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How I Got Out Of Gmail’s “Promotions Tab Jail” (And The Tools & Techniques You Can Use If You’re In There Too)
A couple of weeks ago I woke up to a nightmare scenario for any email marketer.
As I do most days, I tapped away to write an email I thought would be useful, interesting and fun for my subscribers. Job done, I shot off a test email to myself to make sure the links were all working.
5 minutes later, it hadn't arrived in my inbox. Another 10 minutes and it still wasn’t there. I sent another one.
Then I spotted a notification that there were new emails in my Gmail promotions tab.
Surely not? Surely my own emails that I read on a regular basis aren't going into my promotions tab?
But yes, they were.
According to Email Deliverability expert Chris Lang, you get an 8-10% increase in opens and clicks simply by being in the primary tab rather than the promotions tab on Gmail.
That's a huge difference. And it's a direct hit on your revenue if email is a key part of your marketing.
Lang estimates that Gmail runs about 40% of the world's email behind the scenes. In my case, since my clients tend to be smaller businesses it's probably higher.
So ending up in the promotions tab is bad, bad news.
So why was I in there and more importantly: what could I do to get out? I started looking around for answers.
There are four potential reasons why your emails might suddenly start going into the promotions tab (actually, the truth is it doesn't happen suddenly – you just notice it suddenly. Since every email users experience is different, the chances are that you've been drifting into more and more people's promotions tabs over time and now finally it's happened in a way that's made it visible to you).
The first potential reason is a Gmail algorithm change. These happen al the time. Just like with its search results, Google is constantly tweaking the algorithm for where it places emails in the inbox to try to improve the experience of it's users.
Generally, Gmail does a great job. I rarely get any spam.
But the decision on what to classify as promotional and what should go in the primary inbox is less clear cut. My emails are gently promotional, but contain a lot of value (at least I think so!).
Gmail has definitely been tightening its algorithm recently, and that might explain the change. But it doesn't help me get out of the promotions tab.
The second reason you might end up in the promotions tab or spam folder is because of the system you're using to send your emails.
The servers and domain your emails are sent from build up a “reputation” over time with email services like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo and others. If your email service is known for sending lots of spam or promotional emails generally, then that will damage your inbox placement.
This is the first reason many people jump to when they first have problems. They assume it must be a “deliverability issue” with their email provider (after all, they're probably not doing anything different themselves).
But the truth is that this is rarely an issue. All the big email marketing providers work on a regular basis to maintain their reputations with email services. They all have temporary blips, of course. But they simply wouldn't be around for a long time if they had consistent deliverability issues.
One quick way of testing out your email service provider is to check senderscore.org from Return Path.
You can put in the IP address of the servers your email is being sent from (look in the source of the email – for example by using “Show original” in Gmail). You'll see something like this which is from one of my test email addresses:
You can then put that IP address into senderscore.org to see the “reputation” of the server. It shows you an overall reputation figure – (ideally you want to be in the 90s) and it also highlights if there have been lots of recent spam reports and other factors for those servers.
Here's an example report:
The figures are just an indication and they show just one of very many factors that influence inbox placement. But if your email provider's score is below 80 I'd contact them to ask what they're doing about it.
In my case, the sender score of my Active Campaign server at the time was 97 – so it clearly wasn't that.
The third factor that can influence your inbox placement is, of course, the content of your email.
Gmail (and the other email providers) are trying to show the most relevant emails to their users. And one way they can look for relevance is by the content of the emails. At a simplistic level, there are words and phrases that indicate an email is spam (hopefully you won't be using any dodgy phrases about cheap watches and male enhancement pills!). But they also look for words that indicate promotional (but non-spam) content.
To some degree, you cant avoid this. Legally you're required to have an unsubscribe link in your emails, and the email services can use that to know that this is bulk email (along with the fact that it probably hits the inbox of hundreds or thousands of their users simultaneously). Emails with lots of images, or images and little text, or that talk about sales, discounts and ask you to “act now” will tend to be promotional ones, so the systems can pick up on that too.
So one thing you can do to try to help is to vary the content of your emails. Try not to use more than one image. Don't use words or phrases that are overly promotional (save those for the landing page you send people to). Have a decent amount of text in your emails (for example, most of the time I tend to have the content of my regular tips in the email itself rather than just doing a link to a blog post). Use your personal name rather than a generic business name as your From email address/name – and keep it consistent over time, don’t vary it. And don't put tons of links to all your social media profiles in your email. Keep it simple.
You can test the placement of your emails by setting up test email addresses on gmail, hotmail, outlook.com and other common email services and sending to them and tweaking your emails if needed before sending out to your full list.
An even better way of doing it is to use a service like G-Lock Apps. If you register for their service they'll give you a list of email addresses you can send to and they'll then monitor the inbox placement of emails you send and report it to you.
It will also give you a summary of your server's sender reputation (using senderscore.org) and the results of passing your email through various spam filters (Postini, used by Gmail, Barracuda, used by many corporate systems and Spam Assassin. it even shows you what Spam Assassin tests you passed/failed so you can adjust your email if needed).
In my case, my content passed all the spam filters, it wasn’t too short and it didn't have any overly-promotional messages in it.
But just like when I sent the test email to myself G-Lock Apps were reporting that my email was going to the Promotions tab.
So that leaves the fourth potential reason: your “user engagement”.
“Engagement” is one of those generic phrases that gets thrown about a lot. But in essence, what it means is that the big email systems monitor how much the people who receive your emails interact with them. Do they open them? Do they spend time reading them? Do they scroll down? Do they ever reply to them? Do they file them away in a folder for safekeeping? Do they add you to their contacts list? Do they drag your emails into their primary inbox tab?
Or do your emails just sit their unopened and unloved?
Each of the different email providers has their own metrics and ways of judging whether your emails are being engaged with. No one outside of those vendors knows exactly what they look for, but representatives from AOL, Comcast, Gmail and Outlook.com gave a decent overall picture at the Email Evolution conference last year.
The general message is that if, overall, your emails aren't being opened and read, then it's going to be harder for you to get in the primary inbox in future.
And “overall” means system-wide. If a lot of Gmail users don't read your emails, then it's likely that your emails will go to the promotions tab or even spam folder for all (or at least most) Gmail users – even if some of them do open and read your emails regularly. When Gmail is deciding where to place your email it looks at the previous level of engagement of that specific user with your emails AND your average engagement across all Gmail users you sent to.
So what can you do to increase your engagement score?
Well, firstly you can encourage your new subscribers to “whitelist” your emails on their system and to drag any they find in the promotions tab or spam folder to their primary inbox. The more that do that initially, the more likely you are to end up in the primary tab.
Secondly you can make your emails more “engaging”. Great subject lines that combine benefits with curiosity will get people to open your emails.
Great content will get people to spend time reading and scrolling your emails.
Asking interesting questions will get people to reply to you.
All of this increases what the email systems see as engagement.
Thirdly, you can practice good “list hygiene”. If your subscriber haven't opened or clicked any of your emails in a while, email then to ask if they're OK (I do this after 30 days and I get a lot of wonderful, genuine interactions as a result). If they still haven't opened or clicked anything after another 30-60 days, consider decreasing the frequency of your emails to them. That means that overall, your average engagement will be much higher because you're emailing the less engaged less frequently.
Note, for most people I don't recommend completely deleting contacts if they don't seem to be engaging. Firstly, open rates aren't that accurate so there could be some people who are opening and reading (though not clicking) your emails that show up on your email system's stats as not opening your emails.
Secondly, in the sort of businesses many of us are in, the buying cycle can be very long. I've had many customers who have been quiet for years because the timing just isn't right for them, then all of a sudden something has become an issue, they start reading the emails again, and then they buy something.
That happens far too often for me to just delete their emails if they don't take action for 60 days. So decreasing the frequency for non-responders gets me the best of both worlds. High average engagement so that my emails get good placement, but still sending emails to everyone who signed up ready for when they “wake up”.
Finally, you can run periodic “drag me out of promotions” campaigns – and that's what I did in this case.
I selected the segment of my mail email list whose email address was at gmail.com (this isn't all the Gmail addresses on your list – for example mine is at ianbrodie.com but uses Gmail behind the scenes. Nonetheless, it's enough to “move the needle”).
Then I simple emailed them a request to move my email into their primary inbox if they found it in the promotions tab. And because I don't like to ask for favours without doing something good in return, I included a link to get a free download of one of my very best reports on becoming seen as an Authority in your field.
I got lots of people clicking to download the report. A good number thanking me for I. And a good number emailing me back to say either they'd moved me to the primary tab or that, for them, I was already there.
But the big question: did enough people drag me out of promotions to ensure that next time I emailed, most people would get the email delivered to their primary tab.
Thankfully, for now at least, I'm out of Gmail Promotions Tab Jail!
Of course, I'll need to keep monitoring it, keep my emails high quality, keep asking people to whitelist me when they sign up.
And you can do the same. If you stay out of the promotions tab it'll make a big difference to how many people open and read your emails and ultimately, to how many people buy from you.