How Gmail's image-handling changes will affect email marketers

Loren McDonald: vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop
Loren McDonald: vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop

Gmail recently announced changes to how it will handle images in both desktop and mobile email, and here at Silverpop we've been assessing the potential impact on digital marketers.

While there are specific ways these changes will affect email marketing reporting and functionality, no one is certain yet how many users will be affected or whether any workarounds will emerge to minimize the effects. So, don't push the panic button yet.

Here's what we know so far about Gmail's changes.  

First, Gmail will automatically download images in emails viewed on both the web version of Gmail and on Android devices, as well as other devices when viewed via Gmail’s app — unless users specify not to allow it. 

This reverses the current default, which is to block images unless the user specifies images to be enabled by default. Google announced that images will load automatically in the Gmail Web client immediately; however, as of this writing I personally have yet to see images turned on.  

My assumption is that Google will roll this out over the next few days and weeks as they did with Gmail Tabs. Google also said that images would be turned on by default in Android devices and Gmail apps beginning sometime in Q1 2014.  

Secondly, Gmail will now cache those email images, meaning they’ll be downloaded once from the original server, but hosted on a Gmail proxy server thereafter.  

When a subscriber opens an email for the first time, the images (if loaded) will be served from the hosting provider such as your website, email service provider or image hosting service. Google will then cache those images on their proxy server, in essence rerouting all the image downloads and open tracking.  

This means that subsequent opens will not be trackable, and different images won’t be able to be served up after the initial open. Additionally, the IP location of the recipient will no longer be trackable, as all subscribers will be shown as located at one of Google’s server locations. 

It’s worth noting that it’s unclear at this point how long Google will cache an image. In other words, if you revisit an email seven days after the first open as opposed to reopening it the next day, it’s possible it could be treated as a new open.  

Expect a positive effect on opens

Although many marketers are up in arms over the expected loss of data they collect now for repeat opens, device, IP location, etc., Gmail's changes will give marketers a more accurate unique open-rate picture – and may lead to a gradual increase in unique open rates.  

Here’s why: in the past, many Gmail users viewed emails without enabling images. As a result, the open tracking pixel an email service provider inserts in a message also wouldn’t load, leading to underreporting of open rates. 

With image-enabling now set as the default, you can expect to see more tracking pixels load and a more accurate "unique" open rate to emerge. You might also see a tiny boost from Gmail users who view the message in a preview pane. 

On the flip side, "gross" or "total" opens for Gmail will now be underreported because of image caching, with the tracking pixel only being counted the first time the recipient opens your message.

Losing that data isn't a mortal blow for most businesses, however. Few marketers measure email according to gross open rates or "opens to opener" (the ratio of gross opens divided by unique opens). 

Secondly, the 500,000 vanity domains (e.g. that are hosted through Gmail aren’t currently impacted. Robert Consoli, head of deliverability for Silverpop, has tested this extensively, and for now all gross opens (regardless of device or browser) are being tracked – though this could change at any time.  

Expect negative effects on real-time content and device data reporting

The biggest concern is for digital marketers who use services to provide real-time or geolocated content (images and copy blocks) that can be different on successive opens or reflect the IP address of the proxy server instead of the email user. (Note: We’re talking to our real-time content partners about their response to Gmail’s new image-handling changes and will continue to share developments as they unfold.) 

Suppose your emails support your network of brick-and-mortar stores around the country with dynamic copy blocks listing store locations and hours according to the recipient's IP address location. Image-caching essentially breaks that geolocation. Thus, a recipient who lives in Atlanta might see information for Mountain View, Calif., where some of Google’s servers are located.

Capturing location via surveys, onboarding and preference updates could potentially help mitigate these geolocation challenges, as marketers could employ this ZIP or postal code data to drive dynamic content related to a recipient’s home address.

Also, emails that employ effective innovations such as countdown timers, updated images, and real-time image testing and optimization, will now only display the first image, not any change in images the marketer might serve after the email is distributed. 

Finally, marketers will lose some access to device detection data, which could be problematic to those who track which devices their readers are using to open, read and act on email messages. According to Silverpop partner Movable Ink, "Gmail is stripping the user-agent headers from the client request, which eliminates the ability to determine the Gmail user’s device."  

Take the finger off the panic button

As with all changes that Gmail institutes, the effects are not necessarily immediate and wide-ranging. Keep in mind that these changes have only begun to roll out to Gmail users – often a long, drawn-out process. 

Movable Ink estimates the changes will affect two per cent to five per cent of subscribers in the typical B2C email database. 

Automatic image downloading is a potential gain for marketers because readers won't have to take that extra step of clicking to enable images. This should be a boon for time-pressed readers who might have been more likely to speed past emails without stop-them-in-their tracks images.

In the coming months, marketers could begin to see a slight increase not just in opens, but also click-throughs and conversion rates and revenue, due to the better consumer experience of having images enabled by default. 

We expect to hear more about the effects and potential workarounds for image-caching in the next few weeks. So, stay tuned to this blog for developments. Meanwhile, use the comments section below to express your views, questions or concerns.  

Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop   

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