I’m actually fairly amazed at the number of times that I get questions that boil down to people just not trusting each other. Not that there isn’t cause, I suppose, with spam, phishing and viruses running all over the place. But this seems like the simplest case of all – was your email read or not?
Interestingly enough, there is infrastructure in the mail system to get an answer to that question. The problem is that, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t work.
I’ll give you the quick answer first: no, I don’t know of any way to reliably determine if your email has been delivered, and if it was delivered, whether it was opened, and if it was opened, whether or not it was read.
I can hear a lot of you asking, “But what about the delivery confirmation option in my mail client?” That’s the “infrastructure” I talked about earlier. The problem is that 99% of the time, it simply doesn’t work.
Delivery Confirmation is nothing more than an additional header added to your outgoing email that asks the recipient’s email client, “Please email me back when this is delivered to the inbox.” Note that it requires the cooperation of the recipient’s email client – they have to a) recognize that request for confirmation, and then b) do something about it.
Most email clients ignore Delivery Confirmation on incoming mail.
The same is true for Read Receipt. It asks the recipient’s email client, “Please email me when this message has been opened.” Again, if their email client supports it, most people turn this off for privacy reasons.
Now, there is one common trick that some folks (mostly email marketers) use to see if email has been opened. Using HTML mail, they can reference a picture from a remote server. For example, I can create an HTML email that includes a picture of my dog, but have that picture reside on my server. Then, when you open the mail, the picture of my dog is fetched from the server and I can use my server logs to see that.
The problem here is that because this feature has been so misused by spammers and the like, most email clients now don’t display those images unless explicitly asked to by the person reading the email. If those pictures aren’t displayed, the server isn’t notified and there’s no way to tell that the email was opened.
So, so far all our techniques for testing to see if email was delivered or opened are failing most of the time. There’s simply no reliable way to tell if an email has been delivered or opened.
But, let’s say for a moment there was. Let’s say we could tell that email was delivered and opened. Even with that – how could you possibly tell that a person actually read it? You can’t. Even if the person has it open on their computer, there’s no way to tell that they’re actually reading it.