Google’s mission is to sift through the ocean of data out there and bubble up the most critical information so you can find it more easily. They do that in their search results and they increasingly do that in Gmail, whether it’s through Gmail Highlights, featuring the “Top Deals” in the Promotions tab, or through their latest feature, Email Annotations.
Let’s break this down: (1) Gmail will display Email Annotations in the place of traditional preview text in the inbox (2) under certain circumstances for emails in Gmail’s Promotional Tab (3) when those emails have had Email Annotations coded into them.
Let’s look at all three elements of that statement in turn:
1. Email Annotations
Email Annotations in the Promotional Tab are composed of two major parts:
Image Previews, which pull one or more images from the email and displays them under the preview text of the email; and
Deal Badges, which have the ability to display an offer, a promo code, and an expiration date.
Since brands don’t have to include every element, Email Annotations can display in a number of ways, including like these examples:
2. Under Certain Circumstances
But not all emails have their Email Annotations displayed. First, your email has to be viewed in the Gmail mobile app; and second, it has to appear in the Top Promotions section of the Promotions Tab. Let’s walk through how these conditions result in relatively few emails even having the chance to display rich previews:
About 29% of all emails were opened in Gmail during May 2019, according to Litmus’s EmailClientMarketshare.com. For some brands, especially B2C ones, Gmail will be a much larger proportion of opens; and for others, much less. Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting recommends that every brand try to understand where their subscribers are opening their emails so they can make appropriate email design decisions.
However, Email Annotations are only displayed in the Gmail mobile app. With about half of email opens occurring on mobile, that means that half of that 29% market share that Gmail has is mobile—or roughly 15%. Add to that an additional 1% from Google Android users who are on the most current OS and use the Gmail mobile app, and that brings us to a total of 16% of all emails being opened in Gmail’s mobile app.
Let’s assume that promotional emails are opened in Gmail at the same rate as other emails, and that promotional emails are opened on mobile at the same rate as other emails. Let’s also assume that only a relatively small percentage of Gmail mobile app users will go into their settings and disable the Promotions Tab as well as Conversation View, both of which need to remain on to enable Email Annotations.
But even then, you’re not guaranteed to have Email Annotations displayed, because they only display for emails in the Top Promotions section of the Gmail inbox. Currently, only two or three emails show up here at a time, along with one or two native ads.
Based on what Google has said about the machine learning algorithm that picks Top Promotions, emails get elevated into this space based on:
The brand’s sender reputation at Gmail and the user’s historical engagement with the brand’s emails. This is based on a 30 day period of open rate and spam rate which is measured and calculated by Gmail.
The size of the discount offered (I’m not aware of this being a dependency in the algorithm)
When the deal expires
That first factor may put Email Annotations out of reach for some brands that don’t have great Gmail reputations and great email engagement.
“Some of our clients have told us that they’re worried that they won’t be able to maintain a good enough reputation to make Email Annotations worth pursuing,” says Heather Goff, Strategic Director of Deliverability Services at Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting. “Gmail has very high standards and it can be a real challenge for some clients to maintain promotion tab placement let alone qualify as a top deal.”
If your reputation at Gmail is great, then the expiration date element of a Deal Badge is probably the next most critical element. That’s because emails with deals that are close to expiring can become a Top Promotion.
For instance, an email may show up in Top Promotions because the subscriber has a high level of engagement with the brand’s emails, then the email may fall out of Top Promotions if it isn’t engaged with, and then get elevated back into Top Promotions because the offer is expiring.
“Any which way you look at it, only brands with lots of Gmail subscribers and good engagement are likely to see a substantial percentage of their subscribers experiencing Email Annotations as it’s currently implemented,” says Nick Cantu, Senior Art Director for Creative Services, Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting.
“However, if Google brings Email Annotations over to its web app, then an average of 29% of emails would be candidates for getting them,” he says. “At that level, doing the additional coding that’s necessary would certainly be worthwhile for most brands.”
3. With Proper Email Annotations
Email Annotations only have a chance to be displayed if they are coded into each of your promotional emails. This mix of microdata and JSON code should be placed directly above the </head> tag in your emails.
Here’s a draft of the schema.org/ code (along with some notes that you can remove) that you’ll need to add to each of your emails:
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN">
<!-- START GMAIL PROMO TAB ANNOTATIONS CODE -->
// WARNING: Before sending email, either point the logo
// at your own image or delete the logo annotation.
// If showing a logo, we recommend using an https URL.
// It's not a requirement today, but may be in the future.
// Use this optional alternative subject line to avoid duplicate text
// between the subject line, deal badge, and discount code.
"subjectLine": "Alternative subject line"
// Describe your discount, this will be shown as a badge (eg "25% off" or "free shipping")
"description": "Get $10 back",
// Promotion card with single image.
// We recommend using an https URL. It's not a requirement today, but may be in the future.
// Any image size will work and will just be cropped automatically.
// GIF & WEBP images are not supported and will be filtered out.
// Sample image is 538x138, 3.9 aspect ratio
<!-- END GMAIL PROMO TAB ANNOTATIONS CODE -->
You’ll need to customize that block of code for every email you send as follows:
Your brand’s logo (https://www.gstatic.com/.../googleg_48dp.png in the code above): This hosted .png or .jpg image of your brand’s logo should be 100 pixels by 100 pixels. To maximize recognition in the inbox, this shouldn’t change from email to email—or should change very rarely and not without good reason.
Your alternative subject line (Alternative subject line in the code above): Since the deal badge allows you to add a promo code and deal to your envelope content, you may not want to include that in your subject line. If that’s the case, you can specify an alternative subject line here that will only be displayed when your deal badge is displayed. (Note that Oracle Responsys doesn’t currently support this alternative subject line.)
Your offer (Get $10 back in the code above): The deal that you’re offering in the particular email.
Your promotion code (PROMO in the code above): The discount code that activates the offer for your subscribers.
The start and expiration date of your offer (2019-07-25T08:00:00-08:00 and 2019-07-27T23:59:59-08:00 in the code above): Unfortunately, Google doesn’t allow brands to have offers expire at a certain local time. You must pick a timezone, which you specify with the last four digits of that string (e.g., Eastern Time is 05:00, Pacific Time is 08:00).
Your rich preview featured image (https://www.google.com/.../sample.png in the code above): We recommend that this image be 538 pixels by 138 pixels, with a 3.9 aspect ratio. The image will be cropped to fit the space.
If you’re not using a particular element in a particular email, you can simply remove it from your email’s code. You can experiment with this Email Annotations code and see how changing and removing various elements changes your enriched preview using this annotation preview tool.
For Oracle Responsys users, you’ll want to host your brand’s logo and featured images in Responsys’ Manage Content Pool page. Also, the following values need to be in your data sources as Default and Variables with the URLs from your hosted content:
Based on their experiences, our Creative Services team estimates that coding Email Annotations, creating the featured image, writing the additional copy, and doing the additional quality assurance checks can take up to three hours per email. That’s on top of the initial set up time of 7 to 10 hours that you’ll likely spend getting familiar with the Email Annotations code, adding it to your templates and code snippets, experimenting with it in your email service provider, setting up test accounts to preview the Email Annotations, and building out an overall process. However, after those initial time investments, you and your team should get more efficient over time.
But before you race off to try to implement this, ask yourself...
A number of Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting clients are asking themselves this question and hesitating to move forward.
Some are asking, How do Email Annotations affect email performance? Either because of novelty or because of the visual elements and increased screen real estate provided by Email Annotations, you’d expect these emails attract more attention. Google says, “With some of our partners, they noticed an increase [in email engagement] of up to 30%” after using Email Annotations.
However, tracking this yourself can be challenging. “Our consulting practice relies heavily on testing and performance results before we make a business decision on resources and making changes,” says Goff, “and right now we can only see before and after, or if there is a boost to certain campaigns. Layer on top of that the difficulty of predicting when your email will qualify for Top Promotions and measuring the impact of Email Annotations becomes very tricky. The good news is that Gmail is working with brands right now to test this despite lack of established KPI measurement so far.”
Others are asking, Why is Gmail pushing this so aggressively? It’s making them think that brands may have to pay for this functionality in the future. However, we have been assured by Google that there is no intention to charge for Email Annotations, since the Top Promotions space is already supported by Gmail Ads.
And still others are asking, Do I want my email to look like an ad? Some are deciding that they want their emails to feel, well, like emails, and that Email Annotations tip them into looking like ads. Since consumers have been well-trained to ignore ads, perhaps any gains in engagement will dissipate once the novelty wears off. Also, some companies don’t offer discounts because they feel that they cheapen their brands, so they don’t want their emails among the discount-oriented messages in Top Promotions. The fact that Google only displays Email Annotations for emails that are sitting next to Gmail’s native ads in Top Promotions reinforces these perceptions.
If you have a high proportion of Gmail users among your subscribers, you have great engagement rates among those subscribers, and your emails are generally discount-oriented, then adding Email Annotations to your emails is well worth an experiment. If not, you may be better off taking a wait-and-see approach on whether to fully adopt Email Annotations.
We say fully adopt because we recommend that every brand use Email Annotations to display their brand’s logo, especially if they haven’t implemented Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI). Adopting Email Annotations only for your logo means that the Annotations code doesn’t need to change from email to email, so you can add this code to your email template or modular email architecture library. This is a great first step—and potentially a last step—for those looking to take advantage of this new functionality from Gmail.
Need help with your envelope content strategy or assistance coding your emails? Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including experienced copywriters and email coders.
Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.