How Structured Data can enhance your emails in Gmail

You may have heard the term Structured Data being floated around and wondered what it was all about.

In a nutshell, Structured Data is code written in a specific format, otherwise known as schema, that can be easily understood (e.g. for a search engine). A platform like Google can read that data and instantly understand what it is for and potentially use it for applications like displaying rich search results.

So what is an example of schema and what does it look like? Ever searched for a product online or looked up a movie review and found stars underneath the result? That’s an example of Structured Data.

Example of a schema.org Structured Data rich result

Structured Data, particularly for search, has gained lots of momentum as of late, particularly due to Google’s involvement with Schema.org – a joint effort, to improve the web by creating a structured data markup schema supported by major search engines.

However, the use of rich results isn’t only reserved for search and has subtly made its way into email, particularly for those using Google’s Gmail platform.

The focus of this article is to give you insights into what is Structured Data for email, how to implement it and what kind of results you can expect.

In this article

What is email Structured Data / Schema?

Schema.org was founded in 2011, meaning the presence of schema has been around for quite sometime.

And although it’s widely used in Google search results, schema visibility in email is a little more subtle. In fact, Gmail and Microsoft Outlook (latest desktop and web access versions) are the only platforms that have really embraced it to any considerable degree.

Email Structured Data may not have the variety of its search counterpart, but it can produce some interesting results. Let’s take a look at some examples that Gmail displays:

Gmail Actions

For Gmail users, the most recognisable form of schema markup being used for email would be in the form of Gmail Actions.

Introduced in 2013, roughly the same time as the Gmail Promotions Tab, Gmail Actions allows users to accelerate interaction with specific actions, such as one-click and go-to actions.

Below are a couple of examples of Structured Data in action inside the Gmail environment:

Structured data used in Gmail

In both examples, we’re seeing the one-click action being applied. These are useful in scenarios where an expected behaviour from a user is to confirm a pre-defined request.

Picture the example of a company sending out an RSVP to its customers for an event they are holding or your favourite podcaster notifying you of their latest podcast for you to queue up for later listening.

In both cases, the recipient of these emails isn’t required to leave their Gmail inbox to engage. They can simply click on the “action” button located in subject line area to perform the one-click action. Convenient!

Gmail Actions are perfect for messages with a single and clear call-to-action.

Here are more examples of Gmail Actions being used:

Inbox full of emails with Gmail Action buttons

Gmail Highlights

To help improve usability, a feature of Gmail is the implementation of Gmail Highlights.

Gmail Highlights uses schema markup to “highlight” key information and actions from an email and displays them using easy-to-see “chips” in the inbox.

A common example of a highlight is in the form of a flight reseveration email. When a Gmail user books a flight and receives a confirmation for a flight reseveration, a chip may appear in their inbox with a summary of the details, along with an “action” link to check-in.

Gmail Highlights example for a fight reservation

Another example would be an email receipt for an order the recipient had recently placed. A chip may show an image of the item they purchased and important information such as the delivery date along with an “action” link to track the parcel.

Gmail Highlights example of a parcel delivery

Through Gmail’s Email Markup, you can create the following types of Gmail Highlights:

  • Flight reservation
  • Order
  • Package tracking
  • Hotel reservation
  • Restaurant reservation
  • Ticketed event reservation
  • Articles

Answers in Search

Google has a wide variety of products, and although their track record in seamlessly integrating them together is moderate at best, Google has provided the ability to obtain search results from multiple services such as Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar!

By adding schema markup to your emails, users with connected Google accounts can pull informatiom from their inbox via a Google Search query.

Below is an example of a search result when querying “upcoming flights”.

Gmail Answer Search Card for Flights

Below are the available types of Answer card schemas available in Gmail:

  • Event Reservation
  • Flight Reservation
  • Hotel Reservation
  • Restaurant Reservation

Gmail Promotions Tab Annotations

Perhaps the most powerful “marketing” markup for Gmail users is the ability to annotate emails that are delivered to the Gmail Promotions Tab.

For those that do not use Gmail, in 2013 Google introduced the Promotions Tab to help Gmail users organise their inbox. Using a content algorithm, Gmail attempts to categorise emails based on whether they should go into the primary inbox or into a separate “tab” for emails that are deemed as promotional.

Now back to email annotations.

Gmail has given marketers the ability to let their emails stand out in the Promotions Tab. Take a look at this example:

Gmail email annotations using structured data

If you are familiar with the Gmail inbox, you’ll notice something interesting that you might not have come across before (either as a marketer or a recipient) in the above example.

Notice the email with the imagery, discount code and offer? Eye-catching isn’t it?

Using Structured Data and Gmail’s email annotations guidelines, you can add rich results and help your email standout amongst the other marketing messages in a Gmail inbox.

An annotated email can take advantage of following elements:

  • Custom avatar/profile picture
  • Descriptive text on the badge
  • Highlighted offer such as a discount
  • Redemption code to claim the offer
  • Real-time expiration of the offer
  • Custom image banner

Close up of a Gmail email annotation using structured data

As an email marketer, I’m sure you’ll be excited to find out how to implement this for your own email campaigns. But before we get to that part, we’ll need to discuss some requirements that need to be met.

How to apply structured data to your emails

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably hyped by the possibilities that Structured Data can offer to your own email marketing messages.

However, before you get too excited, there are some hurdles that you need to cross. Not everyone can simply send emails containing schema markup. In fact, you need to be an approved by Google in order to deliver such emails.

In order to take advantage of schema markup, you need to meet the three separate criterias outlined by Google:

  1. Google’s Email Sender Quality Guidelines
  2. Google’s Bulk Sender Guidelines
  3. Google’s Action / Schema Quality Guidelines

Here is a breakdown of what you need to know:

Email Sender Quality

Firstly, in Google’s Email Sender Quality Guidelines, the emails that you send must be authenticated using either SPF (Sender Policy Framework) or DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail).

Both SPF and DKIM are industry standard methods to help authenticate that the emails you’re sending are really coming from you. Fortunately, most email marketing platforms can assist in getting either (or both) of these setup for you.

Gmail email sender quality guidelines

Next, you need to make sure the domain you’re using to send your emails matches the signed-by or mailed-by header. Additionally, this email address needs to be static (meaning you cannot change the email alias you’re sending from). Again, this should be a relatively straightforward step that can be applied by your ESP (email service provider).

Lastly, you need to make sure you have an engaged audience that registers a very low rate of spam complaints (typically under 0.02%).

Bulk Sender

In order to register with Google to use email Structured Data, you need to be sending at least a hundred emails per day to Gmail users for several weeks before applying. This will provide Google with enough history to examine the quality of your emails.

You don’t necessarily need to send a campaign out every day, but there needs to be consistency in your volume and frequency so that Google can establish a pattern in your sending behaviour.

However, there are additional bulk sender guidelines that you need to adhere to, including using the same email address for your marketing messages, ensuring people on your mailing list have explicity opted-in and providing an easy facility for subscribers to opt-out.

Action / Schema Quality

When applying Gmail Actions, it is important to ensure you’re using the correct/appropriate markup when possible.

When an Action markup is not appropriate, or the process is more complex than what can be handled inside Gmail, you should use a Go-To Action instead.

Go-To Actions should link directly to a page where the email recipient can complete the action as labeled on the Action button.

Once you meet the above guidelines, you are then required to submit a live/functioning version (and not a test) of your email that contains all the schema/markups to schema.whitelisting+sample@gmail.com. This allows Google to evaluate the validity and accuracy of your Structured Data.

It is important to send a test directly to the above Gmail address and not to simply forward your email, as Gmail removes all markups when an email is forwarded on.

Finally, you will need to fill out a registration form and wait to hear from Google to see whether your Structured Data email passes the test.

Annotate emails in the Gmail Promotions Tab

As a marketer, you’re probably most excited about how to create an annotated email within Gmail – after all, all signs point to helping your promotions standout.

Before I go into further details, I need to highlight that you DO NOT need to register your emails with Google in order to create an annotated email. That’s right, you can get started straight away with your campaigns without having to go through the fuss of getting approval!

So let’s discuss how you can get started.

Firstly, you will need to be able to edit the HTML code of your own campaigns. Currently, there are no platforms that I know of that will allow you to enter schema without diving into the deep end of the code.

Therefore, for those that typically use a visual builder/content editor to create your emails, you’re going to need to find someone that is familiar with HTML to apply these settings for you.

Next, you will need to decide whether you want to apply your markups in Microdata or JSON-LD format. Both approaches will produce the same results, however, some email service providers may manipulate the code that you embed into your emails and therefore you will need to test which method holds its coding integrity when applied.

In this article, I’ll show you both methods.

Let’s start with the Microdata approach.

Microdata approach to annotated emails

Firstly, you will need to access the HTML code of your email and insert the following after the opening <body> tag and before the closing </body> tag.

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Organization">

<meta itemprop="name" content="Gmail" />

<meta itemprop="logo" content="https://your-domain.com/icon.png" />
</div>

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/EmailMessage">
<meta itemprop="subjectLine" content="Your email subject line" />
</div>

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/DiscountOffer">
<meta itemprop="description" content="Discount Offer" />
<meta itemprop="discountCode" content="Code" />
<meta itemprop="availabilityStarts" content="2019-07-24T00:00:00+00:00" />
<meta itemprop="availabilityEnds" content="2019-08-25T00:00:00+00:00" />
</div>

<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/PromotionCard">
<meta itemprop="image" content="https://your-domain.com/image.jpg">

Note the bolded sections. Now let’s breakdown each element, and see what they do.

Below is a visual example of an annotated email that I created.

An example of microdata used to generate an annotated email for Gmail promotions

  • itemprop=”logo”: This sets your avatar/profile image. Typically, you’ll want to put your brand logo in here. Use an appropriate web format image, like a JPG or a PNG file. Your logo needs to be a minimum 40px by 40px.
  • itemprop=”subjectline”: This sets the description of your email, much like a subject line would. You have approximately 48 characters available.
  • itemprop=”description”: This sets the description of your offer, whether you’re offering a discount or a some kind of promotion. Be mindful you have less than 30 characters before it pushes your Code element out of view.
  • itemprop=”discountCode”: This sets the value of your coupon code that customers can use to redeem your offer.
  • itemprop=”availabilityStarts”: This sets the start date for your offer. Keep in mind that the date and time needs to be in UTC format.
  • itemprop=”availabilityEnds”: This sets the end date for your offer. Again, this needs to be in UTC format.
  • itemprop=”image”: This is where you can set your promotional image to attract customers to your email/promotion. Again, use an appropriate web format image and use the minimum specs of 324px by 83px.

Simply edit the bolded elements in the code provided above and replace the values with your own.

Adding Structured Data to your email can be tricky, because you won’t be able to visually see how it renders. Therefore, you will need a tool to test your emails to see if the schema markup is valid.

Fortunately, Google has provided such a tool where you can copy and paste your code and see if it will render correctly.

Google's email markup tester

JSON-LD approach to annotated emails

Much like the Microdata approach, you will need to paste the following code after the opening <body> tag and before the closing </body> tag.

<script type="application/ld+json">
[{
"@context": "http://schema.org/",
"@type": "Organization",
"name": "Your Name",
"logo": "https://your-domain.com/icon.png"
},{

"@context": "http://schema.org/",
"@type": "EmailMessage",
"subjectLine": "Your email subject line"
},{

"@context": "http://schema.org/",
"@type": "DiscountOffer",
"description": "Discount Offer",
"discountCode": "Code",
"availabilityStarts": "2019-07-24T00:00:00+00:00",
"availabilityEnds": "2019-08-25T00:00:00+00:00"
},{

"@context": "http://schema.org/",
"@type": "PromotionCard",
"image": "https://your-domain.com/image.jpg""
}]
</script>

Note the bolded sections. Now let’s breakdown each element, and see what they do.

  • “name”: This sets the from name of your email campaign.
  • “subjectline”: This sets the description of your email, much like a subject line would. You have approximately 48 characters available.
  • “logo”: This sets your avatar/profile image. Typically, you’ll want to put your brand logo in here. Use an appropriate web format image, like a JPG or a PNG file. Your logo needs to be a minimum 40px by 40px.
  • “description”: This sets the description of your offer, whether you’re offering a discount or a some kind of promotion. Be mindful you have less than 30 characters before it pushes your Code element out of view.
  • “discountCode”: This sets the value of your coupon code that customers can use to redeem your offer.
  • “availabilityStarts”: This sets the start date for your offer. Keep in mind that the date and time needs to be in UTC format.
  • “availabilityEnds”: This sets the end date for your offer. Again, this needs to be in UTC format.
  • “image”: This is where you can set your promotional image to attract customers to your email/promotion. Again, use an appropriate web format image and use the minimum specs of 324px by 83px.

Much like the Microdata version, you can test your markup using the Google Email Markup Tester.

Benefits of annotated emails

On top of the visual elements that help your email stand out, annotated emails within the Gmail Promotions Tab get the added advantage of occupying the top spot of the inbox in a section affectionately referred to as “Top Deals”.

Annotated emails get top positioning within Gmail

Even if your email was delivered earlier than another “normal” email, annotated emails will still appear up top, giving greater visibility and opportunities for engagement!

There isn’t a lot of reporting out there, but for the clients that I have implemented structured data markup for, I have seen an average 47.63% increase in open rates and 17.48% increase in click-throughs.

Given that Gmail can make up a huge portion of B2C databases, this can have a huge impact on engagement for retail-based businesses.

Testing annotated emails

Creating annotated emails for Gmail comes with a caveat – that is, your email markup doesn’t guarantee it will display.

There isn’t a lot of literature out there regarding what makes it work or not, but from the testing that I have conducted, it seems that it takes approximately 15-30mins for Gmail to process the email markup and start displaying in inboxes.

However, there also seems to be a 24-hour window of when you can take advantage of sending an annotated email from a particular domain. What I’ve observed is that if you send a test, and decide to make a change, a retest within a 24 hour period will not render.

Therefore, it is essential you get your markup right the first time or you’ll experience delays in your send.

Conclusion

Email is often branded as being “dead” and that its days are numbered as a marketing channel. However, there are always exciting and new developments in the email space and brands are often unaware that they exist!

The development and implementation of Structured Data shows that major digital influencers, like Google, still see a huge role that email plays and are looking for innovative ways to improve the user experience for the humble channel.

Have you seen annotated emails in your inbox before? How are you implementing Structured Data for your own marketing emails? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Wei Tan is a digital marketing consultant, based in Melbourne, Australia.

I work closely with businesses to help them achieve growth and sustainable profitability through online marketing. I have over 15 years of experience working with multinational brands through to startups.

On top of empowering businesses online, I’m also a founder of a leading digital agency, operator of several eCommerce brands, and an avid content writer on all things digital marketing.

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