This Is Your E-Mail; This is Your E-Mail on Gmail

When Gmail launches, it’s going to be huge. It could even rewrite the rules of engagement for email marketing.

How huge is huge? J. Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Email Service Providers Coalition (ESPC), estimates the service could account for 5 to 10 percent of all inboxes “in relatively short order.” Practically overnight, Gmail is likely to become one of the top five inbox providers.

“Google is a brand and a tool that consumers already know and love,” Hughes points out. Much, if not most, of the initial migration to Gmail is expected to come from current Hotmail and Yahoo users. The privileged few who already enjoy Gmail accounts are busy exchanging tips in online discussion groups regarding the best way to port their mail from those services into their new, spacious 1 gigabyte Gmail accounts.

“We know Yahoo and the Hotmail guys really, really well — and they’re freaked out,” Tom Gillis, IronPort‘s senior VP of worldwide marketing told me.

E-mail marketers are starting to freak out, too. Hotmail and Yahoo present deliverability and other challenges to legitimate emailers, but they’re the devil you know. If Gmail changes any rules at all, and it looks like its going to change at least some, emailers will have to be flexible — and fast.

Already, some deliverability companies are making “we’ll help you get ready for Gmail” part of their marketing pitches. Thing is, no one outside of Google has much of a notion exactly what to be ready for when it comes to delivering email to Gmail users.

Suggest-A-Format

Take HTML formatting.

When viewing email, the right margin of the Gmail screen is reserved for Google’s AdSense ads. This narrows the message display area (regardless of how large the browser window).

Bottom line: Once a recipient turns on HTML images (necessary on a message-by-message basis, including repeat viewings), Gmail frequently wreaks formatting havoc. Many newsletters I get at my Gmail account look like they’ve been through a food processor. All the parts are there, but it isn’t unusual for, say, a right-hand skyscraper ad to appear five screens below the fold — in the left margin.

A Google spokesperson was unaware of this and asked me to forward some messages for him to see. When I did, another Gmail feature revealed itself: no outbound HTML. Time to rethink forward-to-a-friend requests?

Spam

Some beta users report good results with Gmail’s spam filter. What can I tell you? I’m not getting spam at my Gmail account (yippee!), primarily because precious few people have my Gmail address. What I do get are consistent false positives on confirmed, double opt-in e-newsletters (including this one). Google offered us Gmail accounts because we publish these newsletters, so let’s assume this isn’t deliberate.

So far, hitting “this is not spam” has helped only one daily newsletter emerge from the spam folder…inconsistently. Perhaps worse is at this point, the Gmail interface doesn’t indicate if anything’s actually in the spam folder. I assumed mine was empty, so it was days before I checked. Voilà! All those missing subscriptions I’d been wondering about.

How does Gmail filter? Is it Google’s technology, or is it partnered with an outside vendor? Will there be a whitelist? A Google spokesperson would only confirm Gmail does have spam filtering, and the company will continue to work on it. My guess is it’s homegrown, given Google’s penchant for developing its own technology.

Google uses Ironport’s bonded sender program for its outbond email alerts, but Gillis says his company has not yet gotten to first base with the Gmail team. “We’ve been trying to get in touch, but the thing is so chaotic, we haven’t been successful,” he says.

Gillis agrees Google’s historic attitude toward technology outsourcing is “no way.”

“We think that’s why it’s hard to get in touch with them,” he told me. “If a commercial vendor is going to get in there, I’ll bet you $100 it’s going to be IronPort after [Google tries] out their own homegrown stuff.”

I did learn one of IronPort’s much smaller competitors does have a meeting with Gmail scheduled next week. The company asked not to be identified.

E-Mail Address Change-O-Rama

Even if Gmail doesn’t go in radically new directions as far as filtering and formatting are concerned, marketers know they’ll have to get ready for an onslaught of email address changes and list cleaning when the service goes live.

Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, says marketers can prepare for this. “First, make it easy for people to update their email addresses on their Web site or in their actual emails,” he suggests. “Get customers to tell you about their switch to Gmail as it happens, and maybe even send out a special reminder the day or two before Gmail goes live for its general release.”

Blumberg also advises using an email change-of-address (ECOA) service to capture additional address changes. Whatever the method, widespread user migration to Gmail will mean a renewed dedication to list hygiene for the sake of open rates, conversion, deliverability, and limiting “unknown user” errors that can place marketers in deep disfavor with ISPs.

One Thing’s Certain: It’s Coming

Gmail is still very much in beta. Google, meanwhile, is very much in pre-IPO quiet mode. There simply are not a lot of answers right now. We don’t know when Gmail will launch, and we don’t know what it will be when it does.

What we do know is it’s going to be really, really big — big enough to change a lot of the rules legitimate emailers have been playing by. If Gmail’s format changes your email message format, it’s something you’re just going have to deal with. You’ve been warned.

Meantime, you’d do well to be skeptical, if not downright suspicious, of service providers who promise to get your email through whatever hurdles Gmail may erect down the road. I know a few dozen people who have Gmail accounts, and I know pretty much all the major players in the email delivery space. To date, there’s zero intersection.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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