Gmail kept email marketers on their toes this past year. Between the introduction of a tabbed inbox, changes to how images are displayed, and the Promotions tab grid view, the entire email marketing world has been freaking out.
Marketers want to know: Will these changes affect my open rates? How about my other metrics? Will subscribers even see my email?
In this book, we’ll look at the latest updates to Gmail and figure out, once and for all, whether email marketers need to be worried about the evolution of one of the most popular email services in the world.
In early May 2013, Gmail introduced quick actions, which allow users to perform actions in their inbox without needing to open emails first. Gmail currently supports four types of actions, as well as one interactive card.
One-click RSVP Actions show an event’s details along with Yes/No/Maybe responses.
Review Actions are ideal for restaurants, movies, products, and services reviews. Not only can users give a starred review, but they can leave text feedback as well.
One-click Actions are great for simple calls-to-action that can be completed directly within Gmail, such as registration confirmations.
Go-to Actions are a nice option for more complicated calls-to-action that take a subscriber to a landing page.
Examples of quick actions include reviewing restaurants you’ve ordered from on Seamless, modifying OpenTable reservations, and viewing YouTube videos, among others. Google is continuously adding support for additional actions.
How does it work?
Adding a quick action to your email is easy. By including a JSON script, or schema, in the header of your email, you can start converting Gmail users quicker than ever.
"name": "John's Birthday Party",
... information about the event ...
While you can test quick actions by adding schemas to your email and sending them to yourself (you’ll need to send and receive the email from a @gmail.com address), launching to the public requires registration with Google, DKIM or SPF authentication, and adherence to some email best practices.
In addition, Google requires that quick actions "should be used for transactional mail where a high interaction rate is expected. They should not be used on promotional bulk mail." In this example, TripIt utilizes quick actions on triggered emails notifying users that a new itinerary is ready.
Having a quick action for emails like this makes perfect sense—there is no reason for a subscriber to open the email because they already know where the action will bring them; they do not need additional details within the email. However, a promotional bulk mailing, such as an email from a retailer promoting a sale, wouldn’t be a good option for quick actions. Users would want more details about the sale itself before clicking through to the landing page. Calls-to-action (CTAs) that require additional information or context are better placed within the email!
While many feared that they could affect open rates, quick actions are a great opportunity for email marketers. The potential to offer direct access to conversion opportunities without users needing to open emails is revolutionary. It’s a win for Gmail users and senders alike: a quicker path to conversion for marketers and less hassle for those with overburdened inboxes.
However, it should be noted that if you decide to implement quick actions, you may notice a drop in your traditional email stats, like open rates. But, on the plus side, your conversion rates may go up! It’s the perfect thing to test.
What should you do?
If it makes sense for your business, use quick actions to your advantage. Be sure to only use quick actions for calls-to-action (CTAs) that are clear and not ones that need the context of additional text—you don’t want to confuse your subscribers!
In late May 2013, Gmail introduced the now infamous tabbed inbox—an interface that allows users to enable different tabs for better inbox management. This new inbox is available in Gmail webmail, as well as the Gmail app for iPad, iPhone, and Android 4.0+. The tabbed inbox allows users to automatically sort incoming messages into five categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums.
However, the tabbed inbox is completely optional and users have the ability to modify, edit or remove tabs in their account settings.
Email marketers really freaked out about the tabbed inbox. Since commercial emails are often routed to the Promotions tab, rather than the default Primary tab, many wondered whether their subscribers would ever see their emails. In addition, with the introduction of inbox ads, which are placed above other emails, commercial emails are pushed even further down the inbox.
As a result, many retailers sent emails encouraging their Gmail subscribers to move their emails to the Primary tab, rather than the Promotions tab.
Above is an example of Whole Foods asking subscribers to move their emails to the Primary tab.
Was it a valid concern? Between the introduction of the tabbed inbox in May and November, Gmail opens decreased 24%.
While the roll-out of the tabbed inbox had a negative effect on open rates, there’s evidence that engagement rates increased. Although fewer people may open emails in the Promotions tab, those that do open are more engaged. That’s not a bad thing!
Tabs aren’t as big a deal as many email marketers made them out to be. As long as you send relevant content and optimize your from name, subject line, and preheader text, you shouldn’t worry too much about tabs.
What should you do?
While we’re still receiving some of those pesky “move us to your Primary tab” emails, we don’t suggest sending them. If your subscribers are engaged with your brand, then they will actively search for your emails (and may even move them to the Primary tab). Wouldn’t you rather send an email with an impactful, relevant CTA than ask your subscribers for a favor?
Also, keep in mind that some triggered emails, such as confirmation and welcome messages, do land in the Primary inbox. Use those emails as an opportunity to enforce the value of your email program.
With the tabbed inbox it’s more important than ever to only send emails that resonate with your subscribers. Relevancy is crucial! And, as always, be sure your from name, subject line, and preheader text are optimized to encourage opens.
In addition, consider longer lead times for your emails. If your subscribers aren’t checking their Promotions tab on a daily basis, then they may miss out on key deals and promotions. Chad White compares the Gmail promotions tab to a shopping mall; saying that consumers visit when they’re ready to buy.
We also developed a Which Gmail Tab? tool that lets you send a test email to a real Gmail address—telling you where to expect delivery in a tabs-enabled Gmail account. It’s a quick and easy way to find out where your email will land in the Gmail inbox.
In early December 2013, Gmail started caching images for users accessing Gmail via the webmail interface and the mobile Gmail app. When an image is cached, it is downloaded from the original server and stored on a proxy server. Subsequent views of the cached image will always display from the proxy server rather than the original server.
According to the Gmail team, this change keeps emails secure by checking images for known viruses or malware. While safer emails are wonderful for Gmail users, Google’s new image caching poses a few challenges for tracking email open data in the gmail.com interface and Gmail mobile apps:
- Device and browser detection—opens in Gmail webmail will be indistinguishable from opens made on a Gmail mobile app.
- Geolocation data is lost—it will record the open where Google’s proxy server is located.
As a result, Gmail opens made in a browser and on mobile Gmail apps look the same—there’s no way to distinguish webmail from mobile. The silver lining is that open rates for the native email client on Android—which has support for responsive emails—are now more accurate.
Another effect of image caching that some Gmail subscribers have noticed lower quality images in their emails due to compression artifacts from the caching process.
Above is an example of failed image caching in an email.
Unfortunately, some users have even noticed images failing to render at all. Others have reported images loading in the wrong placeholder!
Don’t fret! Use individual tracking with Email Analytics to track emails—even in environments where Gmail caches images. While geolocation and some device tracking data is no longer detectable, keep in mind that Gmail accounts for 12% of total opens and only about 20% of those opens occur in the webmail interface.
What should you do?
As stated above, if you’re using Email Analytics, be sure to use individual tracking so you can properly track opens. With device tracking information no longer available for Gmail users, it’s essential to test your emails before sending to be sure they look great in all environments.
If you previously used geolocation data for targeted emails, you’ll have to try a different strategy for Gmail users. Perhaps consider having users update their location in your subscription center.
When it comes to degraded images, images not loading at all, or images loading in the wrong place, there is currently no solution. As a result, now more than ever, it’s important to design your emails for images-off optimization—use ALT text, background colors, and lots of live text—making sure your emails can be understood and enjoyed even if images are not present.
Automatic image enablement was introduced shortly after image caching. While Gmail previously blocked images by default, it now automatically displays images (this is, of course, after they’ve been cached and checked for viruses).
Before: Images off by default
Now: Images on by default
Prior to automatic image enablement, if you weren’t using images-off optimization techniques, like styled ALT text, bulletproof buttons, and background colors, then a large portion of your Gmail subscribers were likely having a poor email experience. Now Gmail users can see the hard work and effort you’ve put into your designs without having to manually enable images!
“Your messages are now more safe and secure, your images are checked for known viruses or malware, and you’ll never have to press that pesky “display images below” link again.
Product Manager, Google
What would you be upset about? This is great news for email designers! Prior to this update, 57% of Gmail users turned images on—which means that a whopping 43% of Gmail users viewed emails with images disabled!
What should you do?
Send your emails as you normally do! You’ll have a sense of relief knowing that your Gmail subscribers will, by default, see your design and associated content. However, we still suggest optimizing for images off through the use of bulletproof buttons, ALT text, background colors, and a proper balance of imagery and live text. Regardless of whether Gmail may display images by default now, many other clients do not.
Also, keep in mind that your open rates may be affected. Email tracking relies on a unique image being included in a campaign and that image being downloaded and displayed within the email. Every time the image is downloaded from the server, the tracking software marks that as an email open. Now that Gmail uses automatic image downloads, these unique “open tracker pixels” will be viewed more often, resulting in increased open rates.
How much should you expect your open rates to increase? The number of Gmail users on your list, combined with their preferred email client, will definitely play a factor. Overall, we’ve seen about a 341% increase in Gmail opens since the introduction of image enablement and image caching!
In late February 2014, Gmail made another strive towards simplifying inbox management for their users by introducing automatic unsubscribe. This feature has been rolled out for all users using the Gmail interface. Auto-unsubscribe enables Gmail users to unsubscribe from most promotional mailing lists without having to leave the Gmail interface (just like quick actions!). However, keep in mind that not all promotional emails will have the auto-unsubscribe option—and it relies on certain information being available in the technical headers in your email.
Rather than searching for an unsubscribe button in an email, Gmail users can now unsubscribe with the simple click of a link located in the top right corner of the header field:
When users click on the unsubscribe link, there are two different actions that may occur. If the “List-Unsubscribe” header line simply contains an email address, then they will be given the following notice:
After confirming this action, Google will send an automated email to the sender requesting that the subscriber be removed from all future mailings. Google notes that:
Mailing lists may take up to three days to process your unsubscription request, so it may take a few days for you to stop receiving mail from the list.
However, if the “List-Unsubscribe” header includes a link, then subscribers will receive the following notice:
In this case, Gmail is simply passing along the unsubscribe link used by the sender. If clicked, the unsubscribe process will be the same as if they had clicked the unsubscribe link in the body of the email.
While auto-unsubscribe makes it easier for subscribers to remove themselves from lists, it may also reduce spam complaints and frustrated users—and may even help improve your sender reputation.
Gmail created auto-unsubscribe to benefit both senders and subscribers. By implementing auto-unsubscribe, Gmail allowed disinterested users to unsubscribe from emails quickly and easily. Auto-unsubscribe also decreases the chance of them marking legitimate emails as spam—helping to keep your lists clean and your reputation intact.
If numerous people report a sender’s message as spam, then Gmail will classify that sender as a spammer and send their emails to the Spam folder. With the unsubscribe text link, the goal is to decrease subscriber’s spam reports on legitimate promotional emails. The hope is that they will unsubscribe, rather than mark it as spam—which is a major plus for email marketers. Having email recipients unsubscribe from you, rather than mark you as spam, is a huge win for delivery rates!
While you may see a rise in unsubscribe rates, this may not be a bad thing. The removal of disengaged and disinterested subscribers from your mailing lists may be beneficial to your overall email marketing program.
The unsubscribe button provides an easy way to get consumer feedback and weed out those who aren’t receptive or actively resistant to your message...think about what your subscribers likely did before the new unsubscribe button. Were they more likely to open the email and hunt for the unsubscribe button or just hit spam? The new unsubscribe button is not only a feedback loop, but prevents inboxing issues by reducing reliance on the spam button.
Brad Van Der Woerd
Director of Market Intelligence & Deliverability, Yesmail
What should you do?
Use this feature to your advantage! Having an engaged list and fewer spam reports is definitely good news for email marketers.
The auto-unsubscribe feature is only available to senders who are not known spammers, have a positive sending reputation, and include “List-Unsubscribe” in the header. You can choose to use an email address, a URL (perhaps to a subscription center), or both in the list-unsubscribe header.
In the example above, both methods are shown. If both an email address and URL are used, the latter of the two will display as the unsubscribe action.
And, as always, keep your engagement level up by only sending relevant content to opt-in subscribers!
In late March 2014, Gmail introduced a grid-like Promotions tab. Currently, this new inbox is only available for users that have opted-in and are using the Gmail web interface. There has been no news as of yet on whether it will be implemented for any of their mobile apps.
Taking a page out of the Pinterest playbook, Gmail is bringing large graphics and infinite scrolling to the Promotions tab. Talk about a visual inbox!
Gmail will now represent each email in the Promotions tab with a large image, displaying messages in a grid format with heavy emphasis on visuals rather than just plain text. The featured image, sender name, subject line, and sender image are crucial to ensuring that your emails look great (note that preheader text is no longer displayed).
Ads are also included in the new grid layout and, apart from a small icon in the top-left corner and a different background color, ads look the same as any other email. Kind of sneaky if you ask us!
The Vistaprint email on the left is an advertised and promoted email.
It’s too soon to tell! Since the Promotions tab grid view is still in a trial phase, it’s likely to only affect Gmail power users and devotees for now. However, if you’re seeing a high percentage of Gmail opens, then it’s definitely something you need to keep in mind.
What should you do?
If you have a high percentage of Gmail opens and your emails are going to the Promotions tab (you can use our handy free tool to check out which Gmail tab your emails will appear under), then optimizing for this new grid-like inbox is definitely recommended.
To control how your emails show up in this new inbox, you’ll need to implement specific markup—called schemas—into the HTML of your email. We’ve developed a handy (and free!) Gmail Promotion Tab Code Generator to help you create the code you’ll need to add to your HTML email campaigns.
The code allows you to choose the featured image for the Promotions Tab view of your email:
For the featured image, you can use GIF, PNG or JPEG images, but animated GIFs will be rendered as static. Additionally, featured images are cached in the same way that Gmail now caches images inside emails.
The email on the right is an example of a Promotions tab email that with no image.
If a featured image is not specified, the end result may be that no image appears for the email in grid view. As seen in the example above, text pulled into the space reserved for the main image doesn’t create an ideal experience.
Viator doesn't have a verified Google+ profile, so their sender image defaults to "V."
The sender name and subject line still come from your actual email and, in this new inbox, the sender name will display up to 20 characters while the subject line will display up to 75. The sender image is pulled from your company’s verified Google+ profile. For senders that don’t have a verified Google+ profile (we recommend that you do!), the logo portion of the message is the first letter of your sender name.
For emails that don’t contain the specialized Schema code, Gmail will use an algorithm to determine which image from your email should be featured. While sometimes this algorithm gamble can turn out well, it often generates some undesirable results.
To have a strategic presence in grid view, designing a featured image to represent your message and implement it using Gmail’s code is crucial. Otherwise, you risk showcasing a less-than-desirable image in the inbox. While it’s too soon to say whether open rates will be affected by this new inbox, it definitely makes the inbox a more visual place. Email marketers may be able to use this to their advantage.
Without question, Gmail has shaken up the email marketing world over the past year. However, rather than panic about the changes, marketers should use them to their advantage. Justine Jordan, Marketing Director here at Litmus, put it perfectly:
Email marketers are begging for innovations in email, but complain the minute one comes out. It’s time for us to adapt to change and embrace it.
Marketing Director, Litmus
It just so happens that most of Gmail’s updates leave email marketers with plenty of new opportunities. For example, quick actions can help improve your subscriber experience and the tabbed inbox is now giving email marketers even more of a reason to send targeted, relevant emails.
In addition, auto-unsubscribes can help improve delivery rates and remove disengaged members from your list. Email marketers need to stop being unnecessarily afraid of unsubscribes! They aren’t always a bad thing—they actually serve as a great feedback loop.
Featured images in the Promotions tab are providing marketers with an opportunity that they’ve never had before. In fact, Matt Byrd, Senior Email Marketing Manager, stated:
Featured images are the first evolutionary thing that’s happened in email in a long time.
Sr. Email Marketing Manager, Litmus
Through the Promotions tab, Gmail is simplifying and organizing the inbox with an emphasis on visuals. As of yet, no other email clients have been so focused on visuals (we’re anxious to see if other clients and devices will follow suit!), but it has definitely worked for social media. Email marketers should see what techniques and strategies have worked for marketers in the Pinterest realm and start doing some testing. Featured images have also added a whole other dimension for A/B testing!
So, while it would be nice if Google would partner up with marketers so we could hear about these changes before they take place, they aren’t so bad after all. Email marketers should take a deep breath and embrace the opportunities that these new features can provide them with. Jason Rodriguez, Community Manager here at Litmus, summed it up nicely:
It all comes down to sending relevant content that your subscribers actually care about and not worrying too much about everything else.
Community Manager, Litmus