Increase Your Email Campaign Open Rates by Targeting Gmail’s Primary Tab

The Gmail Promotions tab

Awhile back, Gmail introduced a new user interface, part of which included a new inbox tab feature.

By default, every Gmail account will have these three tabs active:

  • Primary — person-to-person conversations, and emails that don’t fit under other tabs.
  • Social — emails from social networks and websites.
  • Promotions — offers, deals, and general marketing type emails.

Google then employs various algorithms (and probably AI) to automatically determine which tab an incoming email should fall under.

As we discovered, crafting your emails so they land in the primary tab for Gmail can drastically affect open rates.

An Example

As we’ve been building our product, we’ve also been building our email list, sending out newsletters every month or so. Those signing up to our list are offered access to our beta platform, so we’ve experienced pretty good open rates of right around 50% for each newsletter.

The open rates of our first three newsletters

One particular newsletter though, with the subject line of ‘7 days till Beta launch!’, only received a 33.7% open rate.

The open rate of the newsletter that was labeled a promotion by Gmail

We were wondering what the heck was going on, because this should technically be one of the more interesting emails we’ve sent.

After checking the Gmail inbox of one of our test accounts, we found the answer.

This particular newsletter was showing up under the ‘Promotions’ tab for Gmail users

What was happening is that particular newsletter was being labeled as a promotion by Gmail, and as such, was being placed under the Promotions tab. Since we have a lot of Gmail users on our list, a good number of them never saw our newsletter simply because it was under that tab.

We quickly realized that this was most likely due to having the phrase ‘7 days till…’ in the subject line of the email.

For our next newsletter, we made sure not include any promotional type keywords or phrasing anywhere, and we were back near our normal 50% open rate.

How to Target the Primary Inbox

While there is no way to guarantee all of your emails end up under the primary tab, there are some steps you can take to help increase your chances.

1. Avoid promotional type keywords and phrases.

7 days till…, 50% off…, Win $1,500 in FREE…, Limited time offer…

Just sounds promotional, right?

Try crafting your email subject line and body so it’s much more personal to who you’re sending to. If you have their first name for instance, this would be great to include at the top with a simple ‘Hi [name],’.

2. Avoid using too many images.

Those emails from Old Navy look amazing, but heavy use of embedded images isn’t usually something your friends would send to you.

Limit the number of images you use to just one or two at the most, if you use any at all.

3. Avoid heavy design via HTML and CSS.

An email that contains a lot of HTML and CSS is probably trying to be visually appealing. In turn, it’s pretty safe for Gmail to think it might be promotional in nature.

While it may not feel right sending a bland, minimalistic email, it may result in higher open rates and ultimately more conversions.

4. Only use one or two links.

Having too many links can also be a red flag. Limit the links you include to just one or two.

Also, try not using any anchor text. For example, when you include the link in your email, just copy and paste the raw URL instead of using the ‘Insert Link’ tool to modify the display text.

Other ways

This post on Quora goes a lot more in depth as to what the algorithm might be looking at.

MailChimp also explains a workaround by having your users manually move your emails to their Primary tab. Since most probably won’t end up doing this though, we feel it would be better focus on the email itself first.

Importance of Landing in the Primary Inbox

We haven’t been able to split test this directly, but we believe there’s a good chance this method can not only improve your open rates, but your conversion rates as well. This is especially true if you’ve been sending out a lot of promotional-looking emails to your list.

The reason could be that a lot of people nowadays are used to marketing. If an email comes across as a clear promotion, there’s a chance a large number of the users on your list will just skip it entirely. Those that do read it may then be turned away by use of heavy design elements, which can give off a promotional type feel.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t send beautiful emails. If you can mix the two though, a beautiful (yet minimal) email that looks, feels, and contains a message that is much more personal, you might see better results on your campaigns.

Share Your Results

We’re really interested to hear how this works out for you if you decide to try it with one of your campaigns. If you do, send us an email or leave a comment below and let us know!

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