Why auto-loading images in Gmail is really a good thing for your email marketing campaign
On December 12th, Google announced that they would start displaying images in emails automatically instead of making you click ‘Display images below’ to see embedded images. Initially there was a good bit of complaining that Google was once again using “user privacy” as an excuse to keep marketers in the dark about users. As we’ve had time to process the change, a new picture has started to emerge.
First, let’s take a step back and look at how images in emails have traditionally worked (and still work for the majority of email clients). Generally, emails are sent with embedded images linking to your server. This gives the sender the ability to not only see when a recipient downloads the image, but also what their IP address is, what their operating system is, etc. Marketers use this information to track these details and build metrics around them to show the effectiveness of email campaigns. Most email clients do not display these images by default to protect the privacy of the recipient. As a user, you can decide whether you trust the source by clicking ‘Display images below.’ This brings us to the reasons Gmail’s change will not destroy your email marketing campaign:
1. The ‘open’ metric just isn’t very accurate. Email marketers look at when the image is loaded to determine whether the recipient has opened the email or not. This can drastically understate the number of opens though, because a huge percentage of recipients could open and read the email without ever downloading your images. Much like keyword rankings, this is a metric that we’ve put far too much stock in.
2. Gmail makes the ‘open’ metric more accurate. To explain this one we have to get into the details of how Google is handling images now. Say we have an email with a header image in it and no other images. Previously when our server got a request for that image, we knew someone was looking at it. Now, when someone with a Gmail account opens our email, they’ll get our header image served from Google’s server, not ours. This is what had everyone upset about when Google first announced the change. If recipients are not downloading images from our servers, we have no idea how often they are getting opened. The image only gets downloaded from our server once, by Google. Google does not download the image until the first recipient opens the email. Once that happens, they download the image from our server, put it on their server, and show it to the recipient. From then on, all future recipients will see the image from Google’s server.
However, if we change the image for each recipient, in effect making each image unique (i.e. add a code to the image name), then Google will have to download the image every time a new recipient opens the email. And unlike before, the image will load every time they open the email so you should get more accurate open metrics from Gmail than before. Keep in mind, though, that Gmail users can still opt to not have images displayed automatically, so though ‘open’ is more accurate, it’s still not perfect.
3. Improving the user experience. By loading images automatically, the recipient gets the intended user experience without having to click another button. When they open the email, they see it exactly the way it was designed and the imagery can do its job. Anything that allows marketers to get their message across more effectively is a good thing for email marketing, and that’s exactly what loading images automatically does.
4. Business does not equal Gmail. Here in the B2B healthcare space, we’re not sending email to Gmail addresses very frequently. Typically business recipients are going to have a branded domain for their email account (less than 2% of our leads here at Dodge have a gmail.com address). Some businesses may use Google Apps for their email and utilize a branded domain, but it is unclear whether this change will affect those users.
We’ll need to wait and see how Gmail’s caching images really ends up affecting email campaigns. Are other email providers going to follow in Google’s footsteps? How will email marketing providers respond? Undoubtedly, the related technology will continue to evolve and we’ll be able to use these changes to more efficiently communicate with our audiences.