomi Dunford and Dave Navarro send out a fantastic newsletter. Every email is full of great information. It’s like a whole separate blog from their main website, sent directly to my inbox. I love it. I read every single email they send, without fail, even when I’m busy. I archive most of those emails to refer back to later.

But when I have to work, I feel rushed. I know I should be doing something else. I should be working, but to start work I want a clear inbox, which means I have to put this email somewhere. If I archive it, I might forget about it. If I delete it, I’ll miss out on awesome content.

So I compromise: I skim.

When I skim, from Naomi’s point of view as a marketer, I am not doing what she wants me to be doing. She wants me to read that newsletter thoroughly so I can see the full scope of her genius.

She wants me to try the technique she’s describing in that email so that I think to myself: “This woman knows what she’s talking about. Maybe I should buy one of her products.”

She wants me to conclude that when I’ considering hiring a marketing coach, she’s the person who comes to mind.

If I’m skimming, none of that is happening. I’m just breezing through and then deleting it. I’m barely registering what I’ve read. I’m certainly not taking the time to apply her advice to my business.

Which means Naomi and all the other people who send me useful newsletters actually benefit from Gmail’s new tabs.

I know my favorite newsletters will be there waiting for me when I’m ready to read them. They’re in the Social tab. I won’t forget that the tab exists – it’s right there. I can come read the emails when I’m prepared to read the useful information, take notes, and think about how to apply it to my business.

This is better for everyone. It’s better for Naomi and Dave and James and Brian and Sonia and Chris and Jon and me and my local bookstore, whose newsletter I read religiously because it is excellent.

The only people it’s not better for are the ones who do nothing but promote.

How to Get Your Emails Out of the Promotional Tab

Stop thinking of Gmail tabs as the enemy. Fighting Gmail gets you nowhere. You can’t stop it from changing its format, and you can’t stop your customers from using the new tabs.

They’re going to do what’s good for them, not what’s good for you.

It’s not Gmail’s fault your emails are perceived by your customers as promotional. It’s not your customers’ fault either. It’s no one’s fault but your own.

And it’s completely within your ability to change.

If you want your customers to perceive your emails as belonging to the Primary tab or the Social tab, start making them more primary or sociable. If you want your readers to put your emails in a tab they’ll actually read, make them better reading material.

Mention that you have things to sell now and then, but don’t make that mention the bulk of your emails.

You may be fine with people seeing your emails as promotional. That’s fine – don’t gripe when people don’t read them. And don’t blame Gmail.

Gmail didn’t do anything but make it easy for your customers to sort between important and promotional. That’s all.

P.S. If any of those screenshots above look screwy, blame James. I had nothing to do with it.

Post by Taylor Lindstrom

Taylor Lindstrom talks about how stories shape everything you do and why you should listen to better ones over at Too Good to Fail. She’s been copywriting for 14 years and reading email newsletters since the internet began, and she likes her inbox a lot better now.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Bailish says:

    I pay much less attention to emails these days anyway. If I receive unwanted marketing, I mark it as spam and forget about it, so the separate tabs are unnecessary for me.

  2. Taylor

    This post makes me want to use Gmail again!


  3. hi Taylor

    my partner uses Outlook Express and integrates G-mail with it; he has not problems… issues such as priority or promo tabs are non existent… I hope more people will start using Outlook or an email client to better organize their inbox

    My partner says he cannot imagine life and business without Outlook… in the same way, others will not imagine there’s an alternative to web browser email… I guess at the right time, some will make the shift, while others will continue doing what works best for them, isn’t it?

  4. I found my way here due to an email that was in the promotions folder, so I guess this shows that email marketing still works.

    The best thing for me about the new tabs is that my phone will only ping when I have a personal message arrive, and once I’ve read that I can leave all the social & promotions until later. Like you’ve said this actually saves me time and is something I think is great.

    I’ve also realised that all some people do is pitch, so when you see that it is time to leave those lists.

    Once the dust settles the people who use email marketing correctly will be happier and get better results whilst those who think selling is more important than relationships may give up and blame gmail for their own failure.


    • Andrew – I’m with you on the phone app. I love that even if I check the screen from habit, it won’t show new email notifications unless they land in my primary tab.

      • After a day of hating the new tabs, I quickly realized how many crappy newsletters I was receiving, and the new tab system helped me unsubscribe and eliminate them. So I’m more productive, and quite a bit happier myself!

  5. Spot on as always, Taylor.

    The rush of panicking emails from some VERY big marketers hasn’t helped. A lot of them are advocating opting out of the tabs. I mean why would I want to opt out of something that is making my life easier?

    Instead of focusing on how bad the tabs are, let’s focus on making our newsletter more valuable. For new subscribers, all you have to do is direct them to a page that says “Hey, if you’re using Gmail, the confirmation email will probably land in your Promotions tab. Watch out for it and don’t forget to click the confirmation link because otherwise you won’t get the awesome report/ebook/downloadable I want to send you.”

    Just as we educated subscribers about the double opt-in, we can do the same for gmail tabs.

    As Tori Deaux puts it in this great post (http://www.circusserene.com/index.php/2013/07/the-great-gmail-freak-out-of-2013-an-open-letter-to-email-marketers), Gmail tabs are just another layer of permission marketing.

    • I agree that the VERY big marketers’ panicky emails haven’t helped the situation. Rather than take the time to learn what the new change means, they automatically assume their emails won’t get read and need to convince their readers to reject the change outright.

      Silly. If I wasn’t reading your emails before, I’m still not reading them now. If, on the other hand, I find your emails valuable, I’m not going to stop reading them just because they now reside a couple of tabs over…

    • Hi, Samar –

      Thanks for spreading the post around! I agree, a lot of the big marketers did themselves no favors with those emails, but it’s a little late to warn them off at this point. I do think that if you have been a Promotions type marketer in the past and want to change people’s perceptions of you, it’s a good idea to let them know you’re changing tack, but “do what I want because it’s better for me” is never going to work.

      • I had a couple of people email me today and say, “James? Your newsletter ended up in my Promotions tab… can you fix that?”

        No, I can’t – but YOU* can, as a user (as this post explains!) And the very fact you noticed the MwP newsletter was in the wrong place shows you DID read it – and want it in your Primary tab 🙂

        * You meaning general you, not YOU, you.

  6. Thank goodness someone finally said out loud what I’ve been thinking! I’ve received email after email from marketers telling me what a horrible thing this is and boo to Gmail for taking the control out of the users’ hands, blah, blah, blah. I guess they don’t know how self-serving they sound. They are in full panic mood over nothing.

    The promotions tab isn’t Siberia. It isn’t the trash can. I’m not going to somehow forget it’s there. I go through the email in all my tabs. I, for one, am a fan of the new tabs. They are useful.

    • I’m glad people agree with me! It’d be embarrassing if I was the only one.

      I understood the knee-jerk reaction, because it DOES seem scary at first glance, but I agree – those types of emails made people seem insecure and like they weren’t confident in the value of their content. And many are big names, people who theoretically should be above the fray. I was much more sympathetic with tiny businesses whose newsletters I receive, because they had a lot more to lose if this were as bad as their fears suggested.

  7. First thing I have to say here is, AMEN! I was floored at the number of big name marketers, as well as who they were, who are all but begging us to make sure we move their precious emails over a tab or close the tabs.

    I thought exactly as you did. Don’t you think if I want to keep getting something, I’ll figure out a way to do so? Am I not smart enough to figure it out? And if I don’t miss your email because it’s in the wrong tab, whose problem is that, mine or yours?

    I just may forward this link to the next provider of “helpful instructions” . Thanks!

    • Hey, please do. I’d like it to get around as much as all the posts about why the new tabs are the end of everything. And see my comments to Lisa and Samar above – I couldn’t agree more about what the reactions have done to various folks’ professional reputations.

  8. I use Outlook on my PC to read my Gmail, so I haven’t seen the new tabs and they’ve had no impact on me whatsoever. I took the responsibility a long time ago to categorize my incoming emails. I have message filters set up on Outlook that direct emails from specific addresses or on particular topics to named folders. I also use multiple Gmail addresses and email addresses on other domains to further help categorize my incoming emails, giving out each email address according to its purpose. The emails for all my addresses show up right inside Outlook, neatly categorized according to my desires. Works for me, but then, I don’t use my phone to read emails.

  9. Haha great post! I was totally freaking out about the new tabs, so thanks for putting me at ease 🙂

    • You’re welcome! I’m probably going to do a follow up on how to gently weasel your way into the Social tab if you’re worried you’ve been doing too much promo content and would like to change your strategy, so keep your eyes peeled. If you’ve been putting out great content for a while now, though, I think you don’t need to worry at all. It may even be good for your emails getting read more often, as I said. I hope you find that’s the case.

  10. Great blog, Taylor.

    The one thing that perplexes me is how Google can be “so smart” with these changes, but I still can’t “sort” by last name/alphabetical. Perhaps I missed a memo along the way. I don’t want to “search” in Gmail or have to type in someone’s name, but I just want to click “from” and have it sort for me. If anyone knows of a way to do this easily, please inform.


  11. Yair Spolter says:

    Thanks for this post, Taylor.
    Our emails are being categorized by Google as “Promotional” even though they are not promotional. We are not selling any product or service, and our website is completely free. Any idea what we can do to get back in the “Primary” tab?

    • Frankly, as I said above, you’re probably going to need to rely on your readers to get you into their Primary tabs. I’m making some outlandish guesses here, but I don’t believe the Google algorithm for deciding where your emails go has as much to do with your content as it does with the number of people who receive the same email from you. If that number’s high, they probably assume you’re promoting.

      While I don’t think Gmail is going to change that, you can try coaxing your readers if you want, but as I said above, your readers are going to judge for themselves where they want your emails to go. This is another outlandish guess, but I would imagine that Gmail keeps track of where people sort their emails, and if enough of them put your emails in the Social or Primary tab instead of the Promotions tab, you may wind up there automatically. I wouldn’t count on it, though. All you can really do is continue to provide good content for your reader and assume that they want to read it, and will move it to whatever folder will make it easy for them to do so.

  12. Hi Tylor!

    Interesting post, liked it 🙂

    I use Unroll.me and highly recommend it to everyone who has at least 1 newsletter in her/his mail!

    You can “read” all promotions in 1 place.

    – in “reading” I mean realization that 97,3% is BS and can easily unsub for life..

    I’m shocked when I see ppl still struggle with email overload.

    Here’s what helped me: every weekend I go through and check if ANY new, unwanted-unwaited-unexpected promotion arrived – and in Unroll.me I simply UNSUB.

    I killed email overload in less then a weekend. Gmail doesn’t drive me.

    I can see the real value in the mass.

  13. I’m not so worried about the tabs. I rely on a strong simple 3 to 4 word subject that oozes intrigue and interestingness. I then include clearly relevant information in the article and a link to a video. People don’t miss my messages. It works for my Calgary marketing needs. Kersten


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