Gmail has come a long way since its invite-only beta days. The email giant recently celebrated its 10th birthday — a reminder of how much the service has evolved over the years. From changing the way emails are viewed to the way they are delivered, features like strong spam filtering, highly visible unsubscribe links, Google Apps integration and automatic image loading have made Gmail one of the safest and most powerful email service providers available.
There are two particular Gmail features, however, that completely shook the email marketing landscape. In 2013, Gmail introduced tabbed inboxes, where emails are organized into sections called Primary, Social and Promotions. This means email marketing messages are no longer located in the main inbox that users see when they log in, but in a separate Promotions tab that requires an extra click to view. To a lesser extent, in March of this year, Gmail also began testing its grid view, which displays email marketing messages in the Promotions tab as images.
What do these changes mean for businesses? On its face, it would seem as though Gmail is making it harder than ever for email marketers to reach subscribers. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the evolution of Gmail actually makes it one of the most email-marketing-friendly platforms available to small businesses today. [10 Email Marketing Solutions for Small Businesses]
"If anything, Gmail has always been very good to legitimate email marketers that respect best practices and simple email etiquette," said Francois Lane, CEO of CakeMail, a Web-based email marketing software.
For instance, Google Apps' version of Gmail allows businesses to use their own domain in place of the "@gmail.com" extension. Not only does this provide small businesses a cost-effective way to use a custom domain in their emails, but doing so also legitimizes them as a company and helps land emails in the inbox, Lane said.
Moreover, the automatic-image-loading feature protects subscribers while helping marketers get their message across. As a precaution, users were previously required to choose whether they wanted to load images in their emails. These images were typically hosted externally, making users vulnerable to viruses, information gathering and unauthorized access to browser cookies. Now, images are hosted through Google's image proxy servers and are scanned for suspicious content. This means users can rest assured knowing that images are safe enough to load automatically. But it also means email marketers who don't play by the rules are heavily penalized, and those who do are rewarded.
"By enabling images displayed by default on all emails, marketers can be more confident that their emails will appear as they wanted them to when they sent them," Lane said.
Where email marketers are experiencing the most impact, though, are with tabbed inboxes and the new grid view.
When Gmail first introduced tabbed inboxes, many email marketers feared the overhaul would damage their campaigns. Nearly a year later, however, organizing emails into separate categories has actually proven to benefit email marketers.
"Marketers were naturally concerned about the tabs feature, [anticipating] Gmail users wouldn't see promotional emails," said Michael Fisher, president of Yes Lifecycle Marketing, the creators of email marketing service Yesmail. But Yesmail's fourth-quarter performance results indicated that user engagement was actually the highest with Gmail subscribers, he said. "Worries about the tab changes were unwarranted," he said.
Even better, marketers don't even have to modify campaign plans in spite of these changes, Fisher said. "Unless email marketers experienced deliverability issues with Gmail, they could treat their subscribers like the rest of their audience and keep their strategy the same," he said.
But that's only the case if the email marketing strategy is right from the start. Although Gmail still has the highest user engagement, the Promotions tab has certainly caused open rates to take a hit.
"The Promotions tab has decreased the email opens of the emails," Lane said. This means it's more important than ever to stay on top of email marketing campaigns. "The ones who suffer the most are the ones who don't send frequently enough, who don't have a relationship outside of the digital world and who don't have engaging and spectacular content," he said.
As part of the Promotions tab, grid view makes it much easier for Gmail users to identify brands and offers. Instead of displaying emails as a text-only list, grid view uses featured images to highlight promotions.
"[Grid view] is a more visual way of receiving messages from brands that's closer to a Pinterest page than a standard inbox," Fisher said. Like many other changes Gmail has implemented, grid view is focused on improving the user experience of subscribers, he added.
As such, this new feature is a window of opportunity for email marketers to make an impact.
"Gmail continues to innovate and create a compelling email experience for its users," Vivek Sharma, co-founder and CEO of email marketing provider Movable Ink, said in a statement. "Its elegant new 'grid view' format presents email marketers with an unprecedented opportunity to engage with recipients."
Movable Ink recently released its agileEMAIL service, which aims to boost open rates on grid view. Ways to do this include testing different featured images; personalizing images, such as by including a recipient's name, birthday or other information; automating contextually relevant images in relation to a recipient's device, location or weather conditions; and displaying timers that count down limited-time offers or special sales.
Google's Developer Page also provides several grid-view guidelines, Fisher said. These include the following:
- Using featured images that are at least 580 x 400 pixels;
- Including a sender image for subscribers to identify the sender — for instance, a company logo, which is taken from the business's verified Google+ Page; and
- Limiting the sender name to 20 or fewer characters, and the subject to 75 or fewer characters.
Email marketers should also create attention-grabbing artwork, design and copy to engage audiences and elicit a response from users, regardless of the type of device they're using, Fisher suggested.