Growing Up Gmail: 10 Years of Email Marketing Lessons

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Growing Up Gmail: 10 Years of Email Marketing Lessons
Growing Up Gmail: 10 Years of Email Marketing Lessons

Today is Gmail's 10th birthday. Like most 10-year-olds, Gmail has gone through its share of phases. Maybe not the awkward-beginning-of-puberty phase or the constant-need-to-fit-in phase, but enough change for the webmail service to come into its own. And no developmental stage was complete without an uproar from the marketing industry. 

“The biggest challenge is that Gmail makes changes more often than other inbox providers and make those changes without warning—sometimes without any announcement at all,” says Chad White, lead research analyst for digital marketing software provider ExactTarget. “That puts marketers in a very reactionary position and means they have to watch Gmail closely.”

Here's a closer look at Gmail's major milestones throughout its decade-long maturation.

April 2004: Google launches Gmail

Google wasn't fooling around when it first launched its Gmail beta test on April 1, 2004. The company rolled out the search-based webmail service in earnest—offering one gigabyte of free storage to “a handful of users.”

"The reason we wanted to develop Gmail is [because] Google is an information company," Susan Wojcicki, Google's then director of product management, now CEO of YouTube, previously told Direct Marketing News. "We're about finding and organizing the world's information."

Brad van der Woerd, director of deliverability and market intelligence for email marketing software and service provider Yesmail, says that Gmail's “invite-only” approach made the service seem “very exclusive.” 

“Users [were] looking towards their friends and networks to toss them over an invite to get a Gmail account,” he adds.

How it affected marketers: In the same article noted above, Wojcicki told Direct Marketing News that Gmail would feature AdSense listings alongside users' email pages. According to the article, Google would use its search technology to scan email messages, which would in turn allow it to serve relevant ads while users read their emails. 

Marketers debated the pros and cons of these ads in the Direct Marketing News article “Commercial E-mailers Weigh Gmail's Impact.” Michael Della Penna—then CMO of email service provider Bigfoot Interactive, now SVP of emerging channels for Oracle-acquired Responsys—argued that marketers would have to fight harder for consumers' attention, despite the fact that they already paid to reach the inboxes. And Bill Nussey, CEO of Silverpop, said that the ads would be less impactful in terms of customer retention and relationship mail. California's former state senator and many consumer privacy groups also expressed concern. 

December 2005: Gmail goes mobile

Gmail introduced Gmail for mobile phones in December 2005. Consumers who had a Gmail account could view their emails on a smaller screen by signing into their Gmail account via their mobile web browser.

How it affected marketers: Although mobile marketing was still in its infancy, Gmail applied many best practices that are still relevant today, including optimizing the user interface based on device.

February 2007: Gmail opens to the public

It took Gmail three years to open its service up to the public. But once it did, it turned out to be just what consumers were waiting for. By December 2007 Gmail had 20.8 million unique monthly users in the U.S. and more than 90 million worldwide, according to comScore. However, Gmail still fell far behind its competitors. For instance, Windows Hotmail had more than 45.7 million unique monthly users in the U.S. and about 255 million worldwide, according to the same data. Likewise, Yahoo! Mail had about 82.5 million unique monthly users in the U.S. and more than 256.6 million users worldwide.

How it affected marketers: Amid Gmail's growing popularity, marketers' reliance on email was also on the rise. According to the “2008 Annual Marketing and Media Survey” by Datran Media—which merged with ContextWeb to form PulsePoint in 2011—82% of marketers planned on increasing their use of email marketing in 2008, and 55% expected email marketing ROI to be higher than that of any other channel. Likewise, JupiterResearch—an Internet and technology research and consulting company—predicted that email marketing spend would increase from $1.2 billion in 2007 to $2.1 billion in 2012.

August 2010: Gmail introduces Priority Inbox

Gmail debuted a beta version of Priority Inbox at the end of August 2010. With Priority Inbox, Gmail was able to filter users' messages into three categories: Important and Unread, Starred, and Everything Else. Gmail would automatically filter these messages based on user engagement, such as which messages users opened the most and which senders users frequently replied to. Gmail could also categorize responses based on terms featured in the header and body that consumers had or hadn't responded to in the past. Furthermore, users could filter messages manually.

How it affected marketers: Priority Inbox enforced the importance of relevance and engagement, ExactTarget's White says. It also helped extinguish the “last in on top” mind-set, which drove the idea that the last email received would receive the top placement in the inbox, he says. “Gmail knows that delivery time is a secondary value indicator and has given their users tools to elevate and sort emails based on the sender and email content,” he says.

June-October 2012: Gmail surpasses Hotmail

In a June 28, 2012 official blog post, Gmail announced that it reached 425 million active global users. And although comScore published significantly lower figures in October 2012, the overall message was the same: Gmail had climbed its way to the second-place podium. According to comScore's October 2012 figures, Gmail boasted more than 69.1 million unique monthly visitors in the U.S. and more than 287.9 million globally; Hotmail had about 35.5 million unique monthly visitors in the U.S. and more than 286.2 million worldwide. And while Yahoo! Mail dominated the U.S. email market with about 76.8 million uniquely monthly visitors, it came in third-place globally with 281.7 million. 

How it affected marketers: Gmail solidified its place as a major player in the email realm. 

“That was the first time that [Gmail] passed Hotmail as the largest email service,” Yesmail's van der Woerd says.

May 2013: Gmail Debuts Tabs

At the end of May 2013 Gmail completely redesigned the inbox experience with the announcement of Tabs. With tabs, consumers can opt to have their email automatically sorted into the following categories: Primary (for friends and family correspondence), Social (for social media notifications), Promotions (for marketing discounts and offers), and Updates (for alerts, bills, and receipts).

How it affected marketers: The launch of tabs resulted in an email marketing state of pandemonium. While some marketers looked upon tabs favorably, others found the new inbox format distressing. “A lot of marketers worried that [the] Promotion tab was going to act as the new spam folder,” van der Woerd says, “and that their response rates and revenue rates for Gmail subscribers were going to tank.”

However, the opposite occurred, he notes. The tabs create a more organized experience for the consumer. As a result, consumers spend more time looking at all of their messages and less time searching for their personal correspondences, he says. In fact, van der Woerd suggests that tabs are a benefit to marketers, specifically in terms of consumer engagement. According to Yesmail's  “Q4 Email Marketing Compass” study, 19% of Gmail users had been active with marketers emails within a year compared to AOL (10%), Hotmail (12%), and Yahoo (14%).

December 2013: Gmail automatically caches images

Around mid-December 2013 Gmail announced that it would automatically render images in email messages. However, consumers can still opt to enable Gmail's “ask before displaying  external images” feature under the webmail service's general settings. 

How it affected marketers: “It impacted a variety of different areas for how email service providers can track open rates and how [they] can track the types of devices that are being used,” van der Woerd says.

February 2014: Gmail reveals new “Unsubscribe” button and Feedback loop

Gmail introduced an “Unsubscribe” button at the top of its emails near the end of February. The button, placed next to the sender's address, allows consumers to remove themselves from a mailing list. In addition, Gmail implemented a feedback loop (FBL) that provides email service providers with aggregate spam complaint data, MailChimp describes in a recent blog post.

How it affected marketers: “For a long time Gmail seemed focused on blocking spam and prioritizing personal email, but I never got the impression [that] they were doing it to give marketers new opportunities,” says Matthew Grove, deliverability engineer for email marketing solutions provider MailChimp. “With the introduction of FBLs, I think it's undeniable that Gmail wants to improve their user experience when it comes to marketing email.”

March 2014: Gmail gets visual

Last week Gmail announced a field trial that allows users to view Promotions tab messages through a new, visual grid format. With grid view, each email displays a prominent image from a brand's message, the brand's logo, and a subject line. This format provides a more “Pinterest-like feel” to the way the messages are displayed in the inbox, Yesmail's van der Woerd says.

How it affected marketers: Although still new, the grid view provides consumers with a more visually appealing way to scroll through its promotional emails quickly, compared to scanning a stack of text. 

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