December 13, 2013

Google Just Cut Off A Major Data Pipeline for Email Marketing (Updated)

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Google has announced they will no longer ask users if they want to download the images inside emails. Instead, Google will automatically download all incoming images to internal Google servers, and then automatically display this internal version to users. While it may seem like a minor tweak, it carries major consequences for email marketers.

Most email clients automatically display the text portion of a new email, and ask users if they’d like to download any embedded images. If a user chooses to do so, the email client then pulls those images from the third party site where they’re hosted (such as MailChimp, or a private server). When this happens, data about the user is passed along to that website. First and foremost, the site is alerted that the email has been read. Additionally, sites can collect a user’s IP address and location, see the type of web brower being used, or embed a tracking cookie in the user’s browser. These features make up the backbone of email marketing analytics. They allow companies to reliably gauge open rates for their campaigns, and break down interest by location.

Google’s decision to internally store all email images themselves effectively cuts off this data pipeline. As Ars Technica explains, “E-mail marketers will no longer be able to get any information from images — they will see a single request from Google, which will then be used to send the image out to all Gmail users.” The only thing Google’s request will tell marketers is whether they sent their message to Gmail users (something they could probably have surmised themselves by looking at the addresses).

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this isn’t a big deal because it’s only one email provider. In 2012, Gmail passed Hotmail to become world’s largest email provider, with 425 million active monthly users. Features that first appear in Gmail often make their way into other webmail clients (such as automatic priority sorting).

Marketers will still be able to gather data on users who click links inside their emails. However, being able to see only the click-through rate without the open rate shows an incomplete picture of what’s really going on. Is your subject performing poorly (resulting in a low open rate), but your content converting well for those who do open it? Or do you have a high open-rate, but comparatively low click-through? These are very different issues that require unique solutions – but neither one can be identified without seeing both the open-rate and the click-through rate.

Businesses marketing directly to consumers will likely be the most effected by this change, while B2B companies will fare slightly better (for now). This is due both due to the prevalance of Gmail among consumers, and shifting behavior away from desktop computing. Email analytics firm Litmus offers some insight into these trends. Analyzing 298 million email opens during November, they report that mobile devices now account for 51% of total email opens, a 24% year-over-year increase. Webmail opens, meanwhile, accounted for just 18%, a 36% year-over-year decrease. Those inverse trends line up pretty well with the increasing consumer shift to mobile computing. Desktop email clients however made up 31% of opens, the exact same amount as in November 2012. This is likely due to businesses’ use of desktop clients, which should decline at a much slower rate than consumer usage. The top email client for desktops is of course Outlook. Given Outlook’s rather slow development pace, it’s unlikely they’ll implement Gmail’s image caching anytime soon, meaning B2B marketers should be less effected by the changes.

Google’s official reason for the change is user privacy. On their blog post announcing the new feature, they write “We did this to protect you from unknown senders who might try to use images to compromise the security of your computer or mobile device.” While this is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the change, a cynic might wonder whether Google will soon be selling advertisers the very data they’ve just cut off.

Update 12/16/13: According to email company MailChimp, the changes aren’t completing cutting off open-rate data, but are obscuring some elements. On their blog they write “Image caching still lowers our ability to track repeat opens, but turning those images on means we’ll be more accurate when tracking unique opens”. While that no doubt provides some relief to worried marketers, they still won’t be able to log IP addresses, track user location, or see their campaign’s repeat open-rates. 

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