Gmail changes: Users win, marketers adapt

Google made two significant changes to Gmail this year.

Marketers got into a tizzy.

More importantly… users yawned and gratefully accepted the changes.

Gmail Inbox Tabs

First off, incoming mail is now sorted (by an algorithm) into tabbed areas (Primary, Social, Promotions). This is pretty handy if you’re not a control freak. The worry for marketers was that their email blasts would get stuck into the Promotions “Purgatory” ghetto and never get opened.

Email diagnostic service Litmus was one of the first credible sources to report that clicks were down, in a characteristically candid post in August.

Well, someone at MailChimp dove into six months of data (29 billion emails, which I suppose is statistically significant) and came to a few conclusions:

  • Gmail open rates are down 1.5%, a bit more than average
  • Gmail clicks are down 1%, about average
  • Gmail unsubscribes are flat, better than average.
  • While we don’t know about the impact of conversions to sale (since that data is known only* to site owners) we can fairly assume that the effect is minimal.

So balance the decreased click engagement with the healthier unsubscribe measurement, and IT’S A WASH. As Matthew at MailChimp says, “If the data tells us a story, it’s that Gmail tabs are working as intended and helping people manage their inboxes.”

Marketers got off the ledge.

Cached Images

And then they got back on!


(Or, more likely, we’re just seeing pageview-driven headline bait. Move along now…)

So this week Google rolled a change which means Gmail users will see images by default.

Previously, you had to “Click to display images” or whitelist a sender.

Google’s stated motivations were for the user experience, and it is a nontrivial improvement. Fewer clicks is better! Like the tabbed inbox, most Gmail users will appreciate the change.

Their technical modus operandi, serving the images directly from their own servers (aka image proxying), however, has an impact on marketers.

Here’s why. Email senders track email opens by serving up a tiny image, uniquely coded for the recipient. Since Google is now the intermediary for that image, marketers lose a number of things. Geolocation of opens, multiple opens, forwards, and so on.

Bright minds are still figuring out the impact. The more fevered commentators are raising questions about anitcompetitive practices and pointing to how this helps Google’s display ad business.

Netting it Out

Large-volume marketers are understandably interested in the particulars of the changes, since marginal changes in a send of 50,000 emails can mean a difference in dollars down the line. Smart marketers will adapt to technical changes, as they always have.

But if your company sends out a modest amount of email, don’t worry.

For example, “Company C” sends out a weekly newsletter to 5500 people in the B2B space. Gmail represents a paltry 2% of their user base. Inbox Tabs mean their weekly open rate will drop 0.01%. Their aggregate data on geography and multiple opens will be 2% less reliable.

Another sober view came from Campaign Monitor who correctly point out that the impact of these changes is dwarfed by other factors well within your control: creative, offer, design, send timing, and landing pages.

Oh, and how good your email looks on a smartphone, which is now where MORE THAN HALF of emails are opened.

That’s where you should spend extra effort to raise your email conversion to sale. Don’t worry about marginal Google decisions.


*and, um, Google Analytics…