Lately, I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in 2013 again. But not because it was such a memorable year.

No, I’m stuck in 2013 because many of the small, mid-market and enterprise marketers I’ve been speaking with over the past month are fretting over Gmail’s Primary tab, which was the big burning issue that year.

Suddenly, I’m 11 years younger, my hairline is half an inch lower and I’m telling marketers who ask me for advice or joined my recent two-day SMX Master Class why they shouldn’t freak out when their email campaigns go to the Promotions tab.


Gmail introduced Tabs in 2013, and the email marketing world exploded.

Tabs were a radical concept. Gmail started sorting inbound emails into five tabs: Primary, Social, Promotion, Updates and Forums. I spent an insane amount of time reassuring retailers that the sky was not falling and the email world wasn’t about to end just because their messages landed in the Promotions tab.

But what did I hear? “Don’t put me in the Promotions tab! Put me in the Primary tab because I want my messages to stand out.”

So now I’m hearing this same freak-out, and my answer is the same as it was in 2013:

“Why do you want to beat the algorithms and force your messages to go where people might not want to see them?”

Everybody wants their emails to show up in the Primary tab. Why? In my Gmail, that’s where my mom’s emails go, along with other emails from my personal life.

The Primary tab is where people look first for the emails that are most important to them. Senders assume that putting their emails in the Primary tab will make them appear as important as emails from Mom.

That didn’t happen in 2013. And it’s not happening today, not even for emails from brands I love.


The Promotions tab is not Death Valley

Let’s clarify one thing: The Promotions tab is probably where you want your commercial emails to appear. When your customers look at the Promotions tab, they are, consciously or subconsciously, in the mood to shop or connect with the brands they care about and advocate for.

They might not be in shopping mode in the Primary inbox. They might even resent having to comb through marketing emails to find the messages they want.

I don’t know what’s driving this resurgence of questions about the Primary tab. Maybe somebody published a LinkedIn post or Slack note that says emails have to be in the Primary tab to be seen.

That’s how marketers try to rationalize their fear when I ask them why they’re so worried about which tab their emails go to.

Or they say, “My engagement rates are down, and I need to change where my email shows up because 65% of my list is Gmail addresses.”

I have to restrain myself from replying, “You’re full of crap.” (Because they aren’t, of course; they just don’t understand how Gmail works.)

So here’s the nicer version: Your engagement rates are down because your messages don’t resonate with your customers. You’re finally seeing the consequences of relying solely on “one to many” campaigns.

When will bulk email senders finally realize they have to adopt more sophisticated tactics like segmentation and personalization so they can send messages that appeal to each customer’s interests and activities regardless of the tab they land in?

That’s it. Full stop.

Companies don’t want to do the hard work of increasing our sophistication. They want to focus on the easy path. Successful email marketers will tell you they didn’t get there by blasting their lists with “one to many” emails.


3 sustainable ways to get your email seen in Gmail

Using tricks or shortcuts to reach the Primary inbox is not an email strategy but a hack.

So, let’s look at how you can achieve greater sophistication and relevance in your email messages. That’s what will get your email seen and acted on.


1. Add, update and modify your segmentation plan

Is this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. We talked about it in 2013. And before then. And since then. Segmentation has a track record. Here are two applications:

Changed engagement: In 2013, I was flying about 120,000 miles a year. I was on a plane or in a hotel 50% of the year. I wanted as many airline miles on my credit card as I could get. So, I opened every email from American and United and looked at every mileage offer.

Today, I don’t travel as much, but I’m still interested in mileage offers and open airline emails regularly.

Consistent engagement: I open emails from Woot! every day and read them over my morning coffee. I buy regularly from its massive inventory of here-today-gone-tomorrow bargains and closeouts. This makes me a highly engaged loyalist.

Using customer activity data in segmentation: American Airlines and Woot! data show I am a superfan. They don’t need tricks like badgering me to move their emails from Promotions to Primary.

But not everybody cares as much as I do about these brands. My wife cares more about Nordstrom emails than I do. That’s OK because these brands likely have a segment for these customers. Responsible marketers develop segments for these different kinds of customers.

Segmentation must be a cornerstone of your email program: You might even have a basic segmentation plan now. But does it recognize engagement? Does it include economic indicators like what people buy, how often they buy and whether they buy full-price or wait for discounts?

If you don’t do some segmentation or update that segmentation every six months, you could make mistakes that reduce engagement and keep your emails from standing out in the inbox.

You might need to change your frequency (how often you email) and cadence (which intervals you send emails). You could overestimate customer engagement or miss clues that a key segment is burning out.

Ask yourself, “How accurate is my segmentation?” Check how long it has been since you updated it or added new segments.

Segmentation is meaningless if you don’t use it. Does your messaging reflect your segmentation? When did you last change your message content to reflect new or modified segments?

2. Allow customers to opt down

If you aren’t sure about engagement (because your open and click rates don’t give you the whole picture), give customers an opt-down instead of unsubscribing.

An opt-down on your unsubscribe page lists options for changing frequency or switching to different topics or merchandise categories. Use it to gauge how well your emails resonate with your audience aside from counting opens, clicks and conversions. Look for patterns, such as which messages generate more opt-down link clicks or requests.

The opt-down also introduces a new engagement metric: the save rate. This is the number of people who click on your unsubscribe link but choose to opt down instead.

3. Make a stronger case for investing in email

When prepping for my SMX Master Class, I pulled out slides that were 14 years old. All I had to do was update the slide with new creative. My directions and strategy recommendations were still fresh.

And that’s sad! It means we’re still talking about issues that were hot buttons back in 2010 and 2013 when people thought of it as the cheap and easy channel.

Email, when done right, is neither cheap nor easy. And yes, marketers continue to battle a lack of time, money and respect within their organizations. Marketers are just trying to get campaigns out the door, so sophistication takes a back seat.

I argued back then, and I am still arguing today, that we must show our success and sell email on its merits because email still has the highest ROI of all marketing channels.

Through incremental innovation (which I have talked about since before 2013), we take advantage of slower times to work on a new segmentation plan, add automations or find a tweak that could bring in a small increase that we could build on to create something bigger.

We also face new challenges this year. We’ve already seen what Google and Yahoo! Mail (a.k.a. GooHoo) did with stricter sender authentication requirements.

These efforts make us prove we deserve to be in their users’ inboxes. We can also expect new definitions of spam and engagement on these platforms.

We also expect AI will give ISPs new ways to determine subscriber engagement and give us a gateway into providing more relevant messages.

Email cannot survive if we keep clinging to 20th-century strategies that don’t reflect the realities of email now that we are almost halfway through the third decade of the 21st century.

The sustainable path for email

Whoa. That turned into a rant, but you know what? It felt good — cathartic, even. I might just take the rest of the day off. Realistically, however, I’ll be reworking this advice into conversations with marketers all year.

As I said, an email marketer’s job is tough. However, I also look at the ROI charts for every company I have worked with over the last 25 years. Email is still at the top.

Nobody will advocate for email if you don’t. Send this article to your boss. Post it on Teams, Slack and LinkedIn. Do what you must to get your executives, management and team to recognize that email requires more investment.

Originally posted on