How Gmail’s image update will affect reports

That Gmail are now displaying images by default has brewed a lot of discussion in regards to both the email experience and tracking. We've been keeping an eye on these changes - here's how they will impact email senders like yourself.

First of all, it's worth kicking off this discussion with a little perspective. At last count, Gmail market share for both its webmail and mobile clients (as measured by opens) was around the 3% mark. So to run a headline like, "Gmail blows up email marketing" is misleading and wrong. If you put reasonable thought into your campaigns, there are greater issues to consider - like, whether your call-to-action is remarkable enough to get your readers' attention… Or if the new Hobbit movie is worth lining up at midnight for.

So with that in mind, Gmail's news is both great and rather irritating for senders in equal measure. But not game changing, by any means.

Images are now displayed by default

First, the good news - we'll be gradually seeing images being turned on in Gmail inboxes, without having the recipient have to click a "Display images below" prompt first. This means that image blocking should no longer be an issue in this client, which with luck, will have a positive effect on brand recognition and engagement. Having your logo, or a particularly juicy image immediately visible is undoubtedly a good thing… However it comes at a price to email senders.

In order to make automatic image downloading safe for recipients, Gmail has opted to serve all images via Google's own proxy servers. While this provides an extra degree of safety, not having images downloaded from external sources like Campaign Monitor's servers is sure to have some impact on reports. This is because all email service providers rely on image downloads to provide some kind of tracking - let it be to determine which email client a subscriber is using, where an email has been opened, or simply that the email has been opened at all.

How will these changes affect my reports?

The skinny is that while Gmail open rates should not be affected in Campaign Monitor reports (we have workarounds), device and geolocation tracking remains an issue for all email service providers. Going forward, some subscribers using webmail Gmail won't have their device recorded and may show up in Worldview as being located in Mountain View, CA (Google's HQ). Given the changing nature of Gmail (and our team's knack for hacks), this may change.

Our postmaster, Andrew, was very quick to report on Gmail's changes in his Email Experts blog. I highly recommend reading his post for a detailed look at not only these issues, but how email services have continued to track opens in Gmail.

As email marketers, the bottom line is that we should stay focused on sending excellent campaigns - just as previous changes did not bring on the early decline of western world, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself suddenly lacking the information needed to iterate on and improve your campaigns. For webmail Gmail, images will start being served from Gmail's servers today, however mobile apps will make the switch during 2014. If you have a question about Gmail's changes, or want to share your 2 cents, please leave a comment below.

Posted by Ros Hodgekiss

9 Comments

  • Chris
    13th December

    Google says the reason they disabled images by default was security. I for one didn’t even consider that but rather like most assumed it was because of spam. Since with images enabled by default spammers can realize you a real email and then blast you more. How is Google going to deal with this issue now?

  • Mark
    13th December

    Another drawback I’ve noticed is Google are running the images through something before saving them to their server.

    This process is removing colours form gifs and replacing them with transparency, resulting in very ugly images.

    Initially I thought this was a compression thing but some of my images are now three times the original file size.

    I’ve not tested this much yet but it looks like this isn’t effecting the quality of animated or transparent gifs so that could be a work around but I’d hope Gmail would look to fix this on their side.

  • Mark
    13th December

    Ignore my above post, just ran another test and all images looked fine.

  • Raymond
    13th December

    Hi Ros,

    I like your down to earth approach to Google’s recent changes. People somehow tend to overdramatize these issues.

    I always tell my clients that even though it makes sense to keep an eye on trends like this, their main focus should *always* be on creating killer emails. Or…on that Hobbit movie you mentioned.

  • Eric
    14th December

    There should still be an impact on open rates. Before images were turned off by default and that included the tracking image. In that case the email was counted as open only when the user clicked on ‘display image below’. Now with images on by default as soon as the user open the email it is counted as open even if the email is deleted right away. Shouldn’t we be expecting an open rate bump here?

  • Ros Hodgekiss
    17th December

    Raymond - I can confirm the Hobbit movie is pretty good from a pure action/effects perspective. However, I feel that I missed something by not reading the books. The bottom line is… You’re giving good advice there :)

    Eric - Yes, it’s very plausible that we’ll see a lift in opens, however the lack of device detection will make it tricky to attribute changes to Gmail specifically. Watch this space, as we’ll certainly post any other observations we come across as this story develops :)

  • Raymond
    23rd December

    @Ros - Thanks for the Hobbit recommendation. Will look into it! ;-)

  • Hugh Macken
    20th March

    This will also impact email ad serving (where the ad is being displayed within an email newsletter but served up dynamically from an email ad server). For example, it may not be possible to do things like geotargeting the ads when the email is read inside gmail or google apps email.

  • Hugh Macken
    20th March

    Following up on my previous comment, I just checked with LiveIntent.com, an email ad serving firm which also happens to run an email ad network and they informed me that the gmail change does not necessarily impact them in the way that other ad serving companies might be impacted since they (and others like them) are able to leverage offline first- and third-party data, as well as custom audience techniques that are not cache-dependent. I was also just informed that LiveIntent’s CEO praised Gmail’s move as a move in the right direction for all. (See http://www.adotas.com/2014/01/thanks-google-cashing-in-on-gmail-caching/)
    Full Disclosure: My company is not affiliated currently in any way with LiveIntent.com. They are, however, an email technology company whose growth I have been following very closely over the past two years.

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