Gmail Image Caching’s Effect On Nonprofit Email Marketing

Earlier this year, email marketers around the globe went into panic mode when the Gmail team introduced the new tabbed inbox.

Email marketers worried that open rates would go down in Gmail. Once the dust settled, marketers realized that these tabs are not that bad. Then earlier this month, the Gmail team announced another massive change: Gmail image caching. It’s a move that Google believes will have a positive effect on user experience. They’re probably right. But what does it mean for nonprofits?

First, let’s look at how email service providers track opens in emails. In order to track opens, service providers use a unique tracking pixel for each subscriber. A tracking pixel is a one-by-one pixel image that is inserted into the email code. Each time the image is called from the server that hosts it, your ESP counts it as an open. Most ESPs do this every time the image is opened. If you open an email once on your desktop and once on your laptop, and then open the email again later from your desktop or laptop, your ESP records three opens for the same user – one for each time you read the email. Simple enough, right?

Not exactly. Things change when you add image caching to the equation. When you cache an image, the image is downloaded once (in this case by Gmail) and stored on a proxy server. Each time a user goes back to the email, the image is downloaded from the proxy server instead of the original server. So no matter how many times the email is viewed, only one of those views is recorded by the ESP server.

So what? There are a ton of blog posts out there about the impact of Google image caching, but what does this change mean for your nonprofit’s email marketing? Unless you’re pushing the technical limits of email marketing, this change most likely will have little to no effect on your organization’s email marketing.

Let’s address some of the biggest concerns as of right now:

Will you still be able to see opens in Gmail?

With Gmail’s image caching, marketers will likely be getting a more accurate report of unique opens, because Gmail will download the images for all opened messages. All of those people who used to read your email with images off (and therefore not get counted in opens) are now part of the count because their unique tracking pixel is automatically downloaded by Google’s servers.

Will gross opens still get counted?

Depending on your ESP, gross opens might be affected by Gmail image caching. Because the industry-wide metric is unique open rate, you shouldn’t worry too much about this unless you use gross opens to segment your list. If you use gross opens as a key metric, ask you ESP if they are seeing a change.

Will forward and print reporting still work?

Do your emails get forwarded a lot? Or do you track people who print your email? It’s likely that this reporting will not work in the near future. Some of the bright companies that provide this type of reporting will be working on fixes right away though.

Will location-based content be accurate?

If you are advanced enough to be using emails that serve different content dynamically depending on where the email is opened, it’s likely that Gmail users will not be seeing the right content. Take a look at your reporting. Are you seeing numerous opens near Mountain View, CA? If so, your location based content is likely inaccurate for Gmail users. Create a segment for Gmail users, and send them email that isn’t location sensitive.

What’s the final word?

What really matters in all of this is that you keep creating and sending emails that your users want to receive. If a user doesn’t open your message, Gmail image caching won’t matter one bit. But if you include strong calls to action, creative subject lines and engaging content, you may see small changes in your key metrics for Gmail users.

Although you might have a significant percentage of Gmail addresses in your database, only about three percent of emails are opened in Gmail. It’s likely the effects are pretty minimal.

Like Gmail tabs a number of months ago, Gmail image caching won’t have a negative impact on your nonprofit’s email marketing either. So don’t panic – continue with your current email programs, and give the dust some time to settle.

More info on nonprofit email marketing:

Ideas for successful nonprofit welcome email campaigns

Questions? Leave a comment below or write to us at connect [at] mediacause [dot] org.