Why is your email landing in spam or promotions?
No, email doesn't hate you. Learn what's keeping you out of the inbox, and 6 things you can do about it.
By the end of this post, you'll know:
✔️ What the spam and promo algorithms are looking for
✔️ Which words and formatting traps to avoid
✔️ How to self-filter your emails for spam triggers
✔️ 6 Hacks to increase your chances of landing in the inbox
When it all began...
Anyone who's ever spent hours crafting the perfect email, only to have it wind up in Gmail's blasted(/blessed) promo tab knows the deal.
In 2013, Google launched their segmented inbox to improve user experience.
The improved Gmail inbox now consists of 3 main tabs:
Complex algorithms look for clues in each email to determine where it belongs. This helps users make sense of the onslaught of emails they receive.
While this was great news for users, it was frustrating for email marketers.
Suddenly, emails that used to land in the inbox were making their way to the promotions tab.
Simultaneously, the spam algorithms were getting smarter and recognizing more sophisticated triggers.
The end result: Lots of unseen emails.
As a longtime Gmail user, I like this division. As a marketer, I hate it.
While I don't believe in trying to outsmart the system for true promotions and sales, there are many nurture and branding emails that actually do belong in the primary tab.
Here's how to get them there.
What gets you ousted from the inbox?
The algorithms are looking for clues that you don't personally know the person you're writing to.
They're looking for anything:
❌ Salesy → "buy," "best price," "money back"
❌ Financially promising → "cash," "earn," "get paid," "$," "[numbers]"
❌ Sleazy → "do it today," "act fast," "limited time," "instant"
❌ Needy → "100%," "free," "free trial," "satisfaction guaranteed"
❌ Shady → "offshore," "income," "unsecured credit"
In short, anything that indicates you're out to sell or promote.
A few surefire triggers guaranteed to land you in the spam or promos tab (source).
HACK #1: Write like a friend
With the algorithms in mind, here's a good litmus test.
Ask yourself: would I send this to a friend?
If the answer is no, AI's probably smart enough to figure that out.
Here are some things you don't do when you send an email to a friend:
❌ Write "Hello" or "Friend" in the subject line
❌ Use ALL CAPS
❌ Include tons of images
❌ Include tons of links
❌ Use fancy HTML fonts
❌ Write a lengthy essay
❌ Invest heavily in the design
And if you don't do them in emails to friends, don't do them in emails to customers, either.
✔️ Keep your tone conversational
✔️ Write in lower case or sentence case (never title case)
✔️ Use images sparingly
✔️ Include no more than 2 links per email (including your unsubscribe link)
✔️ Use plain text
✔️ Personalize subject lines and body text (using merge tags)
✔️ Keep it short
✔️ Stick to simple design
You also want to avoid generic reply-to addresses like contact@___ or no-reply@___.
When email crawlers see that you're a real person, and that you're respectful of your recipients' inbox, they'll no doubt conclude you really do belong in their primary tab.
HACK #2: Create quality content
If you want Google to think you're sending out quality content, go ahead and send out quality content.
And yes, Google's smart enough to know the difference between quality content and spammy content that sticks in a lot of keywords.
HACK #3: Curate your list
Make sure each member of your list has willfully opted in. Using a double opt-in will ensure that they're interested in hearing from you, and will increase your open rate.
Adding people to your email list who don't want to be there is not only unethical, it's illegal in some parts of the world.
In addition to setting up a proper opt-in system, you'll want to regularly "prune" your list. A bounce rate exceeding 5% will flag you as a spammer.
To avoid reaching that death-sentence status, track your bounce rate. Remove any members whose emails regularly bounce, and consider sending an "you still in?" email to members who consistently don't open your emails.
HACK #4: Send from a unique domain
When your sender domain matches your recipient's domain, you might get flagged as promotions or spam.
So if you're sending from Gmail (even via an email marketing platform), you're likely to end up in spam or promotions for any of your Gmail-using list members.
That's true even if you're doing everything right.
If you do have a custom domain, be sure to authenticate it to avoid being labelled a spammer.
Use a double opt-in, include a physical mailing address, and avoid attachments to increase your chances of landing in inbox heaven (source).
HACK #5: Swap out spammy words for non-spammy alternatives
Sometimes you need to use spam trigger words in your emails.
Try replacing them with non-spammy words that don't compromise the meaning.
For example, free = no cost. Money = bucks/dinero/smackeroos.
A little creativity goes a long way.
HACK #6: Self-check for spam and promo triggers
Here's an effective way to get to the bottom of what's landing you in spam or promos. A bit tedious, but effective.
Write your email and send yourself a test.
If it doesn't hit the inbox, change the subject line to something generic like "Subject line" and re-test.
If it still doesn't hit the inbox, you can put the subject line back. Now remove an image. Re-test.
Now remove all images. Re-test.
Still not hitting the inbox? Re-insert the images. Now delete one paragraph and re-test.
Repeat until you find the problematic paragraph.
Isolating the trigger is the hard part. Once you've done that, it's easy to rework or delete the problematic element.
In short, be a human. Communicate like a human. And your emails will end up in the primary tab.
That's all there is to it!