Gmail Changes' Effects on Marketers
Google has gone nuclear on email marketers in 2013. In May, it shuffled promotional emails into a separate tab in Gmail inboxes. Now it has now taken away a key tracking mechanism marketers have traditionally leaned on. 

Earlier this month, Epsilon released a study that concluded that tabbed inboxes are negatively impacting the ways consumers engage with brands in their Gmail inboxes. This week, CMSWire talked to Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at Silverpop, a digital marketing technology provider, about Google's decision to open images by default, another potential blow to marketers. 

See It Now

Marketers have long been able to track email opens using images. And they continue to do so in many cases. Images are still turned off by default in email clients other than Gmail and marketers can track when those images are opened.

But what about popular Gmail, now that Google has turned images on by default? There are two things to consider, McDonald said.

  • First, open rates are a very imperfect measure for marketers to use, especially now. Why? Because open rates will suddenly appear to be going up because all those images that previously had not been getting clicked are now opening by default. That is going to cause some reporting headaches for some marketers.
  • Second, Google will no longer be passing along detailed information about who opens those messages. Marketers will no longer get that granular data that was generated when people opened images, including device info and location information.

Some marketers will see this as a loss of potentially important demographic information, McDonald said. But not all of them. Most of Silverpop's clients don't target based on those metrics, so it won't be as big of a problem for them.

For some of Silverpop's technology partners, however, it is a bigger deal. Multivariate testing with images will become more difficult, McDonald said. So will time based promotions. Imagine an email announcing a promotion that will expire in three days. In the past, there may have been a little dynamic counter or clock image in the email that updated when the email was opened a second time. With Google caching the images, the initial image will be the only one that shows up.


Gmail tabs shuffle promotional emails into a separate tab, but high quality content will still be engaging, McDonald said.

Tabbed Browsing Rules

In May, Gmail created tabs within inboxes for primary, promotional, social and other types of mail. Each type of mail is funneled into separate tabs now. McDonald said, "Google is on a roll, and we can expect the unexpected going forward."

Epsilon, a marketing services firm, released Gmail Tabs: An In-Depth Analysis  this month. Based on analysis of seven months of aggregated email data, the study concluded that Gmail’s tabbed inbox is causing a significant decline in click rates. The study accounted for seasonal differences in email engagement and also contrasted the Gmail data with email performance at Yahoo and Microsoft.

Quinn Jalli, senior vice president of Digital Marketing Services at Epsilon, concluded marketers have reasons to be concerned. Historically, there has been a "predictable difference" between click performance in Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo!, with Gmail garnering the highest click rates. Now the gap is closing, and Gmail click rates are more aligned with those of Yahoo.

The study noted:

It is hard not to conclude that Gmail tabs is indeed affecting the click performance of marketing campaigns. Not surprisingly, many consumers are not aware of the inbox format, and like a less severe junk folder, the tabbed inbox creates an 'out of sight, out of mind' scenario that is reducing the effectiveness of email marketing programs. The increased likelihood that Gmail consumers are viewing emails on a smartphone means that a further strain on your marketing program may exist. In short, it appears that the tabbed inbox may be the problem all marketers knew it would be."

A total of 66 percent of Gmail opens in September and October were on smartphones, Epsilon concluded. 

The reality is that Gmail is creating complex problems that marketers cannot afford to ignore. Companies that have engaged customers and use high quality content will likely still get through to their customers, McDonald said. Companies that use mediocre tactics and don't have engaged audiences will likely see a drop in engagement. 

Gmail addresses account for about 25 percent of customer databases, McDonald said, so it is usually the largest segment of email users. As of this writing, Google has been rolling out the image caching changes to desktop users only, with Android users expected to see the changes in early 2014.