Why Gmail Is Pinning Its Future On Images

The lines between social networking and email continues to blur. What does that mean about innovating Gmail?

Why Gmail Is Pinning Its Future On Images
[Image: Flickr user Cairo]

In the last decade, email has had a major image problem. And it’s lacked a PR team to fix it.


It needed something interesting to happen–like Gmail’s latest innovation, an image-centric take on email. Which happened when Gmail introduced the updated, more Pinterest-like, Promotions Tab in March. The new version, which is currently available as a selected trial looks like the marriage of Pinterest and email.

Email is a Text Heavy Medium trapped in a visual world

Let’s look at why email has an image problem in the first place. It’s not like social media, video, mobile, and apps have stopped us from using email. We all use email every day. It’s definitely not that kids don’t use email. You need an email to register for most apps, buy things, and sign on to social media.

Email is your online driver’s license and kids get them as early as they can. And it’s not that email doesn’t work for marketing, because it’s proven to drive more sales in all demo categories than anything other than paid search.

But email is a text-first medium in an era of images. And that’s what Gmail is trying to solve by leveraging what legions of Pinterest fans already use–JPGs and GIFs of products they love.

The beauty of email marketing– crafted creatively from your personally curated favorite brands–has been obscured by subject lines: text that spell-out a preview of what’s in store if you click. In our image-conscious era, subject lines are about as cool as video tape. Who wants to stick in a tape and hit the fast forward button? We want to know what we’ll see before we commit.

How Gmail’s Improvements Are More Than Just a Marketer’s Dream

Unless you are an email marketer, why would you care about innovating in email? With so much happening in social media, video, and mobile technologies, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening with your inbox. You send email to whomever. You sign up and get email. Email works.


But does it work for our Pinterest and Instagram culture?

That’s the question that I imagine the Gmail team asked. What if we could unwrap email? What if we could bring the creativity of brands forward in the experience?

First, Gmail tackled the challenge with Gmail Tabs. This filing method that Google implemented last year changed the way they organize our mail. There are three main tabs: Primary, Social and Promotions. Others can be unlocked.

Tabs aren’t a new concept–we all work with tabbed browsers. What was new was Google’s filing method: suddenly your mail was slotted depending on who sent it. Primary mail was for your personal, one-to-one messages. Social was for all those notifications from Facebook and Twitter about tagging, follows, and @ replies. And the Promotions Tab was the big change: marketing email was filed here automatically by Gmail.

The introduction of Gmail’s Promotions Tab was a big change for brands that had worked for a decade to land their messages in your primary inbox, the same place where you get messages from your mom and your friends. Some brands freaked out.

Introducing Gmail Tabs was the email equivalent of changing Pagerank, Google’s search algorithm.


But few outside of Google’s Gmail team knew what the tabs were: an alley-oop for brand marketers who were paying attention.

The new image-first update to the Promotions Tab was the monster dunk that followed the alley-oop of the tags. Unless you signed up and were accepted into the beta, you probably don’t have it yet. When it’s available, you’ll find it under “Configure inbox” on the right-hand side of Gmail.

If you’re a marketer, get ready to take advantage of this layup. It’s going to be a great way to share your products with your fans. They’re the ones who will be opening up the Promotions Tab to find the best-looking ads that have ever shown up in an inbox. And I’m betting your product pictures are going to be worth a thousand subject-line words.

Dave Hendricks is the president of LiveIntent. Find him on Twitter.