Gmail Leads the Charge: Email Marketers Could Be in for another Wild Ride in the Year of the Horse

If you’re like many email marketers, you may be on the fence about whether or not Gmail is a friend, foe or frenemy. After all, last years’ roll out of the Tabbed Inbox is likely still fresh in your mind. At the time, there was widespread concern that having commercial messages be delivered to the Promotions Tab (as opposed to the Primary Inbox) would decrease response and engagement metrics. The good news is that the impact seems to have been fairly minimal so far. Return Path conducted early research that indicated Tabs had a positive impact for highly engaged users that resulted in slightly increased read rates. The greatest overall impact was on moderate to disengaged users who wound up reading far fewer commercial messages.

Gmail also introduced Quick Action buttons, which effectively placed a call-to-action for an email message in the subject line so that users can take direct action without having to open and/or scroll through a message (the button is also featured at the top of opened messages).  Numerous different types of actions are supported, including ratings and reviews; viewing a recent order; RSVPing to an invitation; checking in for a flight; adding an item to your music/movie queue; and confirming a subscription. In some cases, users can complete an action without leaving the inbox for a landing page. To implement Quick Action buttons, marketers must comply with a series of guidelines. Not surprisingly, many retail and entertainment brands like Amazon, Zappos, Netflix, Piperlime, Toys“R”Us and Etsy have already taken the necessary steps to feature these buttons in messages to Gmail subscribers.

The galloping pace of change at Gmail has remained steady with another recent announcement that images would be enabled by default for desktop, iOS and Android users. Images had previously been blocked to protect users from senders who might use images to embed harmful links or malware. Google has solved this problem by serving all images from their own secure servers, rather than a sender’s external host servers. For email marketers this change means that total opens will likely be lower (and not accurate), however unique opens (usually the more important metric) will be increasingly accurate. It also means that certain types of location and device data could become skewed. This change also has an impact on marketers who feature dynamic content that is shown in the email message in real-time, based on when the open takes place. Overall, the change is still by the industry as mostly positive because Gmail users will now see images by default, without having to take the extra step to download them.

The image caching announcement was quickly followed by another one about the inclusion of an automatic unsubscribe link and the introduction of Feedback Loops (FBLs) for Email Service Providers (ESPs). An unsubscribe link will now be included at the top of all marketing messages to Gmail users, meaning that these subscribers will no longer have to search through the body of the message where many marketers still “hide” opt-out links in footers or the 7-point legal copy at the bottom of a message. Having a prominent unsubscribe link is a best practice, and this change may actually have a positive impact for marketers in that users could be less likely to hit the  spam button (which in many cases has been easier to locate in the Gmail interface) and opt-out instead. The FBL will allow ESPs to gather complaint data and get a more detailed picture on messaging that could be driving complaints, however Google will not provide message-level data, meaning ESPs won’t be able to use the information to remove specific addresses from their lists that registered the complaints. Requirements for accessing FBL data include the ESP’s compliance with good sending practices and becoming a M3AWWG (Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group) member.

It’s likely fairly obvious why you should care about these changes, especially if you have a high percentage of Gmail subscribers on your list. These announcements are simply further steps that Gmail is taking to improve the user and subscriber experience. In addition, where Gmail rides other mailbox providers are likely to want to follow. We already know that Gmail places weight on certain user-activity metrics to determine inbox placement, like spam complaints; reporting a message in the spam folder as not spam; read rates; deleted without reading rates; messages that are replied to; messages that are starred, flagged as important or moved between folder/tabs; and other user-level activity. Engagement is also an increasingly important metric, meaning that a marketer with a large percentage of non-responsive subscribers on their list will likely see their campaigns bulking to the spam folder. Engagement metrics are also being heavily weighted at Yahoo and Microsoft (Outlook.com).

For more information about filtering at these mailbox providers, you can download this guide. You can also access additional posts on this topic by my colleagues here, here and here.