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Should Marketers Worry About Gmail’s Latest Change?

While ecommerce pros working with Google during the holiday shopping season were likely more concerned about click-throughs, bounce rates, and conversions, Gmail made a change that impacts not only its millions of users but the marketers sending campaigns to Gmail recipients.

For security reasons, Gmail users receiving images from a sender for the first time would have to choose whether or not to display those images, or to display images from that sender in the future. As a security feature it helped protect Gmail’s users from unsecure and potentially malicious content arriving via those images.

Google changed how Gmail handles images, by caching and serving those pictures through secure proxy servers. Ideally this means any possible dangers present in emailed images are detected and wiped out before the recipient ever views an email containing them.

This change also shifted the user’s level of control over choosing to display or not display a given sender’s images. They are all displayed by default unless one makes a change in Gmail’s settings and selects the option “ask before displaying external content.”

Since it seems likely a given user will let Gmail manage itself with regards to image displays, it’s important for online sellers who do email marketing understand what else is happening to their campaigns. As Monetate blogged, a small percentage of recipients, perhaps two to five percent, will see non-personalized messages rather than email tailored to the recipient based on data like the user’s location and the time of day the message is opened.

However, Monetate’s Nicole Kerr doesn’t see too much worry about real-time messages arriving in Gmail boxes. “Since 97% of people open each marketing email only once, there shouldn’t be much, if any, impact,” she wrote. “It just shows that open-time personalization is more crucial than ever to make that first message relevant and engaging enough to get recipients to take action.”

This change of course isn’t the first Gmail alteration Google has made that ended up having some impact on email marketers. The addition of tabs to Gmail, along with Google implementing automatic filtering of messages out of the main inbox to these tabs, led to marketers resorting to emails asking recipients to rescue their sales messages from the Promotions tab.

One firm, Groupon, mentioned this change in their Q3 2013 earnings call. Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky said the shifting of their messages to Gmail’s Promotions tab had “an effect on our open rates” – in fact, it experienced “double-digit declines in email open rates.”

The shift in how Gmail delivers images shouldn’t have as much impact on marketers as the addition of tabs and the change to email delivery did. However it should be worth any campaign’s time to watch their open rates and measurable metrics, and adjust as needed.

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David A Utter
David A Utter
David A. Utter is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. He has covered technology topics from search to security to online business and has been quoted in places like ZDNet and BusinessWeek. He considers his appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered" with long-time host Robert Siegel a delightful highlight. You can find him on Twitter @davidautter and on LinkedIn.