Design, Email marketing, Gmail Insights, Trends

Gmail Insights: Designing Images for the Gmail Promotions Grid

Some things just don't workUpdate: As of April 17, 2015, Google has discontinued the Grid View in Gmail.

In our last article, we looked at the grid view Google is beta testing for the Promotional tab in Gmail. Like most other ESPs, we like what we see, and think it has the potential to improve the relationship between email recipients and the promotional mailings they receive. In this article we’ll look at ways to take advantage of this feature to improve your open rates.

As we pointed out in the last blog post, leaving the image that appears in your grid view up to Google makes no sense. You could make sure that your hero image matches Google’s preferred dimensions (580 × 400 pixels), and keep all other the images below the threshold of acceptability (233 × 161 pixels), and that would probably work, but let’s face it, even if you do this, you’ll still want to back that choice up with—at the minimum—the following lines of code:

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
  <link itemprop="image" 
       href="http://www.example.com/product_image.jpg"/>
</div>

In this way, you avoid unhappy surprises. Since the code points to an image’s URL, it only requires that the image exists somewhere on the web. Our tests show that it doesn’t have to be in the email at all. This gives us the perfect opportunity to ensure that the displayed image is optimized for Gmail’s grid view and helps us provide a good-looking image no matter what the contents of the email contains (see also, the longer form of code in the previous post).

Creating a Grid View image

To demonstrate the how and why of this, let’s take an actual recent email from Sur la Table—a Seattle-based company that specializes in cooking equipment. Their emails are filled with enticing images, but they’ve developed two very bad habits. The first is that they place all their text in the images (see Using Text to Deliver Your Message), and the second is that they then slice these images instead of using image maps (see Keeping It Together—Image Slicing vs. Image Mapping). The grid view defaults to the first image that is large enough to fit the preview, which means in nearly all of Sur la Table’s emails, the displayed image is a cropped bit of the text portion of an image, creating particularly ugly grid view displays.

Needs grid view image

None of these emails from Sur la Table gives us any idea of the mouth-watering pictures that await us inside. The middle one, at least, seems to be offering something (free shipping), but the other two are almost meaningless. If we open the email on the right, we see that the mailing has an attractive image as the main component of its contents:

An actual email

Obviously, if you were going to choose which portion of this email to use for a visual display, the ice cream scoop would win hands down. By itself, a scoop of ice cream has no hook, so we’ll add the bit about free shipping that appears at the top of the page using the same purple they use in their copy. We also noticed that Sur la Table has not yet registered their Google+ account. If an email in the grid view either does not have a Google+ account, or it has not been registered, the panel displays either the first letter of their email address or domain name. We’ve added Sur la Table’s Google+ profile image from their account to finish the corrected email for the grid display:

Fixed for grid view

Now we have a panel that works. It’s by no means perfect, but it is substantially better than what we had when the process was left up to chance. I would also recommend that Sur la Table change their Google+ image to something that scales down better than the picture of their original store.

Grid View Images = Reader’s Digest

Sometimes your email may have two or three main messages scattered in different parts of the copy. By creating a grid view image, you can consolidate these pieces of information into a sort of executive summary. For instance, here is the grid view for an email from Ann Taylor:

Needs work

“EEING TRIPES” isn’t much of a message. Even if you do figure out what the message is really trying to say, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the image until you look at the email:

Actual email contents

Now the headline makes more sense. Clearly the topic of discussion is the skirt, and not the top, so let’s make sure that the skirt is shown in the grid view image. While we’re at it, let’s also add the “Extra 40% Off” offer to the image since sale notices are good sources for clickthroughs. Here’s our revised grid view:

Fixed display

Imaging Text

You’ll notice that we are straying from our usual recommendation to keep text and images separate. In a previous blog post, we discussed the advantages of keeping text and images as separate as possible. It improves your deliverability and it ensures that even when the images are turned off, your message gets across. While that’s still true for the content of your mailing, combining text and images as separate elements is not an option with the grid view. It has to be an image. If there is a textual message that you want to get across, you will need to convert it to an image. Here’s an extreme example:

text-based panel

This may not look like anything special, but here’s how it appeared in the Promotion grid view:

whenonlymytesthasimage-rev

Google’s choice of gray type on a light gray background makes all the other panels fade into the background. You may think this is an exaggeration, but it is not. The Superstore Central was an imaginary test file that I sent using Justin Khoo’s testing page.* Aside from the addition of the Google+ logo after the fact (since it was an imaginary company, it wasn’t an option), this is exactly how everything appeared on the page. No Photoshop tricks were used to move the panels around or replace them.

Amazingly, all of these emails had images that were large enough to serve as a display image, but were ignored either because they left off the height information, or they sliced up the image, or they started the page with a long and narrow image. Clearly this is a worst case scenario (or best case, if you are Superstore Central), but it demonstrates that right now, if you start adding the link tag for the promotional display to your email, you’ll have an edge over everyone else.

You’ll notice that the final line of text is not centered, but is shifted to the left to keep the Google+ icon from blocking the date. When you’re choosing or designing an image for the grid display, you should always keep this in mind. Even if you don’t have a Google+ account, the grid view is going to place that square over the image. In the previous section, had we made the image of the woman any bigger, the Google+ icon would have covered the striped skirt.

Even if your email has no images, as long as it has an HTML component (not a text-only email), you will want to create a preview image for the grid display. Otherwise, you could end up with something like this:

No image, just text

Size Matters

To create an image for the grid view, you first need to make sure its dimensions fall between 580 and 233 pixels in width and 400 and 161 pixels in height. You may be wondering why Google is requesting such a large image when, on most devices, the actual size of the displayed image is closer to the minimum than the recommended 580 × 400. Google hasn’t released any information on this, but we assume it is either to prepare for some future features (a pop-out display, for instance) or to make sure its compatible with any future device resolutions. If your image is the correct height or width, but is either very tall or very long, it might still cause problems, so you will want to size the image accordingly before you proceed. If the image is below the recommended size, but is larger than the minimum specifications, you should be alright.

To check the dimensions on your grid image, we’ve created a template that is sized according to the width recommended by Google (580 pixels) and the grid proportional height, which is slightly smaller than Google’s recommendation (398 pixels). [Note: The image may appear smaller than its actual size. To download, right-click and select “Save Image As…” from the drop down menu.]:

grid template

You can use this template by copying it and pasting it over the image you want to work with, then either choose the “Multiply” blending mode from the Layer menu (in Photoshop), or reduce the opacity (in other image editing software) to see how the image aligns to the actual image area. If your image is smaller than the white inner rectangle, it means it’s too small to use as the grid display image. If it is longer or taller in one direction, you will need to crop it accordingly. For example, here is an image that is the right height, but too wide:

too wide

If we left it up to Google, this image would either crop halfway through the model’s face, or it would not display at all due to its width. By moving around our template, we’ve found the optimal position for the image, which shows the model’s face, yet doesn’t crop off part of the text. You’ll then want to crop the image based on this position (remembering to delete the template layer, of course), which yields the following results:

final panel

In our second example, we have a considerably smaller image:

smaller image in place

In this case, the image is already smaller than the recommended size, but it is larger than the minimum, so it is usable. The problem we have here comes from the checkbox in the upper left corner, which looks as if it will interfere with the text. When we size the template down to the image’s actual size, we see that this is still a problem:

Adjusted for size

Repositioning won’t help in this case. If it’s an option, we could move the text down to clear the checkbox. If that’s not an option, we’ll need to find a different image to serve for the grid display. Also keep in mind that the size of the type can be a factor as well. Smaller type that’s readable when you view the image at 580 pixels might lose its legibility when its scaled down to fit the grid view on your browser. As always, a test send is recommended (if your test email doesn’t land in the promotions tab, you can easily rectify this by clicking and dragging it to that tab).

More to Come…

We’ve only scratched the surface here when it comes to the possibilities that the view grid presents. Some experimentation is in order. They haven’t officially rolled out the Grid view to the general public, but you can stay ahead of the curve by signing up to take part in the field trials here. You will, of course, need the Promotions tab and image display enabled to use this feature.

One thing we’ve learned from Google is that they are not about to stop tweaking the Gmail interface, so we do recommend some caution and vigilance when using these techniques. It is entirely possible that Google will change everything again in a month or two.

 

*Justin Khoo’s help with this and the previous blog post was invaluable. Justin is always on the cutting edge of email design. You can find more great ideas on his Fresh Inbox blog.

Email marketing, Gmail Insights, Trends

Gmail Insights: The New Promotional Email Grid View

Gmail grid viewUpdate: As of April 17, 2015, Google has discontinued the Grid View in Gmail.

Google is currently beta testing a new visual interface for the Promotions tab in Gmail that could revolutionize the way people interact with promotional email. If it is implemented in its current configuration, it will offer savvy email marketers a whole new way to get their messages across. Right now, its most impressive feature remains untapped. In the next two articles, we’ll talk about how you can use this feature to ensure higher open rates and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Last summer, Google introduced tabs to Gmail, segregating promotional mailings from email updates, forum notices, and the emails sent by friends. This change did not sit well with marketers, and many have tried to get around it by asking their recipients to please move their mailings from the promotions tab to the primary tab in hopes that this improves the chances for their emails to be opened.

Then Google started caching every email image. Although you still get information on open rates, things like multiple opens, geolocation, and viewing times no longer track back to the recipient. We speculated that it was part of an effort to control more of the data that passes through their servers. While we still stand behind that assessment, it appears that Google had something even more elaborate in mind.

Promotions Grid View

It is currently in beta, but when the Promotions Grid View is turned on, you’ll see your email in a visual grid. An image from the email is chosen for display and is scaled to fit. Your Google Plus icon appears in a small square at the bottom right of the image. It is probably not coincidental that the view grid bears a strong resemblance to the Pinterest interface. They have also added a button in the upper right corner of the tab that lets you toggle back and forth between the old list view and the new grid view. Every element of the list view is displayed in the grid view, but it is rearranged and, in some cases, dramatically resized in relationship to the other elements.

With the introduction of the grid view, there are now advantages in having one’s mailings land in the Promotions tab. As Facebook and Pinterest have proven time and again, an enticing image can lead to clicks. Whether or not marketers use this new feature wisely remains to be seen. At some point, it’s inevitable that some fringe-dwelling marketer will start using pictures of kittens to promote their products.

Email or Ad?

When Google introduced the Tabs last summer, one of the first things people noticed was that the ads, which were previously segregated above the email content, were now included at the top of the email list in the Promotions tab. They are identified as ads, and they are given a light beige background, but the fact they are within the Promotions tab made some cry foul. For those people, the new grid view is only going to make them angrier.

Ad example

With the grid view, the ads are still placed as the first item in the list, they are still identified as ads in the upper left corner, and they still have a light beige background; but, as you can see from the image above, once you add images to the mix, these things get harder to distinguish, unless you know what you’re looking for. The first panel on the left is an ad. The middle panel is not an ad, but has been selected, which gives it a light yellow background. It is possible that once people get used to the interface, the ads will become more automatically identifiable and will be no longer considered duplicitous. It is also worth noting that the grid view always limits the ad display to one square, whereas the list view may contain more.

The Voodoo Grid

If an email that does not have an image specified for the grid display, Gmail will choose an image based on several variables. If it can’t find an image that matches the required variables, it will display either the alt text, or the first text in the mailing. According the specifications listed on the Google developer’s website, the grid prefers an image size of at least 580 × 400 pixels, but the grid display will accept anything down to 233 × 161 pixels. In some cases, if an image’s width is too much greater than its height (an image that is 750 × 161 pixels, for instance), the image won’t display even if both dimensions fall within the limits. If an image doesn’t have both width and height information for the image, Gmail may ignore it completely. There are several other idiosyncrasies that can affect an image’s display. Justin Khoo at FreshInbox has done a good job of cataloging these on his blog.

Choosing an Image

Fortunately, you don’t have to leave things up to chance. Google lets you choose which image to display in its Promo tab, and this is where things get interesting. To select an image for display, you can insert a bit of code into your email that tells Gmail where to find that image:

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
  <link itemprop="image" 
       href="http://www.example.com/product_image.jpg"/>
</div>

Insert this either before or after the email’s contents. If you prefer, you can use the longer version, which includes information about your company and your Google Plus address (more on this later):

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/EmailMessage">
   <div itemprop="publisher" itemscope 
      itemtype="http://schema.org/Organization">
      <meta itemprop="name" content="Company Name"/>
      <link itemprop="url" 
         href="http://www.companyname.com"/>
      <link itemprop="url/googlePlus" 
         href="https://plus.google.com/+CompanyName"/>
   </div>
  <div itemprop="about" itemscope 
       itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
     <link itemprop="image" 
        href="http://www.example.com/product_image.jpg"/>
     </div>
</div>

Since the image in this case is coming directly from the provided href URL, the chosen image is not required to appear in the email. You could use an entirely different image, or, more logically, a modified version of an image from the email that is better suited to the grid display. The most powerful feature of the Promotions Grid—for the marketers at least—is the ability to use images that are specifically designed for the grid display without affecting the layout of your email. This opens up a whole new aspect to email marketing that, if other email clients follow Google’s lead, may result in an important change in email design.

The Visual Hook

In the past, the subject line was always the most important first element in an email. If the subject line didn’t compel the recipient to open the email, then it didn’t matter how good the content was, it would go unread. Coming in a close second in terms of importance was the From address, which is displayed either above or to the left of the subject line in most email clients. In the list version of the Gmail promotional tab, reading left to right, the From address is first, followed by the subject, and, if there is any room left for it, a snippet from the email contents (see The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial for more information on snippets and how to control their display).

List view

When reading text, our eyes naturally travel from left to right. The From address and the Subject line are given the same weight, and thus the same value, but it is still the subject line that compels us. The From line may help us decide whether or not we want to open an email, but the Subject Line is still the hook. Now here is the same email in the grid view:

display version

It important to remember that this image was not made with the Gmail grid in mind (in fact, many of ThinkGeek’s emails are appearing in the Promotions tab without any images at all). Gmail looks for the largest image in the mailings and scales that image proportionally, then it displays the image from the top if the height is greater than the width, or centers it if the width is greater than the height. In this example, the height is greater than the width so the bottom of the image is cropped off. In spite of it, the image does a good job of imparting the most important information in the email. Reading from left to right is no longer an option, so the brain automatically categorizes the information, giving the elements the following levels of importance:

  1. Large image
  2. From address
  3. Google Plus profile picture
  4. Subject line

Technically, the Google Plus image and the From address are about the same weight visually, but your eye is still more likely to hit the From address first unless the Google Plus image is particularly striking (and if you haven’t verified your Google Plus page, now is a good time to do so). This means that the Subject line, which used to be the most important piece of introductory information in an email now resides in fourth place.

With the visual grid, in other words, the image is the hook, not the subject line. This is not to say that the subject line is no longer important, it is. It is still the hook in every other email client out there, and for anyone who opts out of the grid display in Gmail, but it does create something new for the email marketer to consider when putting together mailings. Since the grid view does not automatically expect the display image to be taken from the email’s contents, we recommend using this feature to create your own grid view images.

The Grid View Image

So why create a grid view image? After all, with a little care and forethought won’t your primary image serve the purpose? Yes, in some cases it can, but most of the time the images are there to serve a different purpose. In the first place, it is not always possible to assign the most useful image to the first position. Take this example from Dot & Bo:

grid view and email

The image that is displayed is in the most logical position in terms of the email content, but it does nothing for the grid view. In fact, nearly every other image in this email would have been better to get across the fact that Dot & Bo sells furniture for the home and apartment. Of course, Dot & Bo could have completely redesigned their email with the Gmail Grid View in mind, but why bother? A couple lines of code would have solved the problem.

Managing Grid View Images

You may not want to spend too much time working on images that will only appear in one email client, but if your email is either primarily text, or it does not contain specific images that lend themselves to promotion, you might want to consider creating an image specifically for the grid view. This is one of the biggest changes to hit the email marketing field in years, and you are going to want to take full advantage of this powerful new feature. You won’t want to miss our next article, where we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of grid view design, demonstrating examples with quick and effective makeovers of real world mailings.