Email Open Rate Tracking Is Creepy And Weird. Should Marketers Be Using It At All?

How did a Big Brother-like technology mushroom under our noses. And why did it take this long for a major tech player to push back against this intrusive practice?

Email open rate tracking: Apple has launched a feature designed to help consumers protect themselves against this widespread practice. Is the tide turning? Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

This week marked a historic turning point in privacy advocates’ battle against email open rate tracking — a widely-employed technology used in marketing to keep track of who’s opening communications, how often they’re doing so, and even from approximately where on the planet.

Apple has become the first major (household name) technology provider to integrate a tracking pixel blocking functionality into its email product. The feature — Mail Privacy Protection — was announced at a conference.

As somebody who until a few years ago refused to post a profile photo on Facebook, and who uses PGP email for certain communications, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to most to learn that I’m decidedly on the anti-email tracking side of this picture.

But the picture is a little bit more complicated than that.

Besides being “privacy conscious” — to use the chosen euphemism for those who worry about things like digital breadcrumbs— I also work in marketing communications. Which is probably the professional function, alongside sales, more likely than any other to leverage, or be encouraged to leverage, this invasive technology.

Over the years, I’ve often found myself a reluctant and sometimes unwitting user of email open rate tracking — which works by embedding a unique tracking pixel in each message and masking links in redirects in order to calculate clicks.

If you work at a company which uses Mailchimp for email marketing and you’re a junior marketing hire, you’re unlikely to have much choice other than to make use of the fact that the platform allows you to see who opens your campaigns.

And if — like me — you need an email marketing solution that’s familiar and (usually) free and you want to stick with what you already know, Mailchimp’s the obvious option.

Whatever your reasoning, platforms like Mailchimp positively celebrate the Big Brother-like power that marketers think they receive by gaining access to information about their users’ email-reading habits. There are entire marketing automation programs which are centered around the supposed power of this morsel of information.

Accruing data is the flavor of the day in the marketing world. Building automations around when your prospects “engaged” with emails by opening them therefore makes marketers feel smart and like they’re doing the right — or professionally respectable — thing.

But is it the right kind of data to be tapping?

Imagine The Postman Logging Your Mail Routine With A Pen And Paper. This Is Basically How Open Rate Tracking Works.

In many day to day life, I make every effort to thwart the efforts of my correspondents to gain access to information about whether or when I have read their email.

I generally wish them no ill-will. But I do know the kind of technology that those working in sales, especially, are deploying on their side of the screen.

Every time I open their email will be considered a signal. The amount of opens may be being carefully and electronically logged. My lead score may be being automatically recalculated based upon this “engagement” — which could translate into follow-up that I don’t want.

And so I run an email tracking pixel blocker. I feel mildly disappointed every time I discover that somebody I do business with is flagged as logging my email receipts even if there’s a chance they don’t even know that their company is deploying the technology. And if I’m feeling really paranoid, I sometimes open emails in an HTML-only reader.

Professionally, I try to avoid tools that offer email tracking as a feature. If it exists in a tool that I use — like Mailchimp — I do my best not to use or leverage that feature at all. But I’ll admit — I have done so. Curiosity’s a powerful thing — as is our strange newfound thirst for data.

I tell my clients that the idea that a campaign’s effectiveness can be determined based upon who opened an email campaign sounds ludicrous to me. What about the silence audience effect? What about those who scanned the subject line and appreciated the engagement? What about those who seethed in ire at another marketing email — whose rage isn’t being seen on any logging screen but which is hurting the company’s reputation silently?

To understand how creepy email tracking is, I think it’s helpful to imagine it through the prism of the world that we recently knew: when mail was delivered by postal workers and everything came destined for our postboxes in attractive looking stationary.

Imaging the postman sporting a little notepad and keeping an exact log of when and where you were when you opened your mail. Then conveying that log in real time to those who dispatched messages to you.

These days, in tandem with the explosion of data being created, privacy protection has become a widespread concern.

Supra-national entities like the European Union enact legislation to provide us with heightened rights to our own data, how long organizations can retain it for, and when we have a right to demand it.

The collection of information about recipients’ email reading habits is a dark horse that has largely flown under the radar of this privacy resolution for far too long.

There’s no opt in mechanism required. Recipients by and large don’t know it’s happening to them. And — most amazingly — the information being collected is a derivative of personally identifiable information (PII).

Because Mr Marketer knows precisely who opened which email and when they did so. There’s nothing anonymized about email tracking data.

Drunk on its relentless quest to accrue more data and help marketers and salespeople use “automation” and be “smarter” (all trending buzzwords), it’s almost as if nobody — or society — bothered stepping in to question whether gathering this kind of information in the first place was an appropriate thing to do. Speaking both morally and technologically, that is.

A whole industry of marketing and sales technology platforms mushroomed around their ability to enable a Big Brother like technology without many really noticing.

Some even proudly brag about being able to defeat the latest tools to block tracking pixels.

It’s a very odd game of cat and mouse. Centered largely around marketers’ ability to know whether or not somebody has opened an email. The uncharitable might even call this technological dual pathetic.

In light of the above, those of us who care about privacy should be amazed that it took this long for a major tech player to place a stake in the movement to empower users to read their email without senders knowing when, where, or if they did so. But we should be happy that they did.

The move was long overdue.

And if somebody wanted to take away my right to use the technology, as a marketer, I wouldn’t object.

Some Tools To Protect Yourself Against Email Tracking

Or:

  • Any plain text only email client (example: a terminal-based email client for Linux)
  • Disabling the automatic loading of external images in email clients

Marketing communications consultant interested in tech, Linux, ADHD, beer, async, and remote work (in no particular order). RosehillMarcom.com