Cracking the Code on Gmail Ads: My 7 Best Tips


Gmail Ads are one of the more intriguing opportunities Google has given advertisers to reach people where they spend a lot of their time online – in their inboxes. I’ve been obsessed with mastering them lately and today I’m going to reveal what I’ve learned.

Gmail Ads Hacks

What Are Gmail Ads?

Gmail ads target users based on the account activity of their personal Gmail accounts and appear within the Promotions tab. Formerly known as Gmail Sponsored Promotions, they've been around since 2013 and finally became available to all advertisers (for the second time, no less) in 2015.

gmail ad examples

So what do we really know about these native Gmail Ads? Quite a lot now, actually.

After collecting massive amounts of data for more than a year from spending a few million dollars on this ad format, this post summarizes my top 7 most exciting findings on Gmail ads and my best recommendations for making the most of this AdWords format.

Gmail Ads Tip #7: Raise CTR & QUALITY SCORE!

Hi, my name is Larry Kim, and I’m obsessed with Quality Score. We’ve researched the heck out of it – for AdWords, the Google Display Network, Twitter, and Facebook.

Guess what! Quality Score absolutely exists in Gmail Ads!

Gmail Ads Quality Score
Gmail Ads doesn't actually show you the Quality Score. In search ads, you can view the keyword-level Quality Score, whereas in Gmail you can't see it. But even though you can't see it, a Gmail Ads Quality Score still exists.

Here’s an example, looking at the Cost Per Click vs. Click-Through Rate (email open rate) for one particular campaign:

calculating quality score in gmail ads

It's not linear, but there are clearly huge rewards for high open rates and huge penalties for low open rates. Put simply:

Higher CTR = Much Lower CPC

Lower CTR = MUCH higher CPC

You absolutely have to maximize your open rates because the Gmail Ads Quality Score will give you huge rewards. It's the difference between $0.10 clicks vs. $1.15 clicks, based on the awesomeness or terribleness of your subject lines.

So what do we do about this? Write irresistible email subject lines, duh! But how?

Gmail Ads Tip #6: Leverage Existing Email Marketing Campaign Data

Email marketing is the most popular lead generation channel. Most companies do email marketing – 87% of them, according to a survey by Chief Marketer:

email marketing with gmail ads

So how can you leverage your existing email marketing campaigns to improve your Gmail Ads?

Even if you haven't done Gmail Ads before, you should have a library of emails you've sent out before and the ability to figure out whether they did well.

Log into your email marketing system (we use Marketo, but use whatever you have, whether it's Constant Contact, HubSpot, Salesforce, or something else). Pull an email performance report. Sort by the open rate.

open rate for gmail ads

Will emails that have done well for you organically do well in a sponsored email ad format? It's very likely. Sorting by open rate will reveal your unicorns. Don't bother promoting the garbage ones because no one's going to open them to begin with – and when they do it will cost you an arm and a leg.

I can’t share all my secrets, but our best performing email by open rate is over 40% and the subject line is: “Quick Question”.

You’d be crazy to not leverage your existing treasure trove of email subject lines when doing Gmail Ads.

Gmail Ads Tip #5: Use Emojis

You knew this was coming! It’s really true. Emojis increase open rates.

gmail ads with emoji

This is a bit crazy, but you get the idea.

Inboxes are such a competitive area to get people's attention. Emojis really make subject lines pop – especially on mobile, where about half of email opens occur (though there is substantial variance in this figure, as it depends heavily on audience and industry).

It makes no sense not to use emojis. Almost any business in any industry can find a creative reason to include an emoji in the subject line. (OK, maybe not if you’re in an uber-serious business like a funeral home.) Otherwise, you should feel pretty confident that adding emojis to your subject line will increase open rates by around 30%.

Just make sure your emojis are topically relevant – don't just use a smiley. If you're advertising a doughnut shop, use a doughnut emoji; if you're advertising a pizza special at your restaurant, include a pizza emoji.

Gmail Ads Tip #4: No Remarketing? Do Keyword Targeting!

Remarketing works so incredibly well because past browsing history is a great predictor of future commerce activities. Think about your email marketing. Even if you have a huge list of half a million opt-in emails, aren't you better off focusing on people who have interacted with your emails sometime within the last few months? Yes! Why?

gmail ads remarketing

People lose interest. Some hot prospects go cold. Someone who signed up a year ago, but hasn't opened any emails in more than six months, probably is no longer in the market for your thing now.

So how do you target people who have shown recent interest in your stuff in Gmail Ads?

Unfortunately, the most common display ad options of remarketing and “In Market Segments” are not available targets within Gmail Ads and likely won't be in the future, due to regulations around personally identifiable information related to email marketing.

BUT there is a clever trick to get around this problem. You can do keyword targeting as a substitute for remarketing.

When people enter our funnel, we send them emails as part of marketing automation drip campaigns that contain the word WordStream, which end up in their Gmail accounts. So I can target with recent interest from WordStream by targeting my own trademarks.

Why target people who are already familiar with you and in your funnel?

Well, let's say your emails have an open rate of 15 or 20%. That means 75 to 80% of people in your funnel aren't interacting with those emails. So there's plenty of upside of targeting them with Gmail Ads, even if they’re already in your funnel.

Targeting people who are familiar with your brand will also increase CTR and Quality Score, thereby lower CPCs.

Gmail Ads Tip #3: Go Nuts With Competitor Keywords

Why stop at your own trademarks? Why not also target people who have recently shown interest in the things your competition sells?

In addition to targeting your own brand terms, you can also be keyword targeting your competitors' brand terms with Gmail Ads. People who are in the market for your competitor's products are getting emails from your competitors that mention their brand terms right now.

Targeting the trademarks of your competitors is a clever way for you to potentially steal some sales! The fact that they’re in market for a competing solution will dramatically increase Quality Score and lower CPCs.

Gmail Ads Tip #2: Don’t Forget Deep Click Analytics

Open rates are obviously important, but you still need to check what people do after they open the Gmail Ad.

Google has all these Gmail-specific campaign metrics that aren’t even turned on by default! It's critical to enable and monitor these (forwards, saves, clicks to website) to track the health of your campaigns:

gmail ads analytics

Gmail Ads Tip #1: Mix it Up With 4 Different Ad Formats

Gmail Ads offers four different ad formats to choose from:

  • Gmail image template
  • Gmail single promotion template
  • Gmail multi-product template
  • Gmail catalog template

gmail ad formats

Use them all. You might find that different types of offers work best with different Gmail ad formats. For example, having more stuff to click on might increase the chances of people finding something interesting to click on, especially if you’re promoting products. The multi-product template ad looks similar to the marketing emails that Etsy sends out.

Notice What’s Missing from the List? Customer Match

Why isn’t the new Customer Match on this list? You know, the amazing new feature that lets you target Gmail Ads based on user email addresses? Weird, right?

The reason: I’m struggling with it.

For whatever reason, even when I upload a huge list of emails, we’re having trouble accruing a large number of ad impressions. We've seen this on quite a few accounts. For example, we did a campaign where we uploaded a gigantic list with   100,000 email matches and we were only getting several thousand impressions. We don’t know why.

Hopefully, we'll soon see the very promising Customer Match feature reach its full potential for advertisers.

Final Thoughts on Gmail Ads

Google presents many interesting opportunities to advertisers so they can make the most of the Gmail Ads format – you can reduce costs by optimizing several aspects of your campaign, reach your own (and a new) audience, and measure post-open success. Yet there are quite a few restrictions and limitations unique to Gmail Ads which are above and beyond the normal limitations in search ads. Hopefully we'll see Google open up Customer Match feature a little bit more in the future and relax some of the ad policies.


Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

Watch the video below on our Free AdWords Grader:

Visit the AdWords Grader.


Feb 03, 2016

"It makes no sense not to use emojis"

What about Adwords policies? Are emojis allowed?

Feb 29, 2016

You are right, emojis are "Non-standard punctuation" for AdWords.

Mar 11, 2016

Yeah I tried them as well and it's not possible to enter them. I wonder when Larry used AdWords for the last time lol

Feb 03, 2016

There is absolutly no qualityscore for Gmail ads! What you get here is the effect of CPM based auctions. You paid the same amount per 1.000 ad impressions for your ad with the high CTR as you paid for the one with the low CTR.
But the eCPC is lower, because more people clicked on the ad. Same goes for Facebook and all other CPM based auctions.
And the CPM you have to pay is based on the targeting you set and the competitor bids.

Feb 04, 2016

I believe he is suggesting a Cost Per Click campaign not Cost Per Mil (1k impressions) campaign. Facebook campaigns have a lot more success running on oCPM but Adwords has success in CPC meaning you can show your ad 10,000 times, not receive a click and not pay a cent. While Facebook can show 10,000 times and be charged 10 times and not receive a click. So he is suggesting that Google will notice your ad has a high CTR and charge you less per click because consumers like the ad and give it a higher quality score.

Feb 04, 2016

check me if im wrong sandy, but emojis in the subject line are a violation of adwords ad policies and the ad will be rejected. no?

Feb 29, 2016

Thank you for the article!

I was surprised about using emojis - they are definitely not allowed in Gmail ads. "Non-standard punctuation".

Rahul Ghosh
May 04, 2016

Awesome article. I have been trying this with one of my client and the CTR is pretty decent. Also, thanks for letting me know the hidden Gmail features column inside the Ad-Groups. :)

Jun 06, 2016

Emojis are not allowed to save in Adwords.

Oct 14, 2016

Great Article! My only question is...... is it legal to use a competitors trademarked business name or product name as a keyword. I am mostly interested in this answer for gmail/adwords advertising. Is it cut and dry, yes you can or no you cant, or is it a gray area? Any help would be much appreciated! I want to stay as far away from legal trouble as possible.

Oct 27, 2016

Adwords relaxed their policies recently and you can use competitors keywords now.

Feb 23, 2017

It was always possible to use competitor keywords as a targeting option. Nothing to do with relaxing policies

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