Looking back on 10 years of Gmail, with a timeline of the biggest changes for consumers and marketers.
Gmail was introduced on April 1, 2004, and in its 10-year history, it has developed into an advertising powerhouse - without resolving a tension between users of Google's own network advertising and the needs of email marketers. Every new enhancement and change makes marketers scramble.
The updates continue: Last week, Google introduced a field trial of a new feature that shows key images from deals, offers, and other marketing emails for users who have enabled the Promotions tab. It also released a Pinterest-like cards format for promotional emails, helping consumers decide which ones to open based on their visual appeal.
Google giveth as it taketh away. Revealing key images in marketing emails is a boon to advertisers vying for consumer attention with other emails, display ads, and Gmail users' personal and work messages. But over the years, Google's prioritization of user experience over marketer experience - as well as its own ad initiatives - has led to as much tsuris as joy for advertisers, as we see as we look back.
With the public launch of Gmail come AdWords ads. Some consumers get creeped out. The keyword targeting gives rise to images of legions of Google elves reading every email and inserting the appropriate ad. But they get over it.
The introduction of Priority Inbox lets Google have a say in what's important to individual Gmail users, who also can star their own emails. Unfortunately, this raises the bar for marketers who can't leave it to luck that a prospect might click on a promotional email.
Now, "one user's spam might not be another person's spam," says Kirill Popov, director of deliverability for email marketing provider Vertical Response. With the increased emphasis on open and click-through rates in determining what shows up in the inbox, he says, marketers need to segment their lists according to engagement and then work even harder to entice those occasional openers with A/B testing of subject lines and strong promotions.
Google begins delivering ads from Google Display Network into the email interface. In a sense, display ads are competing with marketers' own messages.
At this point, Gmail carries only 4 percent of all webmail, according to research firm Chitika Insights, compared to 62 percent for Yahoo Mail.
Gmail begins to automatically show images, which seems like a win for marketers. They can now attract consumers with luscious images without having to hope that an email recipient will choose to download them.
Gmail Sponsored Promotions, another long-rolling beta introduced in 2013, let a single advertiser show ads on the top, bottom, and side of the email interface within in the Promotions tab. The good news is that, instead of click-throughs heading toward a landing page, now clicks open the message like another email.
LuRae Lumpkin, vice president of global paid media for Covario, says Gmail Sponsored Promotions outperforms Google Display Network ads on a hockey-stick trajectory. "You can target within the Gmail sponsored promotion interest categories, and you can also target specific keywords or domains," she says. For example, "If someone gets an eHarmony email, Martch.com could make their ads appear."
Covario has found success including video, images, and even lead forms within the ads. Although all this comes at a greater cost than GCN advertising, she adds, "We're ready to bump the budget."
Later in the year, Google's rollout of the Tabbed Inbox scares marketers to death: Consumers can choose to send their marketing emails into a separate tab, never to be opened. However, Return Path finds that this actually increases open rates for a brand's most engaged users.
Today and Beyond
Today, Gmail still accounts for a relatively small portion of all webmail, but its active subscriber rate is higher at 19 percent, compared to 10 percent for AOL, 12 percent for Hotmail, and 14 percent for Yahoo, according to Yesmail Interactive. Gmail subscribers make up 14 percent of marketing databases across all industries, the email marketing company says.
"Google's evolutionary path has been dictated by what they see as their users' desires," says Popov of Vertical Response. "That's a powerful message for marketers to noodle on, that certain recipients tend to handle their email in different ways."
In a sense, with its expansion of requiring people to sign in with a Google account in order to do things like comment on YouTube videos, Google is forcing consumers into Gmail, even as it makes use of the actual webmail service less critical for its ability to market to them. Ultimately, what's good for Google is not necessarily what's good for emailers. But it may be better for consumers - and, ultimately, for brands.
From a consumer's perspective, says Michael Fisher, president of Yes Lifecycle Marketing, which operates Yesmail, "They want to know you are linked to them. You tolerate it because you want access to all that is Google. I think that doesn't go away now; it gets bigger and broader because you're mobile. The more mobile you are, the less time you have. If you look at all the things Google brings to bear in integration, there is ongoing benefit. I think Google makes personalization better for the brand, and that makes the consumer [happier]."
Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.
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