Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing

Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing

Latest posts | Feed | Share this with others | By Mark Brownlow

video - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketingGoogle just announced that a YouTube Preview feature is now activated on all Gmail accounts.

This allows millions of Gmail users to view YouTube-hosted videos in the email itself.

This sounds like the holy grail of video email: full in-mail video and audio without the cost and problems associated with developing email-specific solutions.

You would simply segment your list by domain, and could then send all addresses your YouTube video.

That’s the theory, but how does it work in practice? And can email marketers and their subscribers really benefit?

What is the YouTube preview function?

Gmail does not react to the code normally associated with embedding videos in a website. If you add YouTube’s “Embed” code to your HTML email, nothing will happen: Gmail ignores the code.

It’s actually much simpler than messing about with scripts or code. Gmail just looks for a link to a YouTube video in an email. If it finds one, it shows a still image of that video overlaid with a large “play” button:

videostill - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing

Clicking on that play button expands the video box and runs the video just as if it was embedded in the page.

This sounds great, but there are limitations in terms of the benefits for email marketing.

The first limitation is that the preview is not displayed next to the YouTube link that triggers the feature, but at the very bottom of the email:

videolink - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing

The shorter your email, the more people will likely see the preview.

What YouTube links activate the preview function?

Then there is a link formatting issue. Here the results of some tests I ran…what “links” trigger the video preview function?

1. Simply including a YouTube URL as standalone text (unlinked):

(Gmail actually turns that into a link for you).

2. The YouTube URL as linked text:


3. Where the YouTube URL appears in the link only

Interestingly, Gmail also displays the video preview where the YouTube address only appears in the URL and not in the text displayed in the email:

Click to view video

HTML: Click to view video

Problems arise when you introduce click tracking, as is typical for any email sent through email marketing software. The destination URL is then no longer a YouTube link but a tracking link.

So case 3 looks like this in the HTML:

Click to view video

…and NO video preview is triggered in Gmail.

Another issue is that you probably don’t want to send people to YouTube anyway…you’d rather have people who click on the video link going to a landing page at your own website, where the video is embedded.

A formatting solution?

One possibility might be to have the YouTube address as text and your landing page as the URL of the link, like this:

That way Gmail picks up the YouTube reference and triggers the video preview, but anyone clicking on the link actually goes to your website.

There is a user experience issue here, though: I click expecting to go to YouTube, but end up at your website. I’m also not sure how this might look to Gmail (today or in the future) or the reader in terms of security: URLs that don’t go where they say they go look a little like phishing.

Another alternative would be to put an anchor tag right at the bottom of the email:

…and link to it:

People clicking on the link get taken to the bottom of the email where the preview appears.

(Neither alternative is entirely satisfactory).

Segmenting by domain

Another limitation is that segmenting by domain is not an accurate way to pick out Gmail users. Somebody using a address may not be reading the email in Gmail itself.

Gmail users can forward emails automatically to another address or use software like Outlook or Thunderbird to access their Gmail mail. See this post for more details on this issue.

Nor is everyone reading their Gmail in a standard web browser: does the preview feature work in mobile display environments?

Some concluding thoughts

It comes as a shock, but the YouTube preview feature wasn’t designed with marketers in mind. But if you have videos hosted at YouTube, then it does offer you a way to give recipients an in-email video experience.

This assumes, of course, that you take account of the limitations discussed above when designing the email.

If nothing else, it seems like a good way to promote your YouTube video channel to Gmail subscribers!

However, let’s not forget that “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”

You h
ave to ask yourself if allowing people to view your video(s) in the email delivers value to you and your subscribers. Check out this article on when to use video email.

The more important implications for marketers might be at a broader, long-term level.

The YouTube preview feature encourages subscribers to interact directly with the email itself. It conditions them to accept and value email as a richer experience. This itself has further implications.

First, it potentially raises expectations. How does your plain text email look now when set alongside a well-designed HTML message with optional video?

Second, it takes both subscribers and inbox providers further down the road to email interactivity. Might this encourage Yahoo! Mail and Windows Live Hotmail to do something similar? (YouTube is a Google property, so perhaps not!)

Might it encourage software manufacturers and webmail services to explore ways to allow richer experiences in email (notwithstanding security concerns)?

For those who shake their head sadly and question my optimism, consider this behind-the-scenes report on Sears and their testing of Google’s Enhanced Email offering. Suddenly interactive inboxes don’t seem quite such a pipe dream?

As Chad White writes in the report:

“These coming changes will require new ways of measuring email success and of thinking about email strategy, particularly the relationship between email and website landing pages”

What do you think?

[This post brought to you by Campaigner Email Marketing]
Permalink | February 25, 2010 |

8 comment(s) – add yours!

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thank you mark for this indepth analysis. reinhard

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Anonymous, on

25 February, 2010



My pleasure Reinhard. I think we’ll see more new inbox functionality over the coming months. This is just the beginning.

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Mark Brownlow, on

25 February, 2010



Excellent and very informative post Mark.

Re: the conclusion – I am not so sure we’ll see more new inbox functionality within the next few *months* (at least as far as rich media and video are concerned).

Google is in a unique position to do this b/c of their ownership of YouTube. Meanwhile, the “Enhanced Content” offering a la Sears and Netflix doesn’t seem to be scalable (seems like they are working with only the largest brands and on a case by case basis).

I am a fervent advocate of “rich email”, and find it quite pathetic that it’s 2010 and we’re still so far away from it.

To make the inbox richer, industry needs to coalesce around standards that will make it so. And I’m afraid that we are still years from that becoming a reality, not months…

Best regards,


By b16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Jordan Cohen, on

25 February, 2010



Cool to see them rolling this out to all users. I’ve been using it in my own Gmail account since it was announced as a Labs feature some time ago and am a big fan of it as a recipient.

That said, I tend to favor sending subscribers to a page of your/my own site where the video is embedded alongside other content. There are certainly cases where sending the subscriber directly to YouTube makes sense, but I don’t see those as a majority.

Re: plain text email vs. HTML with optional video – these YouTube links work with plain text messages as well. (I’ve utilized this feature of Gmail most when friends email me YouTube links, always in plain text.) So while I generally favor HTML over plain text, I’m not sure the difference between the two options is exaggerated by the addition of YouTube previews.

I also agree w/Jordan: a broad rollout of Enhanced Email strikes me as unlikely. Probably going to be for a select few (large brands). Would sure love to be wrong on that one…

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Justin Premick, on

25 February, 2010



Jordan, Justin,

Thanks for thoughtful inputs. I would be inclined to agree that rich media might be a little longer off. But I’m more open minded about interactivity in the broadest sense. I’m thinking here of the integration of inboxes with social media and networks.

It’s hard to make concrete predictions, but my stomach tells me that webmail services and software manufacturers will strive harder and harder to keep people at their properties or in their system. And “interaction hubs” are a strong option there.

It’s certainly an exciting time, if a little scary with all the change going on.

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Mark Brownlow, on

25 February, 2010



Like Justin, I’ve had this enabled as a lab feature for a while. And, like Justin, I would prefer that people watch YouTube videos embedded on my own site, surrounded by my own content, links, etc.

However, since enabling it as a lab feature, I confess that I personally have been more likely to watch the video at the bottom of Gmail than I am to click through to a site (be it YouTube or otherwise). I’m curious if this is typical.

In the end, I would rather have the person watch the video in the e-mail (particularly if it is linked to the brand I’m promoting) than not watch it at all.

Although this was previously a Gmail Labs feature, not all Gmail Labs features are Google related. In labs, Gmail has a preview option similar to YouTube for Google-owned Picasa as well as for Flickr (owned by competitor Yahoo).

I am curious in terms of revenue/advertising if these YouTube videos within Gmail will feature ads related to the e-mail content as opposed to the video content.

Lots to think about. Thanks, as always, for your thorough testing. Bookmarked 🙂

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing robinteractive, on

25 February, 2010



It’s a shame the links with tracking we all use don’t activate the video…I’m guessing link shorteners like tinyurl don’t work either. Though many ESPs allow you to disable tracking on individual links.

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Anna Yeaman, on

25 February, 2010



Good point robinteractive: some of these issues will change as people get accustomed to seeing the video tagged to the bottom of an email. In fact, if you don’t use YouTube, they might even get concerned that no preview shows up for your alleged video link…?!

By anon16 rounded - Video in Gmail: design tests and implications for email marketing Mark Brownlow, on

25 February, 2010



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