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Breaking through to Gmail's Primary inbox

Gmail’s recent inbox update has caused a lot of discussion and frustration in the email marketing community. Essentially, it places all marketing emails (or from Email Service Providers) into a new inbox called Promotions, out of view from the Gmail user’s Primary inbox. While this means less distraction in the inbox, it also means less engagement from the people who are receiving your emails.

We’ve been testing a lot of content and sending methods to figure out if we can get around the Promotions inbox. Since Postmark is transactional only, messages from our customers should not be considered promotional. In fact, they are the exact opposite - one to one messages based on events or actions. These emails need to get to the Primary inbox because they require primary attention (invoices, password resets, etc).

JP and I played around with a lot of options in the office to see what worked and did not. For instance, changing the DKIM domain, IP addresses, headers we used and even the return-path domain. In our testing, the one thing that worked every time was changing the return-path header domain to match the From header domain. While this might sound like an easy fix, it would essentially stop bounce processing for our customers since bounces would no longer go to our domain and mail servers. There are some ways to do this with DNS, but it’s a much more difficult change for both us and our customers.

Getting messages to the Primary folder #

Today however, a customer reached out to notify us about some tests he ran. When he excluded the “List-Unsubscribe” header the emails go directly to the Updates folder in Gmail. Since the Updates folder is not enabled by default, it places the emails in the Primary inbox. We ran a few tests on our side and it worked like a charm. This change seems pretty obvious now, but being on vacation last week I missed some of the discussion around it. Either way, we quickly removed the header and confirmed it works as intended.

Why we feel comfortable removing the list-unsubscribe header #

I expect some debate from this, but since Postmark is transactional only, we do not feel obligated to add this header to Postmark. Yes, we are a bulk sender from an ESP stand point and we monitor complaints and abuse closely. However, our customers send transactional email only. It is something we have required from the beginning of Postmark and we pride ourselves on extremely good Inbox rates for this reason. Of course, if Gmail decides to add a traditional Feedback Loop system, we will be one of the first to subscribe.

UPDATE: It seems like Gmail does use some other factors. We had some test results show up in Promotions even without the header. We’ll continue to test and post results.

Chris Nagele

Chris Nagele

Love to travel with the wife and kids. Wannabe race car driver. Not so healthy obsession with Building Science.