Promoters are crucial for gene regulation. They vary greatly in terms of associated regulatory elements, sequence motifs, the choice of transcription start sites and other features. Several technologies that harness next-generation sequencing have enabled recent advances in identifying promoters and their features, helping researchers who are investigating functional categories of promoters and their modes of regulation. Additional features of promoters that are being characterized include types of histone modifications, nucleosome positioning, RNA polymerase pausing and novel small RNAs. In this Review, we discuss recent findings relating to metazoan promoters and how these findings are leading to a revised picture of what a gene promoter is and how it works.