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.

Email marketing, Gmail Insights, Trends

Gmail Insights: What’s Behind Google’s Gmail Image Caching?

Google Gmail caching

Google certainly likes to tinker with Gmail. Last summer, they added tabs to the Gmail inbox, which some people predicted would lead to massive declines in opens and engagement and signal the eventual demise of email marketing, if not the entire western world. On this blog, we predicted that the fear of the Gmail tabs was overblown and that good, engaging subject lines and content would prevail. We’re happy to report that the statistics appear to bear this out. While some ESPs have reported slight drops in open rates, most, Goolara included, have seen little or no impact from the addition of tabs.

Then in December of 2013, Google threw another wrench into the works in the form of image caching. Now, any image in an email is served through Google’s own image proxy servers, and are transcoded before they are sent. So if your image URL in your email is this:

https://BusinessDoman.com/emailName/image.jpg

Gmail will replace it with a cached version of the image using a URL that looks something like this:

https://ci4.googleusercontent.com/proxy/v9mmAKvXPJRqZDvsFQYZvcnnM96a1DadPf3OB9Qmz5c-gNudNHYd8HGIxyTY34HrqZKiw3mLXVi608hMy1Vph5IR1_DNGybsE=s0-d-e1-ft#https://BusinessDoman.com/emailName/image.jpg

In other words, the images in that email are no longer coming from you—they are coming from Google. This isn’t anything new to email clients. Outlook.com and Yandex already cache images and have done so for a while. Given the response in the email marketing community to Google’s announcement, it is curious to see how little attention was paid when Outlook.com started caching images.

So how serious is this change? We’ve been testing emails with it over the past few weeks, and what we found did not make us happy. Here are our findings and conclusions.

Image Requests as a False Metric

At the same time that Google started caching images, they switched from a default of images turned off, to a default that displays images upon opening an email. As a result, the January stats for Gmail showed a marked uptick in the email client’s use. One source reported a 243% increase in Gmail opens. Of course, an email platform that opens images by default is going to return higher open rates than one that defaults to images turned off. The same source reported last summer that nearly two-thirds of all email was being opened on iPhones. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see there’s something wrong with that figure. Figures like this make email marketers happy, but it would be a mistake to put too much stock in them. Your Click Through Rate (CTR) is still a better metric for measuring actual engagement.

We were initially worried that Google’s new caching approach would create a situation where only the first open and the first link address would be recorded, but a test send revealed this not to be the case. If you send out three thousand emails, you’ll receive the correct number of opens. Where the metrics fall down is when it comes to the subsequent opens. These aren’t recorded, but reopens are notoriously misleading numbers when it comes to determining recipient engagement.

A bigger problem with Google’s caching approach is how it affects image replacement. In the past, if you sent an email with a problem image, you could replace that image on your server and any subsequent opens would see the new image. Now that Google is caching the images, this is no longer always true. Emails that were opened more than an hour after an image was replaced on the server fared okay, but emails that were opened within a few minutes after the image was replaced did not reflect the changes. Google does appear to replace modified images, but they do it in their own sweet time, which is bad news for marketers.

Where in World Are You?

One metric that is severely curtailed by Google’s image caching is the ability to geolocate a recipient based on the IP address. Any attempt to do so will return Google’s Mountain View headquarters. This is because it was Google, in fact, that requested the image. Our investigation shows that two separate and unrelated email addresses receive the same cached image and it is only on the first open that the image is requested from the sender’s server.

Information about the location of a user (based on their IP address), as well as information about the devices used to read the email (iPhone, tablet, desktop application, etc.) is rarely useful on an individual basis, but can be quite interesting in aggregate. Knowing that Sam Jones once used an iPhone to open an email while in Boston isn’t terribly useful, but knowing what percentage of users are opening with mobile devices is quite useful, and knowing where the bulk of your users are located around the world can help you determine how regional your content offers should be. Unfortunately, Google has now removed this information. It is still available for clickthroughs, as Google and others have not yet re-written these to go to Google’s proxy servers, but that’s not to say it won’t happen in the future.

Once is Enough

An aspect of Google’s new caching technique that has some email marketers up in arms is the fact that it completely eliminates any data on reopens. Once the image is on Google’s server, if an email is opened a second time, this fact is known only to Google. In truth, the value of the second open is questionable. Deleting adjacent emails and any accidental clicking of the email are treated as additional opens, but have little value in terms of engagement. The clickthrough rate is a more important number and fortunately for marketers everywhere, Google hasn’t found a way to take that away from the ESP metrics.

One interesting side effect we’ve noticed is that email senders with slow servers are getting a boost in content delivery thanks to Google’s Content Delivery Network (CDN). Retail senders such as Anne Taylor and Fab are showing noticeably faster image load times in Gmail than in our other email clients. On the other hand, companies that use third-party CDNs, such as Akami, CacheFly, and Amazon Web Services no longer have the speed advantage here when it comes to displaying images in Gmail. As to whether this is enough of an issue to affect the bottom lines at these CDNs, that remains to be seen, but it is doubtful. There are still plenty of other people out there using email viewing platforms other than Gmail.

All Your Data Are Belong to Us

So why is Google doing this? Google’s official explanation of the reason for this change is that “some senders try to use externally linked images in harmful ways.” They don’t explain exactly what they mean by this. They simply say it and assume we will nod in agreement. “Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location,” which is true enough, but exactly why this is bad thing is not explained. They go on to say that this new approach will help avoid unwanted cookies, malware, and viruses.

“We’re just doing it to help you,” Google seems to be saying. “We have no other motive.” But let’s look at what Google had to do to get this up and running. With over 450 million active users, this isn’t a minor undertaking. First they had to set up proxy servers—many terabytes worth—to cache all these images. Then they had to devote time to coding the procedures that rewrite the URLs to send image requests to their servers, which normally means hours of testing, debugging, and retesting. That’s a lot of work. Clearly there has to be a benefit for Google.

It’s true that improving customer service is always good policy, but an important fact omitted from Google’s rationale is that data such as the IP addresses and the geolocations don’t magically disappear when Google caches the image. The sender may no longer get this data, but Google certainly does. What Google plans to do with this information remains to be seen. Google has already shown a tendency to take the long view on things, so we may not find out the reasons right away, but it would be naive to think that Google doesn’t plan to use this data.

Addendum: Perhaps in response to the complaints from ESPs about their new caching policy, Google quietly updated their Gmail system, allowing you to override the caching by including no-cache information in the image header:

Cache-Control: no-cache max-age=0

Some ESPs have already implemented this, and some have not. While this does help the ESPs track the number of opens a mailing will have, it doesn’t address the main downsides to Google’s new policy. The image request still comes from Google, not the recipient, so any information about recipient’s location or the device upon which the email was opened remains unknown to the sender. As far as anyone can tell, Google requested the image and it was sent to their servers in Mountain View. Whether Google will allow this information to be passed on to the ESPs at some future date remains to be seen. For now, that information belongs to Google and they’re not sharing it.

Email marketing, Gmail Insights, Trends

Gmail Insights: Gmail Reinvents Itself

Gmail tabs

Recently Google introduced a new feature to Gmail that has some marketers up in arms. In the past, an email could wind up in one of two places: the inbox or the spam folder. Gmail users could prioritize their mail with labels, but as long your mailing didn’t end up in the spam folder, you were doing alright. Now Gmail users have the option of dividing their email into separate tabbed areas based on the content. These tabs are, as follows:

  • Primary—This is where all personal correspondence or any email that Gmail can’t categorize ends up. It is the first tab and automatically appears whenever the Inbox is opened.
  • Social—As the name suggests, any email from sites such Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn will end up here, as well as email from dating sites.
  • Promotions—Most marketing email will end up here, including special offers and company newsletters.
  • Updates—Transactional email, such as order receipts, program updates, and monthly charges should end up in this tab.
  • Forums—Similar to Social, forums, mailing lists, and any special groups to which you belong will appear here.

Gmail tabs

Whenever new email is added to one of these tabs, the tab displays the number of new emails along with the first few “From” names that appear on these mailings. These tabs are also available on the Android and iPhone Gmail apps. For now, the tabs feature is an opt-in setting, but Google has said that in the future it will become a standard feature of Gmail.

For the power email user, these changes do not matter much. These people have already applied filters to their email to categorize things more easily. As a member of some particularly hyperactive discussion groups, I learned long ago about the advantages of assigning certain topics or “From” addresses to their own folders. But for the person who normally doesn’t bother with any email sorting beyond dragging receipt emails to a separate folder, Gmail’s new tabs could be a game changer. How much of a game changer remains to be seen.

What goes where?

How does Google decide under which tab to put a new email? Google won’t say anything about their logic, probably to avoid people trying to game the system. This is similar to their SEO logic, where they will say very little about the algorithms. So here is our take on how they are doing this. The Social tab is probably hard-wired to the main social sites —Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, etc. This should work pretty well and is fairly foolproof. It does mean that promotions from these companies come in as Social, as we’ve already experienced. For all other email, we suspect they are scanning the content, looking for keywords, and the things that they examine for deliverability already, such as the number and location of links and the text-to-image ratio. Anything that has commercial sounding keywords, or many images, will likely go to the Promotions tab.

If this is true, then ironically, sophisticated marketing email design suddenly become less valuable. A transactional email that includes several images, complex tables, and additional offers, has a strong chance of ending up in the Promotional folder instead of the Updates folder where it belongs. A simpler transactional email containing few if any images or links, and is primarily text has a better shot at the Updates folder in this case.

For some marketers, Gmail’s new interface seems like a direct assault on their businesses, arguing that segregating promotional email into its own tab is tantamount to creating a new Spam folder. Although the actual effect remains to be seen, some people in the industry predict that we will see a drop in response rates.

So is this the end of the world?

First and foremost, it is important to remember that most promotional mailings are going to end up under the Promotions tab at first. The problems you’ll face as a marketer with this new system really aren’t that different than they were before. People can usually recognize promotional email almost immediately, and its success inevitably boils down to the usual factors—intriguing subject lines, compelling content, and how easy you make it to respond to offers. Whenever email lands under the Promotions tab, the client is alerted to new email in the tab bar immediately, but how people respond to these notifications is still unknown.

Some concerns about the potential effect of tabs on customer responsiveness are valid. Extremely time sensitive emails (“25% off afternoon special”) might get overlooked until it is too late. But it is equally possible that when clients discover they have missed short-lived specials, they will be more diligent in the future when it comes to viewing their promotional emails, which could benefit everybody in the long run.

If you are sending transactional emails you are going to want to pay close attention to where your mailings end up. You may find that your transactional emails are being treated as promotional based on the keyword-scanning methods Google appears to be using.

Google’s Rulebook

Google’s stated goal with these recent changes is to make Gmail more relevant to the users. That was the idea behind the addition of the priority feature in email, but it appears that not too many people bothered with that feature, so they are trying a different tack. In the end, the success or failure of tabs will hinge on the public reaction. It is interesting to note that one of the features Google touted for Gmail when they introduced the service was the idea that you did not need to categorize your email, but could, instead, use search to find specific emails. Apparently, they no longer feel this is the case. Google has never been particularly responsive to marketers; just ask anyone who has dealt with SEO issues over the past few years. It is doubtful that any complaining by marketers will yield results.

It is also apparent that the interface is not 100% accurate. I’ve received promotional mail in three different folders without any rhyme or reason. It appears as if Google is resorting to keyword connections to determine the placement of some email. If your mailing is in reference to a specific event, such as a webinar, or contains information that resemble a receipt, there’s a chance it will end up under the Updates tab instead of Promotions. We are also seeing a lot of crossover between Social, Updates, and Forums, depending on the information in the “From” address.

One thing is certain, this will not be the last time that Google fiddles with email, nor is it a marketer’s worst nightmare. Good marketing will prevail because, in spite of any grousing on the part of the general public, people like good marketing. It informs them, entertains them and aids them. As long as your mailings do one of these three things, you’ll be fine.