Google Shakes Up Email Again

Google has always done things a bit differently.  It was the first company to be really successful at growing its email users base through referral and invitation-only tactics. It’s grown from a nascent fraction of a percentage of any marketer’s list to over 15% in some cases.   Its early forays into mining inbox content for advertising and targeting purposes virtually shook the space.  This past week, it took another step is applying more control over the Google user, masked in a veil of “better protection for the user” -- and as is typical of our industry, there was a bit of an overreaction to this move.

Email is highly dependent on the inbox and the variation of rules/experiences by the largest ISPs (Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and AOL).     Google’s move this past week shook up a few of us in the industry, as it was the first to take an active role in diminishing the value of email advertising as a direct-to-response vehicle. This move has implications for the consumer, the marketer and our industry, but at the end of this, I offer up an optimistic view.

This is what Google did: When we deliver an email to a user, we deliver images from a third-party server (the ESP/provider) and we track information about where that image is served.  Google is now caching that email and controlling how that image is served into the inbox.   On the surface, the consumer would not notice much difference. In fact, this could make it a more seamless email experience by eliminating the “Display Images Below” link, which Google implemented as a protection against spammers.

But marketers and providers lose all insight into “view” activity, after the first image is cached.   We’ve been striving for years to be more relevant, timely and targeted with email, while adapting to all the ISPs’ changes to inbox, filters, tabs, folder filtering and deliverability rules.   Some in the industry put less value on measuring an email impression for anything other than “it’s an active email address.”  Yet some put a premium on this “impression” and what you can do with it.  For example, by understanding device, you can deliver an optimized experience; with an IP address you can deliver geo-targeted content; by understanding time of day, you can deliver promotional content up to the minute - all based on when the image is server.  

Here are a few posts useful in breaking down the details of what’s affected:

http://blog.mailchimp.com/how-gmails-image-caching-affects-open-tracking/

https://litmus.com/blog/gmail-adds-image-caching-what-you-need-to-know

http://blog.movableink.com/gmails-recent-image-handling-changes-the-impact-and-resolution/

While Google’s move has affected everyone in the industry, it will ultimately have little impact on some, based on the domain makeup of their list.   Regardless, there are a few things I’d recommend most marketers do today:

1.   Determine the real impact:   (Web Gmail, Gmail App on Android and IOS). What is the makeup of your audience/list? Don’t rely on industry statistics, as impact will vary by list, source, tenure and acquisition practices!

2.   Separate performance reporting for the next three months to properly baseline the potential effect.

Here’s my long-view perspective. Is this change going to deliver a worse consumer experience than before?  The potential of images being on by default is probably more appealing than a dynamically delivered experience. I believe that while this is a “control” move by Google, it’s going to force marketers to think “advertising” vs. direct response. They’re going to be thinking, how do I tap into Google’s advertising network to better deliver individually targeted & coordinated inbox experiences. (Note I did NOT mention email there?) 

If Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL decide to follow suit, you’d better be ready to coordinate ad buying, targeting your customers on those networks and being able to somewhat time that to your email promotions. 

If you are thinking about email only for the downside of this, you may be looking at the glass half full. Any change in the industry is also an opportunity to reassert yourself and your approach. I think this is definitely one of those times to stand up in your next leadership meeting and force some changes.

Tags: email, google
Recommend (3)
3 comments about "Google Shakes Up Email Again".
  1. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , December 17, 2013 at 5:42 a.m.
    The short-term issue is that dynamic content in emails got slightly more difficult - e.g. changing your images when products are out of stock. The long-term issue is that email marketers just got a wake-up call about the vulnerability of the ESP data they used for targeting: this change affects open tracking, but there's no reason why Gmail couldn't follow and cache the destinations of tracked links too. So if you've not yet taken steps to integrate eCommerce data into your email targetting, now is a good time.
  2. Andrew Bonar from EmailExpert , December 17, 2013 at 6:22 a.m.
    "But marketers and providers lose all insight into “view” activity, after the first image is cached." is not entirely accurate. There is no reason EDM providers could not continue to track this activity as normal. I explained in my recent blog post "5 Gmail Marketing Myths" http://emailexpert.org/bonar-calls-bs-5-gmail-marketing-myths/
  3. David Baker from Acxiom , December 30, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.
    Thanks for your comments Pete and Andrew. @ Pete, I completely agree commerce data will be critical and I also anticipate more change in the coming year. Andrew: I appreciate your perspective and YES, as an ESP, we are testing multiple tracking methods as well and have some unique capabilities. But have not implemented into core platform yet due to inconsistencies in the report data. IT'll take a bit more time before we universally change tracking methods... there are alot of downstream potential impacts and we'll proceed cautiously. Glad to see you guys at Campaign Monitor pushing the threshold. Happy New Year!