There’s Definitely a Way Out of Gmail Promotions and Into the Primary Tab.

But you’re not going to like it.

Let’s just get clarity on a key point, right from the top: the Primary tab is intended to be the place for personal, one-to-one correspondence, and for other mail that Gmail’s machine learning determines is personally important to the individual recipient based on that recipient’s historical interaction with mail from that same sender. That’s a very high bar for marketing mail sent in bulk, and it’s set there intentionally.

To get into the Primary tab, marketers must send mail that is at least as important to the recipients as any other message already in their Primary Tab.

That might not be the advice senders are hoping to hear, but it’s really the only meaningful way to think about Primary tab placement. There is no “one weird trick” that senders can use for instant results.

It’s well-past time for senders to recognize the time-shifted nature of the inbox. Long gone are the days of an interruptive model of marketing that more closely resembles pre-DVR TV or broadcast radio. Under that model, the viewer is briefly held hostage from the content they want by a commercial.

In the tabbed inbox, recipients are free from that kind of linear constraint. Messages are sorted by default according to relevance and context, not by the timestamp. Recipients are now arbiters of the context in which messages are viewed—the old, interruptive model no longer exists.

That means senders have to be ready to meet recipients when their recipients are ready and where they are most receptive to our messages. For most of us, that’s the Promotions tab, or sometimes the Updates tab for transactional mail.

If you’re interrupting the recipient in their Primary tab where they are managing and responding to personally important one-to-one correspondence with co-workers, family, and friends, you’re lucky to be merely ignored. You’re more likely to generate exactly the wrong kind of engagement.

If you’re less fortunate, you may squander a valuable, permission-based relationship with a recipient who is momentarily annoyed enough to unsubscribe. If you’ve caught them at a particularly inopportune time, you might inspire a spam complaint. If enough recipients are sufficiently ambivalent or annoyed with you, you may risk your ability to reach even your most engaged recipients reliably via e-mail.

For most senders, and for most of their traffic, the Promotions tab is exactly where you want to be, because that’s where your recipients want you to be. When they are ready for you, they will turn to you. It’s your job to be there when the time comes. Being where you’re wanted is good marketing.

The metrics agree: Senders who carefully groom their data and nurture relationships with their intended recipients regularly attain unique open rates of between 17% and 23% on average, straight from the Promotions tab. If they marry that data to topical, timely content and a predictable cadence, we have senders posting open rates reliably north of 30% on volumes in excess of one million messages every business day from the Updates tab.

Your messages can be important to your consumers without ever landing in the Primary tab. If it’s something they look forward to opening and reading almost as soon as it lands in the inbox, you’ll be too important to ignore.

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