Understanding Gmail's tabbed inbox

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You will learn

Learn about Gmail's tabbed inbox, and key considerations to help you land in the primary inbox.

Google uses its own complex system to scan and automatically sort incoming emails. While this sorting process is powered by algorithms that are not made public, as an email marketer, you may be concerned about how Gmail's approach to inbox management impacts your marketing strategy.

In particular, there are two key things to consider:

  • Inbox placement
    The successful placement of your email in a recipient's inbox
  • Spam filtering
    The placement of your email in a recipient's spam folder

Inbox placement

Inbox Placement Rate (IPR) is typically a benchmark for the percentage of your sent emails that are successfully delivered to a recipient's inbox, in contrast to those that bounce or are blocked. Inbox placement can also refer to where an email lands in an inbox after it is successfully delivered.

With Gmail's tabbed inbox, emails can land in any of the following tabs: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, or Forums.

Gmail inbox showing primary, social, and promotions tabs

Gmail's algorithms are designed to make it easier for users to sort through an otherwise crowded inbox, so important emails have high visibility. For email marketers, this can seem problematic if Gmail starts sorting your emails into a tab where they may be ignored.

Four months after the widespread rollout of tabs left marketing messages a click removed from personal email, consumers continue to read them at roughly the same levels as before.  - Return Path, The Tabbed Inbox

Studies done on the topic show that open rates for marketing emails landing in the Promotions tab did not experience a rapid decline and the observable change was slight. In fact, marketers might even be better off because emails that now find a safe place in the Promotions tab may have otherwise been blocked or filtered to the spam folder prior to Gmail's tabbed inbox.

Don’t panic about the promotions tab

While evidence suggests there is no reason to panic over landing in Promotions, what if you still really want to end up in the Primary tab?

Gmail users themselves can alter the default sorting system by moving an email from one tab to another and electing to have Google always put messages from a specific sender in the tab of their choice. If this is important to you, you can make an appeal to your audience by asking them to drag your newsletters over to their Primary tab for easy access to your brand messaging. You cannot, however, pre-determine which tab your messages will fall into and Klaviyo has no control over inbox placement after an email is successfully delivered.

Typically, if emails are personalized, they will automatically be sorted in the Primary inbox. Fewer personalized emails tend to end up in the Promotions tab. Gmail's Promotions tab is truly designed to catch marketing emails, so consider the following:

  • Watch your text to image ratio: taking an image-heavy approach to email design can impact inbox placement. Spam filters are also suspicious of emails comprised mostly of images.
  • Avoid RSS feeds: some sources show that emails with RSS feeds tend to land in Promotions.
  • Avoid overuse of links: when you do hyperlink text, make sure no links are broken.
  • Personalize, personalize, personalize: Klaviyo makes it easy to personalize your emails. For example, insert a first name into an email with a fallback if you don't have a name on file.

If you already use Klaviyo to optimize your content for strong engagement— by only sending personalized and highly targeted emails— then you shouldn't live in fear of the Promotions tab. However, you might still be curious about where your emails end up for the majority of your Gmail recipients. While there is no way to see which tab your emails are going to (as this is dependent on the personal inboxes of your recipients), tools like Litmus can help.

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