In 2020, many marketers battled with (and lost to) Gmail’s spam filter. As a consultant, I had the experience of fighting with Gmail’s algorithm in about 15 different company architectures and cultures. The results could not have been more different.
Some of my clients ended the year with ~40% open rates in Gmail. Others suffered banishment with below 1% rates. The difference? The choice between using a marketing automation strategy or clinging to the old ways of “batch and blast.”
Those that effectively segmented, metered, and targeted their messages were wildly successful at high volume. Those that clung to old ideas of “email as direct mail” suffered severely.
To understand this, we have to first recognize that “email” doesn’t have a universal set of rules. Well – ok, it does have a universal set of rules (like DKIM, SPF, etc.) BUT not all email providers use ALL of the same rules.
What Yahoo mail finds acceptable, Microsoft Exchange might block, and what Microsoft Exchange might accept, Gmail will block, and so on and so forth. Of all of these players, Gmail consistently stands out as the most dynamic and most aggressive player in email filtering. It’s no surprise; just consider their model.
Gmail is one of Google’s core free services they use to attract users to their platform. In attracting billions (with a B) of users to their free service, they can collect deep personal data on all of these people to sell to advertisers. It is therefore in their financial interest to keep their free users very happy and satisfied.
Man Vs. Machine
What pisses people off the most when they check their email?
Of course, the email you send is not SPAM. It’s a valuable information update about the products and services the buyer needs to solve urgent problems. However, your competitor is definitely sending unsolicited commercial emails that should be blocked from the inbox.
The marketer needs to get product information relevant to the buyers’ need into the target inbox. As a service provider, Gmail wants to prevent this in order to protect the user experience, so they have developed an algorithm that scans message headers and content, and tracks user opens or clicks to determine what types of emails their users want.
This pits the marketer against the algorithm, and the marketer usually loses. Why?
Because Gmail HATES you. You represent literally everything it is trying to combat. You’re facing off with one of the most powerful machine learning engines in the world, and it was built to stop you from doing your job.
To make matters worse, Gmail colossally goofed last summer, and a glitch allowed significant amounts of NSFW Spam into the user inbox. By July 4, they had resolved the issue. In the understatement of the year, they commented saying,
“We have identified and since fixed the issue of a small number of promotional emails and spam being incorrectly sent to users’ primary inboxes.”
I suspect they upgraded the robot brain significantly because Gmail messaging shifted from “a little tricky” to “go F yourself” around that time.
How Does Marketing Automation Help?
To start with, let’s define “marketing automation.” Marketing automation is not an email application that lets you schedule message send times. It isn’t an email application that lets you schedule a bunch of messages in sequence. Those things are “email automation,” and they are not what we’re talking about.
Marketing Automation is an advanced technology that facilitates automating marketing processes. With good software, I can easily sync to CRM, query data based on field information, previous engagement, website visits, form responses, lead scoring, etc. Using these queries, I can create a target audience based on indicated funnel stage and dynamically send an email, SMS, or ads to these persons based on a strategic content marketing approach. (For example, I use Act-On.)
Email tools are cute, and I love that MailChimp has automated sends, but that’s not what we’re talking about.
Control Your Volume
Volume will kill you with Gmail. They are proactively monitoring for bulk email; therefore, a large number of messages from a sender at any given time will immediately flag your message for review.
Tuesday at 8 AM is a great time to send email unless it’s Gmail. With Gmail, you have to use marketing automation features like “send overtime” or automated workflows to trigger specific messages based on user behavior in real-time. This will break the volume into manageable “chunks.” The lower your volume with any send, and the lower your volume on any day, the more success you will have finding the inbox.
Inversely, if you are spiking high volumes at gmail.com addresses, you will almost immediately find your messages sitting in the SPAM folder.
Follow the Signals
I’m a big advocate of email marketing. I have no problem taking a cold lead list, cleaning it, and sending content marketing prospect emails to it. However, I’m also not stupid, so I know that 50% of that purchased data will never engage with me, no matter how clever my marketing is.
With Gmail especially, you have to take a hint. If you have been sending “[email protected]” emails for the last year and they have never opened it, there is less than a 1 in 100,000 chance they ever will. Just stop.
You have to proactively target, monitor, adjust volume, change frequency, and suppress email to Gmail address. It’s a good idea for any domain, but you must do it for Gmail. If you don’t, then you are sending signals to the robot brain to terminate your emails on receipt.
With marketing automation, these controls can be designed into your workflows. You can query and segment audiences based on response conditions so that you are automatically making these adjustments. Gmail built a computer to stop you; you need a computer to beat Gmail.
With Gmail, you have to pick your battles. Gmail addresses make up about 83% of all B2C addresses, and 25% of companies use Gsuite (their domain over Google servers). Like it or not, Gmail is your adversary.
You have to accept that you just can’t “spray and pray” to these inboxes. You have to get strategic, which means you need content. You can’t send product catalogs or a “Do you have 15 minutes?” email. You have to develop a content strategy that is heavily focused on email opens. This sends signals to the algorithm that users want to see your messages, which makes Gmail more likely to put you in the inbox.
Marketing Automation makes this easier because it takes the guess work out. I use Act-On to create segments of buyers based on personas, their indicated level of interest, and then I target people who have opened in the past. This sends a bunch of signals to Gmail that users want my content, then I push messaging to unengaged recipients over time. With this strategy, I’m always adding to my core of engaged readers, allowing me increased volume with every send.
But if you choose to ignore this advice, please understand – Gmail will know. Gmail will know and put you in the penalty box. Once you’re there – good luck. You’ll spend a year doing all these things anyway just for a chance to get out of the box, a chance that may never come because Gmail already hates you.