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How Gmail Changed Email Marketing: Tips for Marketers to Adapt to the New Standard

Gmail's most important features

With approximately 300 million users worldwide, Gmail is one of the biggest email services in the world. The service was released on April 1st, 2004 so many initially considered it to be an April fool’s joke. At first, Gmail was invite-only. This exclusivity made it more desirable as Gmail invites quickly became a hot commodity. As a result, this invite-only policy was credited to be ‘one of the best marketing decisions in tech history’.1

Fast forward 12 years to 2016, and Gmail is still a hot commodity in the digital world. Not only does it integrate several digital tools in its interface, including Google Calendar, Google Hangouts, and Google Drive, but it constantly strives to innovate the email experience for its users, sometimes presumably at the expense of marketers. Let’s take a deep dive into two of the most important features Gmail has championed: inbox tabs, and TLS encryption. 

Inbox Tabs

Gmail’s Tabs were first released during the summer of 2013, much to the dismay of email marketers. This new feature was meant to help users easily categorize their incoming emails into several categories: Primary, Social, and Promotions. Because promotional emails were assigned to their own tab, there was a panic among marketers that their campaigns would generate lower open rates, and therefore lower KPIs. However, months after the Tabs feature was released to the public, reports showed there was no significant decline in open rates. As a matter of fact, based on a study of three million users, ‘almost no commercial mail [was] reaching the “Primary” tab, but instead of ignoring marketing messages, Gmail users [were] actively searching for them and reading them at almost the same rates at which they did before tabs.’ 4

So, now that marketers knew there would be no overall impact to their KPIs, the next question was how they can differentiate their promotional messages from the hundreds of others corralled into a single tab. The answer: Snippets and content 


One of Gmail’s features, particularly useful to marketers, is the ability to use Snippets in addition to subject lines as a way to identify the topic or content of an email without opening it. A ‘snippet’, as seen in the screenshot below, is akin to Outlook’s ‘AutoPreview’ in that it shows a message’s pre-header text from the body of the email right from the general inbox view. 

For marketers, the Snippets feature is a great tool; this pre-header text can be used to supplement subject lines and further draw in the consumer. Below are a handful of tips to engage subscribers via the subject line or the pre-header ‘snippet’ text:

  • Use personalization – first name, city, birthday – to make your message relevant and personable
  • Use redundancy – if it’s a big promotion, be sure to get the message across to the reader as clearly and repeatedly as you can. Use any real estate available – your subject line, pre-header, hero image, call-to-action, etc. to remind the client that you are having a huge sale.
  • Be sure to keep any ‘housekeeping’ out of the pre-header text i.e.’ forward to a friend,’ ‘view online,’ ‘if you’re having trouble viewing this email click here,’ etc.
  • Write unique, descriptive and fun copy for the pre-header text  - that one is self-explanatory ☺


Q: when is a consumer most likely to check their Promotions tab? 

A: when they are ready to make a purchase and are looking for a deal. 

Through its Promotions Tab feature, Gmail has allowed marketers to connect with consumers at the right time and in the right context. In return, brands need to give their subscribers what they’re looking for: great value, personalized interactions, and relevant content. If marketers are not delivering on this, the benefits of Gmail's Promotions Tab - reaching consumers at the best time and context - will be lost. 


TLS (Transport Layer Security) Encryption

In a world where cyber security, or the lack thereof, is on the forefront of everyone’s mind, consumers need to feel protected. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that on February 9th, also known as Safer Internet Day, Google introduced email encryption via a small red padlock appearing on the top corner of all messages.  

TLS, also known as Transport Layer Security, is a protocol that helps protect the privacy between two users, for instance a consumer and a brand. TLS ensures that no third party may eavesdrop or tamper with any messages, which is especially important when there is secure content being passed via email. While TLS may not be important to some businesses, it is essential to others, specifically those that process highly sensitive consumer information, such as social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, financial statements, etc.. Even if your brand does not process this type of information, you should still enable TLS encryption and here is why:

  • Gmail will flag all emails without TLS encryption
    • As you can see from the screenshot above, all emails without TLS encryption will be flagged with a red, unsecured padlock. This icon alerts users that the email they are opening is not safe, and could potentially open them up to cyber security risks.
      Here is an example from a prominent US airline:

This screenshot demonstrates that United Airlines has not enabled TLS encryption. Now, that may not be a big deal for promotional emails, but this message is an online check-in confirmation, which means it may contain sensitive information like passport numbers, phone numbers, confirmation codes, etc. Increasingly, the lack of TLS encryption will become an issue for consumers who want to know their data is being protected in every way possible. 

  • Email open rates dip
    • Although it has only been approximately 2 months since Gmail first rolled out TLS encryption, companies without TLS encryption are beginning to report lower open rates.6  Readers don’t feel comfortable opening emails when they know there is a chance their security may be compromised.
  • Other email providers will be moving towards TLS encryption
    • It may be the case that the majority of your subscribers are not Gmail users. If this is the case, you may think you are off the hook for enabling TLS encryption. You are not. After Gmail rolled out TLS encryption in February, more and more email providers are following suit. In the future, this security feature will be the norm for every single email provider. Be prepared!

Although Gmail has been around for over a decade, it is still growing in popularity. While some of the changes it has made in the past may seem daunting and could appear to be hurdles for marketers, Gmail has actually pioneered email service innovation and prioritized cyber security. Keeping a close eye on the features that Gmail rolls out and quickly adapting to the new standards they set, will help email marketers stay ahead of the curve.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and remember: Gmail is on the consumer’s (and therefore, your) side. 




Author Bio

Marie Seitzer

Marie is the Account Manager for Lands' End, and manages all of the Lands' End accounts, including US, Japan, UK, and Europe. She is dedicated to making sure Lands' End is functioning smoothly across all platforms, and works diligently to implement new programs, processes, and data-driven strategies to ensure Lands' End is the best they can be. Marie is extremely competitive, and with her strong background in digital marketing, she'll be sure her clients are always winning. Based in Portland, OR, she loves hiking, cooking vegan, gluten free food, and perusing farmers markets for organically grown kale and tomatoes.