When Google launched automated responsive design for Gmail in September, some were understandably excited that one of the most popular email clients was finally getting proper optimization for all devices.
But while the updates were seen as a big deal at launch — especially given that email open rates on mobile continue to grow — experts agree that the change probably won’t have a major impact on marketers this holiday season beyond providing more creative flexibility and better user experiences. For marketers that get it right, responsive Gmail could help drive results.
“I think it may open some design options that they didn't have before, but I don't think it will much change what they email or when," said John Caldwell, president of Red Pill Email. "Is it cool? Sure. Will it change the email industry or how marketers send email? I don't think it has that much influence.”
Responsive design has become the de facto industry standard, so in a way Google was just playing catch up, and Caldwell added that marketers who aren't already coding messages to be responsive are “missing out."
Gmail responsive design could be a strong tool to drive engagement rates this holiday season if utilized well. The format not only creates a better user experience on small screens, but also allows more flexibility and innovation on the creative end.
To figure out best approaches to the format, Marketing Dive spoke to Caldwell and others on what matters most in crafting an email strategy.
The holiday season is typically when email marketing thrives. Studies in past years have found that consumers are willing to tolerate and open a higher volume of promotional emails during the period since they are already searching out ideas and offers, presenting a ripe opportunity for brands and retailers.
However, recent Yes Lifecycle Marketing reports found that, though open rates in Q3 of 2015 were up year-over-year, they dipped 13% during critical Q4, when send volume shot to 29%. That suggests marketers might be better served by putting a premium on email targeting and quality content over volume this season.
The ongoing shift to mobile also means promotions must now be built in a responsive design framework that is properly optimized across desktops, tablets and smartphones. Gmail is now a key facilitator of this with automated responsive design, which can free up marketers to put energy and efforts elsewhere.
Rob Pellow, the global creative director at Adestra, said marketers shouldn't get too caught up in the need for creating mobile-friendly experiences, and should instead focus on creating a great user experience overall.
“We actually try and encourage people to move away from over thinking the term ‘mobile responsive,’” he said. “If 50% of your audience is on mobile, then 50% of it is still on desktop. Even in that percentage on mobile, a large portion will be on tablets which will be showing the desktop version.”
Caldwell predicts email marketers will see more activity around their messaging this holiday season because Gmail responsive design will bring a better user experience to smaller screens.
He also saw more advanced planning of holiday messaging this year, from the refining of previous strategies to increasing segmentation via subscriber profiles or buyer behavior. Email marketers typically save heavy experimentation for less critical times of the year, but Caldwell noted one area they are increasingly willing to test during the holidays — volume.
“Heavy senders already know what they can get away with, and I think that others might push their comfort zones a little,” he explained.
Pellow also forecasts volume will be up because email consistently delivers ROI in excess of other channels, giving marketers internal clout with stakeholders to finesse email as the center of their holiday strategies.
"There are few other channels where you know so much about your audience," he said of email. "Even if you only start off with someone’s email address, using intelligent automation and behavioral triggers mean that you could start with your huge audience, general message blast but then react to how people respond."
Taking this approach a step further, Pellow outlined what marketers would be able to learn from segmenting email addresses into six groups: People who open the email and those who don’t; people who click through the email and those who don’t; and, within the click through group, those who convert and those who don’t.
The six different segments can then be more tightly targeted based on how they respond.
The right message
According to Pellow, email marketers should aim their focus on the message itself. He said marketers need to remember that there are many places where Gmail users can engage, whether from the web client, native mobile email clients, desktop clients and more.
This means marketers can never be sure what will work and where it will work. To combat that uncertainty, Pellow offered a checklist for holiday email marketers that applies beyond Gmail:
- Remember who you are — People that open your emails do so because they trust you, make sure you hold up your brand promise.
- Get your message across quickly — Good user experience is about removing obstacles between what you want people to do and them doing it.
- Up the engagement — It’s a great time to add in elements of interest to stop people in their tracks and get them to take notice of you. Gmail in nearly all of its viewable forms supports animated GIFs. That doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with them though. Sometimes something really subtle can work just as well. If you know a lot of your users are on mobile, then using CSS animation and interaction is a great way to take this to the next level — just don’t forget to code in some fallbacks for places this isn’t supported.
- Drive urgency — Real time content, like a countdown clock or geolocation, is a strong way to provide both engagement and a sense of either anticipation or urgency. Knowing there's a small amount of time before you miss out is a great driver. Content is still king though. If you have the right content the rest will take care of itself.
The mobile factor: Conversions and beyond
More responsive Gmail formats support more flexibility, so this holiday season could be a prime time to shoot for innovation and excitement, which can lead to deeper engagement and personalization.
While mobile open rates on email are in the area of 50%, consumers continue to convert at a higher level on desktop. One way marketers could reverse the trend is by making the mobile checkout process more seamless, and even letting recipients know about painless mobile checkout in the body of the email.
“Email’s role is always hugely important in any marketing activity," said Pellow. "The smart marketers are beginning to focus on the individual, and email is the most effective and the simplest way of achieving this."