Throughout the latter half of 2013, Gmail has been very busy making updates to improve customer experience, reduce clutter and give email readers more control. Three major updates have been introduced in the past year. Meanwhile, each update has kept email marketers on their collective toes. Despite Gmail’s 3% email client market share, the changes have caused quite a reaction amongst both casual and dedicated email marketing pundits. Here is a look at all of them with some implications and suggestions for email marketers.
Gmail Inbox Tabs
In late May 2013, Google announced “a new inbox that puts you back in control.” With intentions to improve the Gmail user experience, Google took one inbox and separated into many based on message type. Gmail users have a few predefined options for collecting new mail including the Primary, Social and Promotions tabs.
A minor kerfuffle was witnessed among email marketers who began to knotice their emails did not land in the Primary inbox, but rather the Promotions tab. Here’s a look at the updated Inbox from Gmail’s mobile app.
In their premature worry, marketers soon discovered that users could drag promotional messages out of the Promotions tab and drop them permanently into the Primary tab. This inspired many email marketers to send targeted campaigns encouraging recipients to move their messages into the Primary tab. Not a bad idea, really. Here’s a sample “Move us to the Primary Tab, please” campaign sent specifically to Gmail users shortly after the inbox update.
However, given some statistics available from Litmus, a provider of email testing and analytics software, the number of Gmail users that actually open their email on the Gmail webmail client is actually quite small. Only 19% of Gmail opens actually occur in Gmail. Since the tabbed inbox is not supported in other popular email clients like the iPhone or even the standard Android email app, email marketers really don’t have to worry too much about this supposed “killer” update.
In my opinion, this change and the statistical fallout from it had a positive impact on the email marketing practice: the Promotions tab further encouraged smart email marketers to worry less about how their emails arrive for a small segment of recipients and to focus more on the quality and relevance of the messages delivered.
Quick Action Buttons in Gmail
Another interesting development came in the form of quick action buttons on email messages. Without even opening an email, Gmail users can interact with certain messages which include small buttons allowing them to take action.
Sample actions include RSVP buttons for events, Check-In buttons for flights, View buttons for website links, Review buttons for products, restaurants, movies, etc. By using the proper code, or schema, within an email message, email marketers can allow Gmail users to interact easily with their messages.
Interested in marking up your email or at least learning more about schema.org in email messages? View a full list of available actions. Plus, find tutorial information from Google to utilize Quick Action buttons in your emails to Gmail users. One tip: try to limit usage of action buttons to messages with a clear and distinct purpose. Avoid being drawn in by the “cool” factor and use them only when they provide added value to Gmail recipients.
Gmail Automatic Image Enabling
The third and final big update for Gmail in 2013 involved image caching and the automatic enabling of images within a message. To protect Gmail users from malware delivered via email, Gmail previously forced its users to click a link to enable images like the one below.
In a blog post on the subject of image caching directed to Gmail users, Google noted that “your messages are more safe and secure” and “your images are checked for known viruses or malware.”
However, this bonus for readers and designers has some negative ramifications for email marketers. The biggest impact on this update involves the data email marketers derive from images when, from where and how they are enabled. Here is a brief summary of the three important consequences of this seemingly inconsequential change.
A. Open Tracking: The enabling of images actually signals an “open” to email delivery and measurement tools. Every time an image is downloaded from a server to display within the Gmail client, an open is counted. Due to this change, only first-time and one-time opens will be counted from Gmail. Thus, even if an individual Gmail user opens up an email repeatedly, displaying serious interest and strong purchase intent, that behavior will only be counted as a single open.
B. Device Tracking: Since images are first passed through a Google server as part of Gmail’s security measures, and images are not served directly from the original sender (or email service provider), device detection is not possible. In other words, Google strips information connected to the original image which disables tracking to detect whether the email was opened on a desktop, tablet or mobile device.
C. Geo-Targeted Content: Dynamic campaigns that rely on geo-targeting will be impacted at the time of this writing. Many email campaigns will auto-detect a recipient’s location and serve an image specific to that person and the place in which she opens the email. Since this geo-targeting is tied to the location from where the images in the email load and Google is loading images from its own servers first, these campaigns will always detect the location as Mountain View or wherever else Google operates servers.
Please note that this update only affects metrics for recipients using Gmail web interface or apps, which noted previously is a small percentage of overall email opens.
Most email marketing service providers (ExactTarget, Lyris, MailChimp, Campaign Monitor, etc.) will allow for segmentation of an email list by email client. As Gmail continues to evolve and improve for users, some email marketers may find that it is crucial to prepare and send separate campaigns just for Gmail users depending upon the content, desired activity and metrics involved.