Picture This: Gmail Is Putting Brand Images In Subject Lines -- Again

Google is getting kudos for its Gmail overhaul. But observers may be missing an even more groundbreaking change: the ability to put custom brand images in the subject line.

This service, called PromotionCard, is still in the experimental stage. But it could be a boon to the email channel.

"The ability to present an offer visually is very valuable to email marketers especially, among online retailers,” says Justin Khoo, email developer, FreshInbox. “Promotion Card frees marketers from trying to rack their brains over an 80-character subject line." 

“Promotion cards could be a huge advantage for marketers, making images the new subject line, and providing a more visual way to stand out in a crowded inbox,” adds Tom Sather, senior director of research at Return Path.

Here’s what we know. 

Rafael Viana, a Return Path senior strategist based in Brazil, noticed that Gmail is testing that imaging capability. He saw an email from containing an image under the subject line.



According to Khoo, “it appears that this image is defined in a special Gmail specific code snippet called” 

Sather writes in a blog post that the email received by Viana “was split into ‘Top Promotions’ and ‘Other Promotions’, while others have reported seeing an urgent ‘expiring deals’ warning in their Primary inbox.”

This isn’t the first attempt by Google to put images in subject lines. In 2014, it debuted what it called Grid View. Senders could “specify images (using Gmail’s Ofer Schema) that would display in Gmail's Promotional Tab in a Grid layout,” Khoo writes. 

Google “quietly killed Grid View a year later,” Khoo continues. But he adds that a Gmail product manager told him it was only “for now.”

Times have changed, and now there is a competing service. As recently reported by Email Insider, Yahoo Mail has adopted protocols that will allow marketers to put brand logos in subject lines.

It is part of a larger security standard called Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) that was developed by Agari, working with Comcast, Google, Microsoft and Oath, the parent of Yahoo Mail.

Sather notes that “the emails in the top promotions sometimes greet the recipient with an image…giving visual flare in the inbox while at the same time providing the email the best placement at the top of the inbox. At most, only two emails will appear in ‘Top Promotions’ at any given time.” 

So how will Promotion Card differ from the departed Grid View.

“The thing about Grid View is that only Gmail users who signed up for the Grid View feature ever got to see it,” Khoo writes. “In the email marketing circles, we’ve joked that most of the people who had Grid View turned on were email marketers!”

This time around, the new feature is being “shown to regular users (albeit a subset of them),” Khoo adds

It goes without saying that there are many possible benefits. As Khoo says, “the ability to display imagery in the subject without opening the email is very powerful. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words and sometimes words just can’t describe things like the design of a brand new apparel or consumer device!”

Another benefit is that an image could establish the email as legitimate, while helping it stand out in the inbox. And it will allow Gmail to “better monetize email with native ads (imagery will fetch more $$ than text),” Khoo says.

So how will it work? “I have a feeling registration with Google will probably be required in the initial rollout just so that Google can monitor how the format is being used,” Khoo guesses.

Meanwhile, Gmail is exciting email professionals with its new design and features. Take the expiring email feature. 

“Whereas Gmail users can have emails expire and self-destruct, it’s easy to see how marketers could use this markup as a warning to users of a deal too good to be true that they’re about to pass up,” Sather writes.

“While these new feature tests may never see the light of day," he adds, "it is interesting to see how Gmail is trying to make promotional emails more relevant, urgent and fun for its users.”

Here’s hoping PromotionCard will soon be rolled out in the U.S.



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