Trouble at Gmail? Humanize Before You Optimize
If you’ve noticed declining performance from your Gmail audience or have seen poor placement at Gmail, you are not alone. Gmail’s highly sophisticated filtering algorithm has been responsible for more than a few email marketers’ sleepless nights. In a matter of days, opens and clicks can decline 25 percent or more, and inbox placement can plummet from the 90 percent range into the 40s.
Unfortunately, troubled performance with Gmail is often pronounced, in both severity and scope. In February of 2016, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, announced that Gmail had one billion active monthly users. Over the past several years, I’ve seen this reflected across our B-to-C client base with email lists skewing more heavily towards Gmail subscribers. When performance at Gmail tanks, it is not a problem that can be ignored.
With their large user base, limited transparency and discerning filtering technology, it’s easy to portray Gmail in the role of the villain or the obstruction to work around. While tempting, this mindset and approach for optimizing placement at Gmail is ultimately self-defeating. Rather than trying to work around Gmail’s filters, it’s important to understand their objectives and expectations for mailers. Not only does this put marketers in a better position to get their messages through, it can actually help those messages be more effective among subscribers.
Gmail’s Two Primary Objectives
If we distill the goals and requirements of a mailbox provider into key themes, we end up with two primary objectives. Both are straightforward and relatively obvious but taking a moment to verbalize them can help put their intense filtering and high standards into perspective.
First, Gmail needs to protect the security of its users.
While overall spam rates have declined, according to Talos, a digital threat research division of Cisco Systems, 86 percent of all email traffic is unsolicited or malicious mail. A top priority for Gmail is to keep malicious or unwanted mail out of the inbox. Spam in the inbox not only results in a frustrating experience, but phishing and spoofing emails may actively seek to recover passwords and account information that puts recipients at risk.
Next, Gmail wants to provide a positive inbox experience.
Gmail regularly makes updates to refine the inbox experience, whether it’s helping users categorize and manage mail, or adding in functionality to make the experience more efficient and enjoyable. Paramount to a positive experience is the feeling of security and a reduced exposure to unwanted, intrusive or malicious mail. Even if bulk messages from a brand were wanted at some point, a high concentration of unread commercial messages bog down the experience and can contribute to mailbox abandonment. By making filtering decisions based on user activity and engagement (both positive and negative), Gmail can help subscribers prune commercial messages and maintain an inbox that contains relevant, wanted mail.
Gmail’s Expectations for Senders
Now that we’ve covered Gmail’s primary goals, let’s dig into what marketers can do to find better alignment with them. I’ve taken some liberties in interpreting their Bulk Sender Guidelines and blending in some of the strategies and tactics that have helped my clients get back into the Gmail inbox. I’ve listed them here in three thematic sections.
1. Prove that you are who you say you are.
Authentication is a critical component of inbox placement and allows mailbox providers to verify the identities of senders. This helps keep inboxes more secure and promotes a safer, better experience for users. While SPF and DKIM are the traditional methods of authentication, Gmail recommends that DMARC policies are also put in place. DMARC builds upon SPF and DKIM and provides instruction on how mailbox providers should handle mail that fails authentication. For more information on authentication, you can review this three-part series that tackles each form of authentication covered above.
2. The data must show that subscribers genuinely want your mail.
Gmail wants to see that commercial senders are sending to an active and engaged list that wants to receive the mail that is placed in the inbox. This ties in with their goal of providing a positive experience. If a majority of your subscribers have tuned out your messages or fail to engage, this can indicate that your brand may have questionable list acquisition tactics, poor list hygiene or little concern for whether subscribers actually want to receive messages from you.
Among my clients, those that have high numbers of inactives and low open and click percentages regularly see high percentages of their messages routed to the spam folder. Once Gmail has started increasingly sending messages to spam, it can be very difficult to course correct. We recommend that inactive thresholds are established across the database with the specific cutoff determined based on business model, current inbox placement challenges and overall subscribers engagement.
To help create positive engagement from the start, subscribers who are brought onto your email list should be added with their explicit permission. Within Gmail’s guidelines, they specifically recommend avoiding pre-checked boxes on subscribe forms or within the purchase process. Unanticipated commercial emails are rarely a welcome surprise, especially within a personal, primary inbox. It’s common courtesy to ensure your brand is invited. Gmail may well take note if subscriber behavior indicates that this is not the case.
3. The data must also show that you are not provoking negative responses from subscribers.
A brand’s complaint rate is one of the most significant factors of deliverability issues. This is a clear indication that your mail is unwanted, intrusive or distrusted. This interferes with Gmail’s key goals: to maintain the security of their users and provide a positive experience. If a high percentage of subscribers mark a message as spam, there is a high likelihood that increased spam folder placement or complete blocking will soon follow.
If there are minimal spam complaints registered, Gmail may apply individualized filtering to direct subsequent mail to the spam folder. If complaint behavior is more widespread, this may result in increased filtering at the domain or IP level, which can have a major impact on performance.
Start by signing up for Gmail’s feedback loop. Unlike other mailbox providers that provide subscriber level data via feedback loops, Gmail goes above and beyond to protect the privacy and security of users by providing aggregated data. While this can help marketers identify problematic campaigns, it does not allow for complainers to be identified and scrubbed. In order to address complaint behavior, look for trends that indicate problematic campaigns or segments. Oftentimes, complaint behavior can be rooted in the point of acquisition, the frequency of mailing or a misalignment of subscriber expectations. Look to your segmentation, content and cadence when working to alleviate complaint rates.
Putting It All Together
Rather than viewing all measures of success and areas for optimization through the lens of your brand and marketing objectives, spend a moment to assess how your mail is perceived by mailbox providers and their users. By adjusting your program to better coincide with the needs and expectations of Gmail and their users, you are more likely to optimize in a way that has long term benefits for your brand and your subscribers.
As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”