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Google Tried To Kill Email Marketing, But What Happened Next Was Amazing*

Phil Herbert
Strategy Lead

*THE WORLD REALLY NEEDS MORE UPWORTHY-STYLE HEADLINES, SO YOU’RE WELCOME.

Chicken Little

Everyone in the marketing world probably remembers the last time Google “killed email marketing,” when they introduced the tabbed email inbox. From now on, nobody would open marketing emails, and entire industries would go the way of dinosaurs and 8-tracks. While the panic may have generated a lot of page-views for tech bloggers, the results in the real world show a decidedly mixed impact on opens, sales and conversions. What remains is that Gmail users are richer and more tech savvy than other mail client users, so marketing to them is still big business.

Not to worry, though, Google has once again announced a change that this time really will kill email! In an effort to destroy us make user’s email experience better, Google is now starting to cache images that are served in email.

Gmail Logo

A little background

One of the main ways an email service provider (ESP) tracks the open rates and location information of an email send is to track the way images are loaded from their servers. Each image in every email has a unique ID that ties back to a specific email address. When that image is requested from the ESP’s servers, it knows that email has been opened, and that image loaded. Gmail’s change will take that image, and instead of loading it straight into a user’s email, it will be loaded onto a Google server and passed onto the user email from there which results in a faster and safer experience for the end user. The amount of storage this new policy must take is pretty staggering when you start to think about how many cat images and red 70% off banners must be floating around on Google servers already!

The affects while seemingly severe, are also very narrowly focused to only users who access email via the Gmail website or their Android and IOS apps. People who access their email from other clients won’t be affected. Overall this is around 2-5% of B2C consumers according to a Moveable Ink blog post.

This change to Gmail has various pros and cons to it from a marketing perspective so we’ll do our best to separate the panic from reality and see what this really means for email marketing.

Let’s start with the cons:

It hides location information. One of the ways we can monitor emails is to look at where our customers are reading their emails. We see the user’s IP address when they call the image from the server, and from the IP address you can find out location. By knowing where they are in the world we can improve messaging, timing and give localized content. With cached images, we don’t get to see the location of the individual users because we only get passed the IP address of the Google server they are cached on.

We don’t know the referrer, the browser or the number of times an email was opened. These metrics will also be hard to collect from Gmail users. Normally, we can tell things like which inbox an email was sent to, what browser a person is using, and how many times someone reads an email. This is all done through analyzing the server requests as images are downloaded. Cached images won’t pass this information back to the sender for the 60% of consumers who use Gmail.

No more time-sensitive messages. A great workaround for time-sensitive messages in emails that may be revisited days or weeks later was to serve any time-sensitive information like sales, discounts or product availability as an image. When the information changed, you could just update the image with the new information and be sure that every time someone opened the email they would see the up-to-date info. Caching images makes this practice impractical at best.

But with every negative impact, there are a few good things. Here are the pros:

Images will be served by default for trusted senders. This is actually amazing news for email marketers. No longer will you have to worry about what your email looks like with images turned off, because if you are a trusted sender to Gmail (i.e. not a known spammer, or including content that Google ambiguously calls “potentially suspicious” ), they will be displayed automagically to Gmail users from now on. Furthermore, because they will be turned on, YOU WILL BE TRACKING MORE OPENS THAN EVER BEFORE! Sorry for yelling, but that makes us really excited. We will finally get a more accurate picture about how many unique opens we are getting, because we won’t be losing any along the way from turned-off images. For most campaigns we are more focused on the number of unique opens, and not as concerned with repeat views, so this turns one of the major cons into a big pro.

Increased performance in emails is good for everyone. By speeding up image load-times, the overall email experience will improve. This is good for everyone, especially marketers, because the barriers to reading an email will go down at the margins. Also to note, the Gmail app for iPhone and Android display web views most or all of the time, so increased performance will affect mobile delivery as well.

ExactTarget and other ESP’s aren’t affected. Many ESP’s use different methods of tracking opens than just through images (and more still have created other workarounds), so they aren’t affected by this. Most of the explanations of this are too technical for me to understand, but this is good news for people using ET. It doesn’t solve the location tracking issues, but it’s something. Note that this can also work for your own emails if you don’t have access to an ESP that has mitigated the issue.

Overall, this is a net positive in the world of email marketing. We know that Google is constantly changing the way it serves content to users, and more often than not, the initial reactions are apoplectic. But, marketers adapt, users fall into new patterns and we are making more money than ever before on the internet, so it can’t all be bad.

As always, if you have any questions regarding the technical aspects of this, or just want to kickstart your emails, you can contact us via our Gmail-based email address.

Phil Herbert
Phil Herbert, Strategy Lead at eROI.