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How to stand out in the Gmail Promotions tab

How to stand out in the Gmail Promotions tab Pascale Guay

Mark Brown wrote an article on iMedia Connection earlier this year, describing three different types of email marketing messages that no longer work with consumers. I completely agree with Mark's notion that emails need to be personalized and one-of-a-kind or they simply won't get opened. Marketers have to be on the ball when sending emails and learn how to stand out. What's more is that email providers are now segmenting marketing messages, increasing the challenge that marketers face in trying to make a genuine connection with their existing customers and target market.

What am I talking about? The Google Mail Promotions tab. With over 500 million email users, Gmail leads the pack when it comes to email innovation and user experience. In 2013, the email provider launched a separate tab for promotional emails that were no longer part of the main inbox. Google enforced this segmentation for its own advertising purposes, but also to improve the user experience. While this shift initially sent marketers in a frenzy, we're seeing the impact of the Promotions tab and marketers are learning how their messages can stand out within it.

What impact has the Promotions tab had?

Screenshot of Gmail Promotions tab taken July 21, 2015

Today, 40 percent of Gmail users don't enable the Promotions tab. This means that promotional emails will be blended into the everyday email experience of the user, or what is listed as "Primary" in the screenshot above. Similarly, Google has not launched their segmentation feature everywhere. For example, if you configure Gmail using the native application on your smartphone, you will see mail from Primary, Social, and Promotions are merged. The merged view is just like the old days of sifting through a bunch of sales pitches to get to important business or personal mail. Removing this merge from the desktop experience scared marketers a lot. They thought that if it was hard to get marketing emails in the merged view, it must be impossible in the Promotions tab. Initially marketers asked their subscribers to just move their branded email-blasts over to the inbox so their messages wouldn't get stuck in the Promotions tab. Unfortunately, this didn't take off with users.

Lucky for marketers, the Promotions tab has not drastically reduced open rates. Rather, emails are more likely to get delivered in the Promotions tab, rather than getting blocked by the spam filter, and users can make the choice of when they want to be "sold to." Even better for the user, having marketers compete against each other in one segmented message stream means that the quality of campaigns has increased. The notion of direct competition stacked one on top of the other within a segmented tab of messages, means the only way to reach the user and get them to open your email is to stand out.

Stand out and make the best of the Promotions tab

In order for marketers to make their mark on desktop email users who have ventured into the Promotions tab, they have to get agile. Be prepared to test, tweak, rinse, and repeat a number of times as you start your journey towards segmented email marketing optimization. Start with the subject line as a place to test open rates using different phrase-formulas and calls-to-action. For example you may find that offering an unbeatable deal works:

Screenshot of email in Promotions tab taken July 21, 2015

Keep in mind that too many capital letters in the subject line may set off spam filters -- and at the same time, that this formula might not work for every business. If that's your case, it's back to the drawing board. Next time you may decide that instead of selling, your audience is more concerned with learning from you. So you plan to host a webinar and email your subscribers to solicit sign-ups. Here you can make use of brackets to stand out in the Promotions tab and indicate to readers that this is a learning opportunity for them and you're not selling anything:

Screenshot of email in Promotions tab taken July 21, 2015

In the example above, you could replace the word "Webinar" in the brackets with any other type of resource you're providing your audience, such as [Whitepaper] or [eBook]. Using these brackets, you can also include your name or another word you would like to emphasize.

Screenshot of email in Promotions Tab taken July 21, 2015

A recent post by Emily Alford on Clickz also emphasized the importance of making use of snippets to stand out in the Promotions Tab. For example, after the subject line above "[Webinar] 4 Pillars of SEM Success," you can see that it says "Join us for a Free Webinar!" immediately following. This is another opportunity to communicate key information to subscribers about whatever it is you're promoting and another small way you can stand out.

Of course you can always get personal as well by using the person's name alongside a strong call-to-action.

Screenshot of email in Promotions Tab taken July 21, 2015

Using a subscriber's first name as a way to personalize the email, has been proven to increase open rates: Our data tells us that without personalization, the open rate is 27.96 percent. With personalization, this increases to 30.1 percent, and if this personalization includes the reader's first name, the open rate goes up to 30.22 percent.

You may also find that the number of characters in your subject line affects the amount of people who open your email:

Image taken from Dialog Insight Academy.

But the fun doesn't stop at character-perfect, compelling subject lines that pop and drive open rates -- getting your audience to open the email is only half the battle. Even though you've tested and optimized your subject lines, the actual email itself has to go through the same agile process to get people to perform the desired action that the email requests. This time, though, you have to go back to the email-marketer's science of what makes a good email. Keep in mind though that in the Promotions tab, you're likely up against other major brands who know how to write a catchy subject line and how to format a good email.

I wrote a blog post in January about how to format an email to increase your click-through rates. In it, I go into detail about how important it is to have one clear call-to-action positioned properly on the page and to draw attention to it. You can also dive into tools and techniques for formal A/B testing until you get a winning email format. Most email marketers will tell you to keep testing though even when you think you've nailed it.

Social media guru, Jay Baer, says (with wit for how basic this advice is but is forgotten everyday) that the way to stand out in the Promotions tab is to send people messages they actually want to read, because "relevancy trumps delivery method." The way to do this, he says, is to actually poll or ask your subscribers if they enjoyed this message/offer from your branded email, and based on your audience's feedback, you should modify accordingly. He says that comparing desktop user open rates between your segmented Gmail subscribers and other email-provider subscribers will let you know if it's the Promotions tab that's hurting you or your actual email marketing technique.

You can also increase the number of promotional email interactions you send to ensure that you're always at least near the top of the Promotions tab and more likely to get a click if all the other components of a good e-blast are in place. In the end though, if you over-promote, you risk turning off your subscribers. 

Be unique, be agile, and be responsive

Sometimes there is no way to trick the system, and the quality of your product or service and your ability to communicate that is the only thing that will improve your performance in the Promotions tab. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to standing out in the Gmail tab. Your audience is unique and will respond differently than another product or service market. So to each (email marketer) their own, but do keep testing until you get those open rates and click-throughs up.

Many brands and email marketers are doing just fine despite the segmentation because they took the time to figure out what their audience responds to and then adapted to that. In the future, we expect that Gmail will continue to refine our mail experience and create new segments for emails related to different subjects, like travel for example. We'll still be here testing and touting what works best when we have to cross that bridge, just like we did when the Promotions tab came in.

Pascale Guay is president and CEO at Dialog Insight

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Pascale Guay has over 15 years of experience in business development and relational marketing. She manages the strategy counselling services offered to more than 300 major clients at Dialog Insight. She also actively collaborates with clients,...

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