Responding to Changes Like Gmail Image Caching

gmail-logoRecently, Google announced that Gmail will now serve all images through its own proxy servers. This is good news for users-the change removes the need for a user to click “display images” and provides a more secure experience. However, the change caused a stir in the email marketing community.

As others have pointed out, Gmail’s new feature could actually benefit marketers by allowing more users to see email creative in its full visual glory by default. The downside is a potential hit to the ability to track total opens, the ability to push updated images in the inbox post open and the ability to track device and onsite behavior based on an email open.

A similar reaction occurred when Gmail rolled out inbox tabs last summer. Then as now, users saw the change as positive, yet marketers panicked.

The panic makes sense. Change is scary. By the time something like Gmail image caching comes along, we as marketers have optimized our behavior to the status quo, and every new campaign is a struggle to move the needle a few percentage points based on that status quo. Then something changes and we lose the ability to track behavior (for a small subset of our audience) by device. Or Gmail inbox tabs drops our open rates (for the first 24 hours after send) through the floor.

Yet change is also inevitable. You can’t control it. The trick is to separate superficial change from true change and learn how to respond appropriately without losing sight of your true objective.

A superficial change is change that captures attention immediately, but doesn’t actually mean anything.

For example, say that out of 100 people, 80 have a job, 10 don’t have a job and have been looking for less than a year, and 10 don’t have a job and have been looking for more than a year. If we say the unemployment rate is equal to the number of people not employed over the number of total people, then the unemployment rate is 20 percent.

If we then change unemployment rate to mean the number of people who are not employed AND who have been looking for less than a year, then our unemployment rate changes instantly to 10 percent. It’s not valid to say that unemployment was cut in half; we just changed the way we measured it. There was no true change.

A true change is a change that is not necessarily noticeable immediately, but has real meaning and lasting impact. For example, more and more users begin to open emails on mobile devices. At first, no noticeable changes in open rates occur. Eventually, as users learn that opening emails from certain brands on a mobile device is pointless (since the experience is so bad), open rates begin to drop slowly. As the number of people opening email on a mobile device increases, that drop in open rates grows.

The rising number of people opening on a mobile device is a true change. It represents an actual, physical change in mindset and behavior. However, it’s important to note that true changes like this don’t aren’t always apparent in the metrics right away — some take time to appear.

In my opinion, Gmail image caching will turn out to be a superficial change –one that alters your metrics in the short term but not your performance. For the subset of your audience that uses a Gmail interface, total opens will be lower, you won’t be able to track device specific attributes and you won’t be able to do some fancy image loading in the inbox. But it won’t affect your offer, it probably won’t affect your targeting too much and your creative is likely to be more effective now than it was before. The core elements of a campaign remain unaffected.

Gmail inbox tabs seem like a somewhat more substantial change. Now, Gmail interface users are likely to see your email in an entirely new area: the Promotions Tab. Open rates are likely to drop, as are the number of engaged users. But is this a true change that will have a lasting effect on the way users engage with email?

Maybe. Some clients saw a drop in unique opens, but never saw a commensurate drop in unique clicks or conversions. For many, the change forced marketers to deal with the fact that the group of users who were opening occasionally and stopped were less interested before the tabs were included. The subscribers that drove the majority of the conversions were still engaging. The change forced the marketer to ask why the former group wasn’t engaged in the first place.

Was this a segment that wasn’t being identified and marketed to directly? What were the qualities of this unengaged group? Prior to the inclusion of inbox tabs, these zombies (not dead, but not alive either) stayed in the list, pulling down the metrics for the campaign as a whole. All the Promotions Tab did was highlight the presence of the “zombie” subscriber group. The Promotions Tab, in this respect, is a superficial change – one that did not meaningfully alter the underlying factors that determine a campaign’s impact.

Obviously, not all changes are superficial. As Wikipedia and Internet access grew, the need for printed reference materials drastically decreased. This was a game-changer, and Encyclopaedia Britannica recognized it and decided to stop printing encyclopedias. That’s a true change.

So when change occurs, remember to pause and consider if it’s a superficial change or a true change, and respond accordingly. Thinking a change is a true one when it is only superficial can lead a marketer to take unnecessary and even harmful actions.

It’s critical to understand the truth behind the numbers and the hype, recognize potential effects and anchor back to the objectives of growth and revenue before executing any shift in marketing strategy.

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