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Email marketing is a much disparaged art form, and yet one that companies still put an awful lot of effort into (and one that lots of other companies still make an awful lot of money from by providing services). Last week, Google made an announcement about how images would be handled that meant that the world of email marketing was thrown into disarray as it looked as if it would kill off much of the data that can be generated through email marketing technologies.

I’ve done some tests – the news is good. Here’s what I found.

The headline: the changes to GMail actually appear to make email marketing data about emails opened more reliable, not less, for recipients using GMail or Google Apps.

The background

Traditionally, email marketing has delivered information about “opening” rates through the insertion of tiny images into emails that enable email marketing systems to track whether a mail has been viewed or not (the image needs to get pulled from the server managed by the marketing service provider, and that is taken as being “email opened”). Now, for many, many years, email client software (Outlook, GMail, Yahoo! Mail, Thunderbird and so on) has offered the ability to turn off images in emails, and that has become the default setting on most for the past 10 years or so.

As a result, data on whether someone has opened the email that you have sent to them as part of a campaign has actually been “has enabled images to be viewed for the message you sent and has then opened it”. As a result the data has been a little cranky (unless the recipient clicked on a link within the email, which in turn would have given indication that they had opened the mail). It’s also worth noting that “opened” and “read” are two very different concepts (and let’s not begin to confuse either with “understood” or “liked”…)

Google’s announcement last week was that from Friday onwards, images would be displayed by default in GMail, but that the images would be cached on Google’s own servers, so that the originals wouldn’t be pulled directly from the email marketer’s servers directly into the browser of the recipient. This, Google claims, makes it more secure (some security people appear to differ), but email marketers appeared to react in shock as there was concern that this would break the “opened” data.

I’ve tested it, and it doesn’t appear to… In fact, it appears to make opened data more accurate. Here’s what I did…

Rather than build something from scratch myself, I used the popular email marketing tool MailChimp. I created a simple campaign which I then sent to two accounts – one of which is a Google Apps account that runs with the new images feature enabled, one of which runs on the old set up for the time being.

I sent a campaign to the two accounts and read both, with viewing of images enabled on the old system. In both cases, the MailChimp reporting system told me that both messages had been opened. I then sent a campaign to both accounts, read them both, but didn’t enable images to be viewed on the old system. MailChimp’s reporting told me that only 1 of the emails had been read (the one to the new GMail system).

So far, so good. The one thing it didn’t tell me, though, was if the image caching on the Google systems happened when Google’s servers received the email or when the recipient opened it. The final test, a third campaign to both accounts, I left unread in both systems. MailChimp reported back that neither email had been read.

So there we have it in a short but reasonably scientific survey. If you use a service like MailChimp, and you are sending emails campaigns to people who use GMail accounts, you are probably going to see more accurate (and possibly increased) opening rates from those GMail users with the introduction of this new images functionality, (assuming they are using a browser to access their mail). For the time being, at least.

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