Posted on December 16, 2013 at 3:50 pm by Andrew Arnott

Gmail now showing images: good news for email marketers

Google have just rolled out a change to Gmail that has a few email marketers making ridiculously OTT statements like “Gmail blows up email marketing”. The update means that images within emails will now be displayed by default. Far from being a bad thing, as email marketers ourselves, we absolutely welcome the change. Here’s why…

Vintage envelope

Tricky Gmail

Gmail has come in for some stick from email marketers as a few of its features can make life a little difficult when you’re trying to make sure a beautifully-crafted email looks as it should and actually stands a chance of being read by the recipient. One such feature was the introduction of the tabbed inbox which has the effect of automatically filing away ‘promotional’ emails in their own special place where they can be easily ignored and may never see the light of day. In addition, Gmail also presents a number of barriers to measuring how effective a campaign is (i.e. tracking such things as who opened emails, which device or email client they used, and where they were located).

Images and tracking

One of the major barriers, and one which I believe causes the numbers of Gmail users to be massively underestimated, is that Gmail and Android email clients have for some time blocked the display of all images in emails by default. Why would this affect tracking and reporting? Well, images are the main way that email marketing systems track whether an email has been opened. Basically, a tiny invisible image is placed in the email and each time the email is viewed, the image is downloaded, recording the ‘open’. Opens are also recorded when links are clicked within emails, but the image download is the only way that opens are recorded if there’s no interaction aside from it being viewed.

Why is this important?

We like to think we’re using useful and meaningful metrics to report the effectiveness of email campaigns. But really, we’re not, and haven’t been for some time – check out this 2011 post showing how the vast majority of email clients block email images by default (iPhones/iPads and Apple Mail being the notable exceptions). The problem is, where image tracking is used, we have no idea what percentage of people actually opened an email and although trends may provide some insight, there’s still no telling how much of a given trend might be explained by the proportion of particular mail clients used to view campaigns (and no, it isn’t always consistent, as someone might view one email with Outlook while they’re at work and the next email with their iPhone for example). Litmus ( reports that Gmail only accounts for 3% of all email opens and yet I simply don’t buy that figure (it’s based on email ‘opens’ as reported by good old image tracking). I’ll be intrigued to see their figures once Gmail has turned on image display by default across both desktop and mobile (early 2014 according to Google). It will then of course overstate their figures relative to the default blockers (such as Outlook), but it will make it meaningfully comparable to iPhone/iPad and Apple Mail.

So why are marketers upset?

Gmail hasn’t just ‘turned on’ image display. What it’s doing is caching the images and then serving them from its own servers. That means it’s only calling on the image from the original ‘tracking server’ once. So in theory, only the first open by each recipient will be tracked. Not a major problem in my book, but from my brief testing, it seems that further opens are often being tracked anyway. A further problem is that the recipient’s location and the device that opens the email can’t be reported. Not ideal, but if we make the assumption that the majority of Gmail users previously had images blocked from email campaigns automatically (and it’s a fair assumption given that the majority of people don’t mess with the defaults and are unlikely to override them for marketing emails), then going forward, the reporting of ’email opens’ will be more accurate and more insightful than before.

Forget reporting

But before we get too carried away with reporting and analytics, let’s not forget about the user who’s on the receiving end of our beautifully designed and crafted emails. By default, they’re now going to see our emails in their full glory as we intended, while Google ensures that there’s no nastiness hidden within the images. Shouldn’t that be the most important thing after all? And that should be a major positive for email marketers too – if you really are producing content that’s worth reading and you use imagery that’s enough to pique someone’s interest, then this update can only be good news.

Nice one, Google

Sure, change can be a pain in the behind, particularly if it appears to be only for change’s sake, but from my point-of-view, as someone who designs and manages many email campaigns for our clients, I whole-heartedly welcome this update to Gmail, which improves the end-user’s experience and the accuracy of our reporting. Privacy advocates have been expressing concern at the change, some saying that we’ll be bombarded with spam (and that they’ll know your account is active so will up the volume) but the settings are still there to block images from unknown senders if you are concerned, and overall the changes should improve privacy as geolocation and device information is now blocked. Overall, it’s a win-win in my view and certainly not something we as marketers or users should be complaining about.

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