The New Gmail Inbox: How It Works and Why Email Marketers Should Pay Attention

Ginny Mineo
Ginny Mineo



When I use my email, I’m a control freak. I label and color-code almost every email I get -- for both personal and work email addresses. My inbox is regularly at zero -- not because I don’t have emails to respond to, but because upon getting an email notification, I immediately file it away into my “Needs Response,” “To Remember,” or another descriptive label. I’ve even enabled Gmail’s “Multiple Inboxes” feature so that I can monitor labels on the side of my inbox and still see incoming emails. 

Is this a little neurotic? You betcha. But this obsession with filtering and control saves me a ton of time wading through the mess that is my email inbox.Download our free email productivity guide here for even more time-saving  email management tips. 

Then, at the end of May, my beautiful inbox organization was needed no more. Gmail announced a new layout where email messages are automatically filtered into (at most) five different categories. Here’s what the inbox looks like in action:

So you can imagine my reaction when I took the plunge with Gmail’s new inbox. Personally, I was a bit frustrated, but mostly pumped. Even though the labels I had worked so hard to create and maintain wouldn’t be relevant, I’d have a “smart” inbox that could learn which emails should go where -- automatically. Automation and control, yay!

But, as a marketer, I got nervous. Did this mean that I’m going to have to work doubly as hard to have my hard-earned leads see my emails?

After a month and a half, the data is a still inconclusive. On the one hand, my fellow HubSpotter Evan Murphy looked at aggregate data from all our customers' email sends and found one answer: HubSpot customers saw an average of 58.9% more email opens and 63% more unique email opens in June than May after the new feature was rolled out. On the other hand, MailChimp found that open rates decreased three weeks in a row after the new layout was launched ... so it's pretty much up in the air whether this new layout helps, hurts, or doesn't affect email marketers at all.

No matter what, marketers should pay attention. Gmail's new inbox layout isn't the only type available, but with the buzz it’s gained this past month it certainly should cross the minds of email marketers. Considering Gmail has more than 425 million active users, it’s incredibly important that inbound marketers know how the email service’s layout and functionality work and how they may affect how people see your email -- especially if Google continues to iterate on the design and functionality of their inbox.

How Does the New Inbox Work?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the marketing pros and cons of the new Gmail layout, let's figure out how this darned thing works! To enable the new inbox you can do two things: 1) Wait for Gmail to automatically switch you (like some of my annoyed colleagues) or 2) If you’re impatient (like me), click “Configure Inbox” under the gear icon in the top right corner.


Then, you can choose which tab categories you’d like to display. Here’s what appears in each category:

  • Primary: Google gives this tab the highest priority in the inbox layout. Appearing first, it features messages from family, friends, and contacts that don’t appear in any other tab. It also can feature starred messages.
  • Social: Messages from any sort of social site you use. Expect emails from social networks, dating websites, and gaming platforms to appear here.
  • Promotions: Your marketing emails will most likely appear here. This is where any deals, offers, and any other promotional email will go. (If you’re a HubSpot blog subscriber, for instance, chances are your subscriptions will appear here.)
  • Updates: Automatic notifications of bills, statements, and reminders. Most likely, your airline reservations and your monthly credit card statements will appear here.
  • Forums: Messages from any forums or discussion groups you participate in will be featured here.

And here's what it looks like in action:


Of course, when you first enable the inbox tabs, it won’t be perfect. Some messages will get put in the wrong bucket. Lucky for us, you just have to drag and drop a message to appear in another folder -- and you can even tell Gmail to always send emails from that sender into another folder.


With a little bit of direction, your Gmail inbox will learn which messages should appear where.

Oh, and if you’re a label-freak like me, your messages will still get filtered into categories you have set up -- you just can’t use one of the inbox tabs as a label anymore.

All in all, pretty cool update, right? 

So … What’s in It for Marketers?

You’ve already bought into the whole inbound marketing methodology, so you know that today’s buyer has all the power in the marketing relationship … but historically, email hasn’t made it easy for consumers to embrace their power. People had to manage the fire hose of information targeted at their inbox alone. Filters, labels, stars, reminders … you get the picture. With all of the information bombarding your email subscribers, chances are, they felt a little less powerful than before.

With the new Gmail feature, the email control goes right back where it belongs -- in the arms of your leads and customers. With only a little up-front work, they can start engaging with the emails that matter to them.

If you're doing lovable email marketing, that’s great news for you. When people choose to go to a certain tab, they're already open to receiving your message. They are actively seeking that type of message out instead of wading through a billion irrelevant messages in the general inbox. Plus, you’re not trying to compete for attention with emails from your subscriber’s best friends, family, and social networks. 

Bonus: Gmail’s filtering is smart, so once your subscribers engage with your email, the more likely they are to appear in the coveted “Primary” tab. Also, if your email subscribers are into doing a little up-front work, they’ll never miss one of your emails again. All they have to do is click and drag your emails to the correct tab, and choose to always filter those messages in that folder. 

But, It’s Not Perfect 

So your email contacts have more control over their inbox clutter. No longer will they have to wade through their inbox to get your highly personalized, engaging emails, right? Basically, inbound marketing heaven.

Not exactly. While you’re competing with less messages overall, you’ll most likely have more content to compete against in the “Promotions” tab because of the way Gmail's new ads are being displayed. Before, Gmail’s ads were small text banners scattered around the inbox layout. Now, they look even more like emails -- right at the top of your “Promotions” tab, you’ll sometimes see an email that’s highlighted in yellow and marked as an ad. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s not clear how people react to these ads since they are only rolled out to select users now. This ad layout reminds me of the current search PPC ads – and those, most people gloss right over. But I’m not convinced that people will do the same in the new Gmail “Promotions” inbox -- they have at least four other filters they can visit to ignore the ads. Will people just stop going to the “Promotions” tab altogether to “opt-out” of a rather invasive ad experience? If so … your content could get ignored. No good.

How You Can Make Sure Your Emails Get Noticed

Even though we have data showing that this new inbox layout may be increasing email opens, I know you want to really make sure your emails aren’t getting lost in an inapplicable tab. These two tips are ALL up to your email subscribers to do, so you might want to let your subscribers know how they can stay up-to-date with your emails in Gmail. (Or, maybe forward this post via email to a colleague or tweet it to your followers ;-)

If They Want to Make Sure Your New Emails Appear in a Certain Tab

Like we said earlier in this post, it’s easy to train Gmail to always put an email from a certain sender in a specific folder. Show them how easy it is -- all you have do is click and drag the email to the correct folder and then be sure that you select that action for future messages:


This works for any of the tabs selected (including Primary) -- but it doesn't work for past messages. If you need the step-by-step, feel free to point your subscribers to the screenshots above. 

If They Want to Organize Your New and Old Emails to Appear in Their “Primary” Folder

If your email subscribers want your emails to automatically appear in their primary tab as well, there’s a really quick hack you can do, courtesy of our aforementioned HubSpot email expert Evan. With a simple filter, you can automatically star messages from certain senders -- which will automatically send them to your “Primary” tab if you follow the right steps. Here’s how you do it:

1) Click the gear icon in the top right corner, select “Configure Inbox,” and then check the box “Include starred in Primary.” Then, click “Save.”


2) Click the gear again, then choose “Settings.” Once you’re in Settings, select “Filters.” At the bottom, click “Create New Filter.”


3) Type the email address of the sender you want to receive in your “Primary” inbox tab in the “From” box. Then, click “Create filter with this search.”


4) Select “Star it” and “Also apply filter to matching conversations” to enable past and future emails to go to your “Primary” tab.


Then, ta-da! Your emails will appear in the “Primary” inbox tab.

So the moral of the story here is that the new Gmail inbox layout could help you engage your subscribers more than ever before … but, it’s still up to you to create amazing, engaging, and lovable email content

Have you switched over to the new Gmail inbox? Share your impressions with us -- as a user and as an email marketer -- in the comments. And don’t forget to add HubSpot blog updates to your “Primary” folder to always get our posts in your inbox. ;-)

Image credit: opacity

free email productivity tips


Related Articles

We're committed to your privacy. HubSpot uses the information you provide to us to contact you about our relevant content, products, and services. You may unsubscribe from these communications at any time. For more information, check out our Privacy Policy.

Outline your company's marketing strategy in one simple, coherent plan.

Marketing software that helps you drive revenue, save time and resources, and measure and optimize your investments — all on one easy-to-use platform