Unpacking AMP for Email

A previous version of this article was originally written and published on the ADK Group blog.

Earlier in April Google announced widespread support for AMP across Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, and Mail.Ru.

AMP for email was announced as a closed beta about a year ago, but the public release announced on the AMP blog officially adds email to a growing list of AMP-enabled media available for marketers: websites, “stories” (think SnapChat or Instagram stories, but in mobile Google search results), and advertisements.

What is AMP?

AMP is an open source code library that was ostensibly created with the goal of encouraging web developers to produce experiences that load faster on mobile devices. In the case of web pages, these are cached on Google’s own servers, rather than your own. 

The AMP code framework is about as controversial as things get in growing area where marketers and developers overlap. The critical side sees it as an unnecessary and potentially disastrous forfeiture of control, while its champions cheer it on because it’s faster for users and, well, that’s mostly it.

Most of the developers at ADK Group are open source zealots, but still cringed at initial requests to bring AMP-enabled pages to some of the more content-reliant client websites.

However, part of what makes ADK Group a true partner to its clients is pushing them to the bleeding edge of technology in order to reap strategic rewards (see: the first-mover advantage).

That doesn’t mean blind adoption of the latest trend just because it’s the latest trend. Instead, I work to place emerging technologies in a broader context in order to make informed decisions and recommendations. Working with a wide variety of businesses, challenges, and tech stacks affords a significant advantage on this front, and allows me to explore questions like, Where did this technology come from? Why does it exist? Who benefits from it?

GOOGLE’S STRATEGIC MOAT

In terms of its core business (search), Google is consistently working to do 2 things:

  1. Atomize content that was previously aggregated by large publishers to make it easier to match with Google users’ search intents, and
  2. Use data about how people interact with that atomized content to enable advertisers to target audiences on an increasingly micro scale.

Within this model, the first initiative represents Google’s supply-side. By improving the overall UX of content consumption, Google becomes the de-facto “supplier” for most of the internet’s content, even though Google owns almost none of that supply and does not actually produce the supply. In fact, Google gets free access to the content it aggregates (it does not pay any companies that create the content for the right to index it) and mostly does not create any of its own content.

That allows Google to supersede traditional publishers and create a more “meritocratic” (in quotes because Google quantifies the merit) platform where anyone can create content that can be viewed billions of times over.

This also allowed Google to aggregate the demand for content: it created a virtuous cycle where searches created competition for higher quality content that could be indexed by Google, which led to more people using the search engine (there’s another loop in there around their search algorithm, but we’ll save that tangent for another article).

Google became the de facto place people come to when looking for (most) content, which gives it a huge competitive advantage when selling advertising based on demand. This demand is one of Google’s strategic moats, making the strengthening of it an existential pursuit for Google.

At the scale that Google operates on, its competitors are not so much other search engines (although DuckDuckGo is beginning to look like a minor threat), but rather other content atomization platforms – Facebook and Amazon being among the most threatening.

What’s the advantage those platforms have that Google does not?

They all not only own the demand side, like Google, but also own the supply side. Content created on Facebook is exclusive to Facebook. This incentivizes more usage, which creates more content, which compounds demand, which results in more advertising power. While the content posted on Amazon is not exclusive to Amazon in theory, it is (to borrow a concept from Ben Thompson again) exclusive in reality, due to the demand that Amazon has been able to aggregate.

Consider the state of Facebook organic performance by 2018, at which point Facebook had clearly flexed this advertising power by forcing company pages to pay to play (this is how Facebook can remain free).

“APAC” refers to the Asia-Pacific region.Source.

In mid 2016, we see Google react with successful efforts to increase paid clicks.

Paid CTRs can stand as a reasonable proxy for advertising power, which Google is actively working to increase (and maintain dominance in the face of new competitors).

But even though Google is able to increase the performance of paid results, the lack of exclusivity has left a gap. That gap, being addressed, in real time is centered around the exclusivity and control of the supply of content.

AMP is a platform for publishers to create content on owned by Google. This means the content must conform to Google’s rules, and users consuming the content must remain within Google’s ecosystem. This has obvious advantages, like giving Google the ability to throttle competing advertising and data collection products on AMP pages. It also has second- and third- order consequences, like allowing Google to gather more behavioral data on users interacting with AMP pages.

All signals (recent product launches, changes to the search algorithm, etc.) point to Google trying to achieve this by creating a walled garden for their core business: search. And even though paid CTR’s are increasing, Google is still sending that traffic outside of its walled garden. AMP allows Google to corral everything.

Google’s Walled Garden for Search

Florent Crivello begins an article about the importance of demand by laying out the different parts of a typical internet search:

  • Your search engine of choice
  • Your browser
  • Your operating system
  • Your computer or mobile device
  • Your Internet service provider
  • “(a bunch of WAN stuff)”
  • The search engines internet service provider
  • The search engines own tech stack
  • Content being served

All of these represent opportunities for a company to both control the experience of the search and collect exclusive data about it that can be sold to advertisers. So how much of the search experience could Google own?

Right now, it has the ability to own the whole experience, except for the content it’s serving:

EntitiesGoogle Product
Search engineGoogle
BrowserChrome
Operating systemAndroid, Chrome OS
Computer or mobile deviceChromebooks, Android
ISPGoogle Fiber, Google Fi
Content 

How AMP serves Google & Gmail

That last hole is what AMP will help Google fill. No single content creator could possibly create enough high quality content to be reasonably dominant across a well-made search engine. This inefficiency prevents a behemoth like Google from flooding its own platform with successful content.

However, if you get the majority of content creators to build for your platform (as YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and most other ad-driven platforms for user-generated content do), then you can fill the content gap at scale. And you can do it in a way that gives you exclusive access to that content and the data it generates.

Because AMP pages (and presumably stories, ads, and emails) are hosted on Google’s servers, AMP encourages content creators to hand-over control of their content to Google. 

For email, replace the choice of search engine in the earlier table with choice of email service provider (ESP) and you get the same story. In the case of AMP, any ESP’s that support the technology (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, Mail.Ru) give Google ownership of that step by proxy. In fact, Google has been trying to monetize Gmail for a long time – the most notable shift was the introduction of native Gmail ads within Google AdWords (now called Google Ads) back in 2015.

With Google’s platforms owning demand (Gmail and Google Search), AMP begins to give Google control over the supply .

Because AMP for Google allows for robust in-email conversions marketers will view this as an opportunity to increase the ROI of email marketing. And it may do that! It just will also do so while helping Google expand its walled garden.

How important is owning an entire experience for Google?

In addition to the investments it has made in products and services to capture the search experience, Google also makes easily quantifiable purchases that fill other gaps in the search experience.

For example, the popularity of iOS devices represents a huge threat to the ownership of the search experience. Android phones are certainly popular, but Google is looking for market dominance — most of the games it plays are winner-take-all. That’s why the price Google pays Apple to be the default search engine on Safari on iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices are predicted to rise 33% to $12 billion in 2019, per Rod Hall, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Ironically, this income makes Apple one of the strongest “search engine companies” without ever owning a search engine.

WHAT DOES AMP DO FOR MARKETERS?

While AMP as a framework is a pretty thinly-veiled tool to help-marketers-help-Google, the benefits should not be discounted. Furthermore, when a company with the influence Google has set its sights on a trend, the company is (a) generally not wrong, and (b) a catalytic force that increases the adoption of those trends. However, that does not mean that dominance of the AMP framework is inevitable and that you should make the (often costly) move to supporting it.

Should you implement AMP pages?

Instead of making a knee-jerk decision, weigh the strengths and weakness thoughtfully in the context of your business and your marketing goals.

Strengths of AMP

  • If executed properly, it increases mobile page performance. This, as many marketing publications will tell you, can help lower bounce rates, increase conversion rates, and improve sales.
  • It creates engaging experiences. Google is pushing hard to keep the user within its ecosystem, and is incentivizing that with more interactive emails and search results.
  • It is a potential differentiating factor for your marketing. Some of your competitors will adopt it, others won’t.

Weaknesses of AMP

  • Less visibility for any on-site, non-Google advertisements.
  • Less control over the style and design of your website.
  • Less traffic to your domain.
  • More complicated and limited analytics.

Are you an ecommerce website with hundreds of thousands of visits and transactions per day? Minuscule changes in page speed can have outsized impacts on your revenue. Is your business built around an SEO-based growth loop (like Pinterest, Zillow, or other aggregators)? AMP may be able to help.

Does your company partake in only sporadic blogging? You probably won’t need to implement AMP. Often times, there’s a compromise. Some companies should move almost their entire website onto AMP templates, while others would only benefit from creating a single AMP-enabled template.

Should you implement AMP emails?

AMP for email unlocks a range of interesting capabilities that can set your emails apart from competitors (it’s yet unclear how spam filters will react to this), as outlined in Google’s product blog. These include familiar AMP capabilities like amp-carouselamp-formamp-bindamp-list, etc.

At the time of writing, Google launched with a pretty broad range of email partners: SparkPost, Litmus, Twilio Sendgrid, and Amazon’s SES and Pinpoint. But unless you have developers building your emails, you won’t be able to easily use AMP in your emails yet. Dominant email marketing platforms like Constant ContactMailChimp, and even SalesForce do not yet support AMP templates, but likely will soon. 

If you wanted to explore AMP in your email marketing, how would that you go about doing that? 

  1. Read up a bit more about AMP email mark up
  2. Review the AMP for email documentation
  3. Give your developers a chance to practice in the AMP for email sandbox 
  4. Make sure Google approves your email

After step 1 you should at least have a better understanding of the lift required to implement AMP for emails. The new interactions may mean that email is finally an interesting channel for you to explore, or you may have learned through repeated A/B testing that your audience responds to plain-text emails best.

We are in the early adoption phase, where people are pushing limits, figuring out best practices, and failing with this new tool. For more agile companies, this may be considered a period of grace to get ahead of competition. On the other hand, more cautious companies could use this as a time to create an implementation plan to be prepared if industry case studies report good news.

The bottom line is that, like any investment in marketing technology, there isn’t a universal right or wrong approach. The value your company would realize from a technology like AMP depends on things like your growth loop, market segment, budget, and the rest of your tech stack.

In my current role as Lead Marketing Technologist at ADK Group, I help companies come to terms with emerging technical marketing trends, like AMP for email. Crucially, I help them decide whether adoption would be a wasteful birdwalk, or a step-wise improvement in growth.

If you have any thoughts, comments, questions, about anything related to marketing, growth, and emerging tech trends please let me know! I love discussing common pain points, creative applications of technology, and complicated growth challenges.

(To allow your organization to receive dynamic emails – like viewing the latest comments on Google docs within a single email – have your Gsuite admin follow the steps outlined here.)


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