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Optimising Your Email Marketing Strategy for Apple iOS & Gmail Tab Updates

July 11 - 2024

Digital Insight 5 min read

Why changes to the inbox layout shouldn’t cause panic for marketers who have been following deliverability best practice

Email marketing is one of the most effective routes to reaching audiences, but it also requires ongoing adaptability to keep up with changes and new features dropped by the world’s largest email service providers (ESPs). 

If your content isn’t somewhere a customer will easily see it, you’re fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. That’s why any changes made by ESPs that affect how successfully your messages reach a customer’s inbox are always worth your time and attention. 

Apple’s recent announcement that tabs would be introduced to Apple Mail with iOS 18 may have caused a stir with some marketers – but we’re here to explain why tabs aren’t the death sentence you may think they are. 

We’ve got experience to prove it, too, thanks to Gmail introducing its tab layout in 2013, and further expanding this setup with the addition of Updates as a default tab in 2024. When first launched, email marketers panicked about the ‘promotions’ tab and assumed any campaign that landed there would be doomed to fail. 

Since then, however, we’ve adapted to tabs and how they try to improve a user’s inbox experience. A successful email marketer must recognise the role of tabs and realise that they may actually help you reach more customers and better engage with them in a way they expect. 

What changes are coming and what do you need to do? Let’s take a look. 

Background: Gmail and the promotions category

In 2013, Gmail began filtering messages into one of five email categories:

  • Primary: The standard ‘inbox’ category and messages sorted into primary are usually direct person-to-person communication. 
  • Social: Emails that come from social media networks and other similar platforms. 
  • Promotions: The one that scares marketers, as it’s a tab reserved for marketing messages and promotional emails. 

With additional categories available to ‘switch on’ within the Gmail settings:

  • Updates: Confirmations, receipts, statements and other updates. 
  • Forum: Emails from discussion boards, online forums and mailing lists. 

In 2024, Google has announced plans to move Updates to the default bar, sparking marketers to question the difference between this and Promotions, and where their messages are more likely to appear.  

To determine which category your email goes, Gmail uses an algorithm that analyses your email content and sender reputation (which only highlights how important it is to focus on improving deliverability and following best practice when it comes to sending). 

Content that reads as overtly promotional will go into the promotions tab. Messages that are instead related to an existing customer action such as an order or inquiry will usually fall into ‘updates’ – especially if the content falls into common updates such as shipping confirmation or order receipts. 

Though the promotions category originally panicked marketers who feared their campaigns would be hidden away and ignored, it’s also helped guide improvements for those willing to adapt to the changes and to understand how Gmail interprets your content.

Remember that categories and the associated tabs are also an optional thing – not every user has them enabled. They’re also customisable, so if you win your audience over with great content you may quickly find that they prioritise your messages. 

Even if you do hit the ‘dreaded’ promotions tab, you’ll still get engagement. A Validity study found that almost half of all Gmail users still check their promotions tabs every day. Appearing in promotions may even lend authenticity to your brand, as it places content where users expect it to be. 

The same study found that emails that weren’t sorted into the correct tabs were more likely to be ignored or unopened. This clearly demonstrates that marketers need to focus not on avoiding the promotions tab but on ensuring their messages land in the most relevant category. 

As the years have gone by, the categories and tabs available in Gmail have stayed roughly the same – but there have been some new developments such as the addition of the ‘reservations’ subcategory to track booking information and travel receipts etc. 

iOS enters the fray

Apple announced that the September iOS 18 update will include on-device categorisation for its Mail app. These categories will only appear on iOS devices, so nothing will change in user’s Mail account if they access it via MacOS.

Like Gmail, the update means emails will be sorted into distinct categories.

  • Primary: This aims to prioritise critical emails and direct communication. 
  • Transactions: All shopping receipts, order confirmations and other transaction-related emails will go here. 
  • Updates: All news and social media updates should fall under this tab. 
  • Promotions: Marketing campaigns and offers will be sorted into the promotions category. 

Apple uses a different algorithm to sort its emails, so it’s hard to predict exactly how accurate it will be until the update rolls out. But as time has already proven, there are some simple things marketers can do to help ensure their emails reach their intended audience and land in the appropriate category. 

What you need to do 

Email marketers have been navigating Gmail categories for years now, and the general consensus is that they’re actually good for everyone involved. Users have high expectations around brands and content, so if you try to intentionally skip the promotions tab to get a better open rate, you may end up frustrating a user and having your email deleted. 

Instead, marketers need to practice solid fundamentals around successful inbox placement and list hygiene. By tailoring your campaigns around respecting a user’s requirements, you will see better overall results – even if your messages end up in a category you once worried about. 

The main things you need to be aware of are: 

Ensure compliance

Make sure your campaigns are compliant with sender requirements. See our guide to recent Gmail and Yahoo changes to learn more about SPF, DKIM and DMARC authentication. If providers view your sender address as spammy, you won’t reach inboxes at all – never mind categories. See our guide to building a compliant database to learn more. 

Practice good list hygiene

You should regularly check your email list and remove disengaged subscribers. Having an up-to-date list helps avoid spam traps and keeps you relevant. 

Personalise for your users

Create behaviour-based segments and tailor campaigns and content around specific user interests or demographics to improve engagement. 

Create engaging content

As long as your content is engaging, the ‘category’ it lands in has very little impact. Give users the content they expect from your brand to improve conversion-related metrics. 

In summary

Categories are nothing to fear. Though you may expect them to reduce open rates, the reverse is often true—by prioritising user experience, recipients feel more valued and are, therefore, more likely to click and convert. 

If you already practice the techniques listed above, you can carry on as normal and we doubt much will change. If you don’t, you may need to tweak your approach to make sure you’re finding user’s inboxes and being sorted into the appropriate tab. 

Ultimately, categories are part of an ongoing trend from providers aiming to protect user experience. Brands that respect this idea and curate their marketing efforts around user relevancy will see better results – not just in terms of landing in the right category but also in overall successful inbox placements, better conversion rates and fewer unsubscribes. 

If you’re worried about categories or you’d like to improve your email marketing results, get in touch with Jarrang. Our team can help your brand better understand user expectations and send tailored content that drives lasting results. 

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