3 ways Gmail has changed email marketing
With Gmail accounting for one in three inboxes, it's nothing to sneeze at. Columnist Kyle Henderick discusses the ways in which Google's email service can affect your next marketing campaign.
You’ve developed a killer email marketing campaign, spent hours on hours developing that sweet creative, just finished your third round of quality assurance, and you can’t wait for it to drop into your subscribers’ inboxes. After all that work… what if those emails never land in those inboxes? Unfortunately, that’s a very plausible scenario in today’s ISP (internet service provider) landscape.
Like it or not, email deliverability can make or break your brand’s email marketing strategy. And now that Google is in the driver’s seat, it’s critical to understand how Gmail is changing the rules of the game in email marketing.
Gmail accounts for 1 in 3 inboxes
Gmail has rapidly expanded its user base. In a recent study, Yes Lifecycle Marketing (my employer) found that 30 percent of email subscribers use Gmail, a significant jump from 17 percent of subscribers four years ago.
There are a lot of reasons Gmail gained popularity with subscribers so quickly, and it all starts with the user experience. By developing a highly intuitive user experience, Google raised expectations and set a new standard for ISPs.
Gmail also gives users substantial storage and integration with Google Drive, Calendar and other tools. And with more and more users consuming email on mobile, it doesn’t hurt that the Gmail app comes pre-loaded on Android devices.
Combined, Gmail, AOL, Hotmail/Outlook and Yahoo comprise two-thirds of your subscribers. But of the four largest ISPs, Gmail is the only one that is growing its user base — and it’s taking more and more users away from the other ISPs every day. For email marketers, that means they need to understand Gmail deliverability standards to stay relevant.
From a marketing perspective, Gmail is a mixed bag. One the one hand, Gmail’s user experience and other innovations have made the channel more subscriber-friendly and appealing as a vehicle for brand interactions. But at the same time, Gmail brings a new set of inboxing criteria to the table — criteria that can create serious challenges for marketers.
Here’s what you need to know about Gmail and how it can affect your next email marketing campaign:
1. Gmail, while great, is still limiting marketers’ creative efforts
Gmail has been around for more than a decade. Even so, marketers are still struggling to utilize certain tactics within it and work through its nuances. There are a bunch of great articles that dive deeper into the technical specifics for Gmail (as there are a lot), in particular. Email on Acid has a great FAQ HTML coding article that is a consistent reference point for my team and me, if you want to dig deeper. For now, I’ll stick to the few points I think impact marketers most.
• When a subscriber opens a message in Gmail, the content is automatically stored
While this is great for the end user, that can be a problem for email campaigns with real-time content that has to be re-downloaded if the offer, location or other variables change.
Let’s say a consumer first opens an email at home but then reopens it later at work — the location-based data input won’t update. With this limitation, a retail brand distributing emails containing the closest retail location or a food delivery service offering weather-based options has limited options for multiple opens with Gmail in the mix.
This functionality also makes it unfeasible to track multiple opens. The content (and open tracking pixel) is downloaded once, and when it’s reopened, it will not be saved again.
• Web font support: Gmail is not a fan
Oddly enough, even though Google itself is a big supporter of web fonts, Gmail does not support them. For brands with strict brand guidelines, this can pose a problem. Here’s a good list of web font support by Litmus.
• Kinetic (aka interactive) usability and video in email
Similarly, Gmail lacks the video capabilities that Apple Mail boasts, which is a major issue because the use of video across all channels has increased throughout 2017. On top of that, there are “cool” kinetic features that Gmail is slow to support for the truly innovative marketing teams. Email marketers need to evaluate their audience and set up fallbacks before integrating video or kinetic ideas into their emails to Gmail subscribers.
2. Gmail raises the stakes on email authentication
One of the reasons consumers choose Gmail is its spam filters. Gmail’s inboxing criteria reduce the risk of domain spoofing, phishing and other malevolent practices.
Users receive less spam in their inboxes, but it requires marketers to take additional steps to ensure authentication as valid senders. Otherwise, marketers risk low deliverability rates for a significant number of subscribers.
To reduce the risk of non-delivery to Gmail users, marketers will need to pay close attention to authentication protocols. Specifically, it’s important to know that the forms of email authentication Google recognizes include Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM), Domain Based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) and Transport Layer Security Encryption (TLS).
Another one to pay attention to in 2018 is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While this isn’t specific to Gmail, this is another piece of legislation that will affect email marketers sending to Gmail subscribers. Taking the time to understand these regulations up front will save marketers a lot of trouble down the road.
3. Gmail users are highly engaged
Engagement is the holy grail in email marketing. Deliverability is the essential first step, but it’s what subscribers do after they receive marketing emails that matters most. The good news is that Gmail subscribers are much more engaged than subscribers using other ISPs.
Our Q3 2017 data showed that Gmail subscribers account for 49 percent of recent opt-ins (those who subscribed to email marketing communications within the past 90 days) and 38 percent of opt-ins over the last year. This is substantially higher than for the other ISPs, with Yahoo finishing a distant second at 17.9 percent of opt-ins over the last year.
Gmail users also are more engaged than other users. They represent 40 percent of subscribers who have opened or clicked a marketing email in the past three months. In comparison, Yahoo users are the second-most active users within the same period, accounting for just 17 percent of the total. What this means is that key features like Gmail’s easy unsubscribe button and promotion don’t negatively impact engagement the way marketers feared when these features were first introduced. Instead, it seems that they filter the most interested subscribers.
As a marketer, email plays a role in the success of your brand’s marketing strategy. Increasingly, that means you have to make friends with Gmail to connect with a sizable share of your subscriber base.
Practice good data hygiene and incorporate other best practices into your campaigns — and then take the next step and evaluate how Gmail’s idiosyncrasies will impact your efforts. After all, there’s a one in four chance that your most active subscribers are Gmail users.