Is Gmail’s Promotions Tab a Marketer’s Enemy?


The Gist

  • Tabs impact. Promotions tab placement doesn’t equal spam and doesn’t harm email deliverability.
  • Tricking algorithms. Manipulating Gmail’s tab placement algorithms can have severe consequences.
  • Sales generation. Landing in the Primary tab doesn’t necessarily lead to more sales or conversions.

Ten years ago, Gmail introduced inbox tabs, including the infamous Promotions tab. Among marketers, the development caused panic. You see, there were reports that open rates were slipping at Gmail, and marketers blamed the Promotions tab. To combat this shift, many major senders ran campaigns asking their subscribers to re-tab their emails from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab.

Fast forward to today and such requests are exceedingly rare. Most brands recognize — like it or not — tabs are here to stay. Indeed, having been copied by other inbox providers to various degrees, tabbed inbox interfaces are now common and highly accepted by and familiar to consumers. 

However, some senders continue to fight against tabs. So, here on the 10-year anniversary of Gmail Tabs, let’s talk about five truths about tabs, as well as some real new concerns.

1. The Promotions Tab Isn’t the Spam Folder

Just like the Social, Updates and other tabs, the Promotions tab is the inbox. Tab placement is a non-issue when it comes to email deliverability. Every tab is the inbox.

And when it comes to performance, an email that lands in the Promotions tab will perform exponentially better than one that lands in the spam folder. It’s not even remotely comparable.

The Gmailinterface menu for tabs, including the Gmail Promotions tab, the Primary tab and the Social tab.
The Gmail interface menu, including the Gmail Promotions tabPixieMe on Adobe Stock Photo

Related Article: 7 Factors That Determine Email Deliverability

2. Trying to Trick Gmail’s Tab Placement Algorithms Is Risky

Google doesn’t appreciate it when brands try to game their algorithms. It has a long history of handing out “manual actions” to punish brands that engage in blackhat and other manipulative SEO tactics. The Gmail team is just as punitive toward brands that try to manipulate their spam and tab placement filters.

The advent of generative AI makes it all the more tempting to try to circumvent Gmail’s pattern recognition engines. Rest assured that spammers and, in particular, phishers, will be looking to leverage GenAI for these purposes. And anytime you use the same tactics as spammers and phishers, you dramatically increase the likelihood of Gmail treating you the same as it treats them.

Related Article: Is Your Brand Trusted Significantly More Than ChatGPT?

3. Being in the Primary Tab Doesn’t Generate More Sales

The myth here is that emails landing in the Primary tab are opened more and therefore generate more down-funnel activity. This myth is pervasive because it’s half-true.

Having your emails land in the Primary tab instead of the Promotions tab can substantially boost open rates. We’ve seen this with our clients in recent years, during which Gmail has periodically had some tabbing algorithm malfunctions. Typically what we’ve seen is open rates jump as much as 100% higher. However, what we haven’t seen are bumps in clicks or conversions.

Essentially, when emails are out of place, subscribers often wonder what’s going on with the email and open it. However, it’s not because they’re any more interested in the email. They’re just curious. It’s exactly the same phenomenon as when brands write vague subject lines that are designed to attract curious subscribers instead of interested ones.

Thankfully, because our clients have solid permission practices, their emails haven’t experienced a significant increase in unsubscribes or spam complaints when this mis-tabbing happens. However, that is absolutely a risk of being in the Primary tab when you’re uninvited (as well as when you’re trying to lure subscribers into opening emails with vague subject lines that waste their time). 

Related Article: 4 Ways Brands Go Wrong With Digital Marketing Metrics

4. You Want Your Emails to Be Where Your Subscribers Expect Them

Back in 2013, in response to the wave of B2C brands asking their subscribers to move their promotional emails to the Primary tab, I wrote:

“When subscribers go to their Promotions tab, they’re in a buying mood…. They expect to find promotional emails and that’s what they get, one after another.


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