Myth Busted: Why Gmail Isn't Killing Email Marketing

Posted by Kevin Senne on February 10th, 2014 at 11:25 am

It seems that anytime Google announces anything about Gmail, the email marketing community goes crazy. Reporters and pundits predict the impending demise of email marketing as we know it and marketing service providers jump in on the chaos to fuel the fears. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to explain why Gmail’s tabbed interface, image caching changes, and even the latest scares around outages and glitches that inadvertently deleted or marked messages as spam are not cause for panic. I’m even going to argue that some of these changes can work in email marketers’ favors.

Let’s start with Gmail’s tabbed interface, which segregated different types of messages by creating a series of tabs to replace the old inbox. The “primary” tab is primarily for individual messages from friends as well as other tabs for things like social network messages, transactional items like order updates and yes, a tab just for promotional messages. The major concern around this update was that email marketers would see a dip in open rates, as a result of their messages being filtered into the Promotions tab. Fortunately, for most marketers – and despite what some of my email marketing peers have reported – this has not been the case. The implementation of the Gmail tabs system has not at all been the predicted doom and gloom for marketers. In fact, according to Responsys customer data, email marketers are not seeing any of the negative results predicted. The data even shows a gradual climb in Gmail open rates in the past year.

Why is it that open rates would stay steady when these messages are no longer located in the familiar inbox? Because consumers are proactively visiting the Promotions tab, not ignoring it as the doom and gloomers predicted! In fact, the tabs system appears to be working as an organizational tool that allows certain messages to stand out from the crowd. In the past, promotional messages would roll in throughout the day. People might glance at them, but would typically move on because they're busy or not interested at that specific moment. These messages were also buried among other emails, including Facebook notifications, online shopping receipts, junk emails and personal emails. Now, when people open promotional emails, they're not just stumbling onto them – they're actively looking for them. This is all great news for marketers, particularly those who make it a priority to deliver smart, relevant and individualized content to their customers.

Next, let’s take a look at Google’s image rendering update, which changed the way images are cached. Gmail now serves all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers, rather than serving images directly from their original external host servers. The initial fears were that senders would no longer be able to track open rates, which are traditionally measured with the use of a small pixel embedded in each email. It turns out that not much has changed there. Most senders use a unique URL that makes an image request back to the sender. The uniqueness of this means the image (even though technically the same for everyone) remains intact for each recipient. That isn’t changing and means that open rate reporting is unchanged as well.

There is a very positive side to the change in strategy on the Google side. Caching the images has allowed Gmail to turn on images by default for all incoming messages.  This is big positive for marketers who can now know that messages will be viewed as intended. Smartly constructed messages with an inviting call to action can see a great increase in engagement just from the images displaying.

While some senders may be impacted by the caching changes, the metrics that could be impacted are not widely used. For example, multiple opens of an email could record lower, resulting in somewhat lower total opens, but except for very rare instances, the unique opens are the important number. From a tracking and conversion standpoint, there’s nothing to worry about. These metrics are recorded through the use of URLs that haven’t been affected by this change.

Looking at Gmail’s recent changes, it has become clear that the email provider will always be making changes that marketers should be prepared for, but there should be no cause for panic. Instead, these changes are actually very likely to improve the email user experience – and all marketers should be prioritizing the customer experience above all else. Gmail tabs, in particular, can pay off well for marketers if they’re willing to put the time and effort into sending relevant, personalized content that gets users clicking.

However, with the understanding that email – or any one channel for that matter – has the possibility to fail or be affected by glitches, marketers should be looking to engage with their customers across multiple channels. Email marketing should not be done in a silo. Greet visitors on your website, reach out through mobile, or consider push or display notifications. Ultimately, if a brand has a sound marketing strategy, orchestrating messages to customers across channels, they have nothing to worry about when issues or changes occur on one communication channel.

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