How To Land Your Emails In Gmail Primary Tab Easily

In this guide you’ll learn:

  • Which variables have a real impact for gmail primary tab placement
  • What can you do to increase chances of landing in gmail primary tab

Did you watch Doctor Strange?

Remember how they were able to move to other dimensions? Cool stuff, right?

That’s how I look at Gmail and it’s tabs.

Imagine primary tab is our dimension and other tabs are, well, other dimensions. They exist, but not so much visible as the one we are in. And it requires a little more effort to go there. In our case, that effort is clicking and checking out promo tab.

primary tab promo tab
I ended up in promo tab, woah!

OK, OK, I might exaggerate a bit, but you get my point. When an email lands into promotion tab, you don’t get any notification about new email and you must make a conscious decision to check that tab out.

So if we really want to increase chances that our email gets noticed by Gmail users, who are usually the majority of every email list, it’s best that it arrives in primary tab.

It still may not get opened, depending on your relationship with subscriber and your subject line, but at least it won’t be hidden in some other tab where everyone is fighting and screaming for users attention. And that’s what we’ll focus on today.

email attention
Heeey! Focus on me!

What are some factors that affect primary tab placement and is there any truth in them?

If you go around looking for solution, you’ll find a lot of the same(bad) advice. I won’t go over them in much detail, but here is what “gurus” will suggest you (and what I have to say about that).

  1. Don’t sell
    My thoughts – logically, if you are selling in your email it’s promotional, can’t really argue much here.

  2. Authenticate your domain with DKIM and SPF records
    My thoughts – if not set, you’ll usually see something like via serviceprovider next to senders name in email clients. Check this out for more info. This might be good idea to make your emails look more genuine and increase deliverability, but I don’t think it really impacts the Gmail’s primary tab placement that much.

  3. Greet recipient by name
    My thoughts – reason here is that it makes the email more personal. Meh! Not really that important in my opinion and certainly doesn’t mean that the email is coming from a real person just because it addressed your name.

  4. Have no more than one link in email
    My thoughts – what they are saying here is that personal emails usually don’t have a lot of links. I don’t know about you, but I do tend to send loads of links sometimes in my regular emails.

  5. Don’t include pictures
    My thoughts – <sarcasm>because real people don’t send a lot of images in emails</sarcasm>. People send lots of stuff with emails, it makes no sense to automatically place an email into a promo box if it contains a picture.

  6. Don’t use RSS campaigns
    My thoughts – I’m not sure about this one either, once the content is generated through your email platform, it’s just regular text and links, there’s no way I can tell if this was RSS generated or not, other than using my keen observation skills, which Gmail certainly doesn’t have.

  7. Keep the email short
    My thoughts – might be good practice, might not. This just depends on the way you communicate with your subscribers, doesn’t really tell that the email is promotional or not. We humans send long emails too.

  8. Don’t use heavy HTML
    My thoughts – you might be on to something here, we have lots of code behind this one which Gmail can easily notice. Learn more about light and heavy differences here.

Let’s do some testing

If we want to know what really triggers Gmail sending an email to the promotional tab instead of primary, we have to do some testing. For this test I used Mailchimp and I’ll explain why.

It’s the most popular email marketing platform, so Gmail and other email clients are well familiar with emails coming from that platform. They are always promotional by type, so I believe they will be the best indicator on what triggers Gmail tab placement. We’re playing this on hard mode.

Here is also a neat tool from litmus to use for your email tab testing. I suggest you use it in combination with your own email accounts for clearer results.

HTML heavy email

I’ll start with this format, as it’s probably the biggest indicator that the email is promotional type. So I created a very simple HTML email, with Mailchimp’s default template. Nothing too fancy, just an image and some text in a basic template. Where did it end up?

BAM! Right in the promotional tab

And here is how the email looked like

For some reason I’m craving for something sweet now…

OK, that was expected. Let’s try removing the image and see what happens.

Yup, still not hitting primary tab
HTML email with no image

Also notice how Gmail has marked my emails as important (with that yellow arrow thingy in inbox), but they were still sent to promotional tab.

Doing any other variations to this email type would be pointless, since this was the starting point for heavy HTML email, if these didn’t end up in primary tab, adding more “promo type” content definitely wouldn’t help.

Light HTML email

Even without many other variables, heavy HTML email ended up in promotional tab. You can notice I didn’t do DKIM and SPF authentication, but I’ll prove to you that it wouldn’t really matter.

So let’s move on with light HTML email, I’ll start with a simple message and move on from there.

I also want to add, if you are using Mailchimp, it’s generated footer may also trigger the promotional tab placement. This is specific for Mailchimp and if you’re wondering how to remove it from your emails, check this short guide.

Inbox preview
This is how simple HTML email looked like, no links or images, just text. Easy mode.

Also take note that even though I haven’t authenticated domain, email still landed in primary tab. We can cross that variable out completely as it’s not something that would affect the inbox placement.

Let’s raise the bar a little bit and try to sell with a salesy subject line

Making subject salesy didn’t do much

What would happen is I changed the content of the email and add some price signals and a styled link?

We’re still in primary tab captain
This was the content

OK, so we had salesy subject line. We had some more HTML elements in the email, like bullet points and stylized link. I even left Mailchimp’s badge in all the emails. If that doesn’t give away that the email is sent from an email marketing platform used for promotional emails, I don’t know what does!

Let’s try adding an image to our email and move forward from there, will it land in promotional tab?

Nope, still goes to primary tab
I really do want some panna cotta now

Raising the bar again. This time I added one more image and some links in, surely this is some kind of a promotional email.

But again, we are still in primary inbox…say what!?
Links, images, we have it all!

So far, we ran a lot of “promo” variables in our light HTML email. Yet the email casually landed in primary tab every time.

What would happen if I do one slight change in the content of the email and add in a price signal along with an image and links?

Yep, this one is trying to sell me something

So this was the last straw. Once I added in the price tag, along with links and an image, the email was placed in promotion tab.

Oh Gmail, you are pretty smart.

One last thing that made me curious was, would using RSS generated content really tell Gmail that the email is promotional? I don’t know, but to me, and to the email that lands in inbox, that’s just a regular content, there is no special code in there that says: “Hey, I’m RSS generated!”

So I added in some Mailchimp merge tags for automatic RSS content just to be sure we have that covered. Here is what happened with my email.

Hi, even though I had content from RSS, I’m still in primary tab
I also left the price and stylized link in there, just for kicks

So does it really matter? I added only one generated post in there. How about if I add more than one post, this will also result in a lot more text and more links.

My Gmail don’t care for RSS (cue the music)
Turns out, this doesn’t really matter

I’m not even going to go over the amount of text in email or greeting recipient by name. I’ve received walls of text in my primary inbox and it doesn’t really matter.

The length of an email doesn’t even have a best practice rule. Some will say keep the email short because people don’t have time and so on. Well guess what, if content in the email is valuable and I can’t read that content on the website, I sure as hell will read it in my email. Some people even prefer reading stuff in email, everyone is different and so is your audience. It’s up to you to find out what length fits best for your email content and your list.

Greeting someone by name might be a good practice and adds a little more human feel to it, but that’s it. It’s not going to make or break your email tab placement or even deliverability as such.


How smart is Gmail tab filter? Turns out it’s pretty smart, most of the promotional emails have those critical elements we saw in testing and we can say it’s doing a good job recognizing which are which.

To summarize it, here are the things that really have an impact on Gmail primary tab placement:

  1. Heavy HTML email (usually no matter what kind of content is inside)
  2. Combination of images, links and price tags

That’s about it. If your email looks like it’s selling something, you can be sure it will most likely be placed in promotion tab.

What can you do to have a promotional email, but still increase chances to land in primary tab?

Get creative and try different things. You can always send yourself a test email, or to multiple emails around the office and see where it will land. Try changing some of these variables and see what works and what doesn’t.

If you are running a big sale, try creating a simple email message with a link leading to a sales page on your website. This would work best for industries where there is a single service/product.

Run A/B test against an email with prices and images and see how your subscribers react. Do they really need images and prices to be enticed to click through or are they already familiar with your products and know that they’ll get a great deal?

Important bit

Make damn sure that every email you send has real value for your subscribers and be consistent with your sending days. That way even if your email is looking all fancy and ends up in promotion tab, your subscribers will know when to expect something good from you and will make that effort to click that promo tab and look for your email.

Because there is one more important thing that I couldn’t really test out, and that is user engagement.

Every Gmail user will have different interaction with your email and Gmail’s filter will take that into account when deciding where the email should be placed.

So once again, emphasis is on:

  • creating as much value as you can in your emails
  • be consistent with your send times
  • work on engagement with your subscribers.

Doing that, you’ll get to keep having nice looking on brand emails and still have good open rates.

Email is about building relationship with your subscribers and that’s what matters the most.