Has anyone tried www.—.com? It’s a free email tracking service. How good and reliable is it? Is it safe to use?
That’s actually a comment that was posted to one of my articles on whether or not you could tell if email has been opened or read by the recipient.
The short answer is that there’s really only one email tracking technique currently in use, and it only works maybe half the time. In other words, it’s not all that helpful.
Let me explain how it works, and you’ll see what I mean.
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When I mention email tracking, most folks think of the “Return Receipt” option that some mail programs display. The intent of that function was exactly what you might expect: an automated email back indicating that the email you sent had been opened.
It doesn’t work.
The reason it doesn’t work is simple: it requires the cooperation of the email program being used to read the email. Because of abuse by spammers and others, almost all email programs now either completely ignore Return Receipt requests or require that you enable the feature before Return Receipts are acted on. And no one turns it on.
With “Return Receipt” rendered pretty much useless, the technique used today is to include an image – often an invisible image – that is fetched from a web page when the email is displayed. Then, using the web server logs on which those images are hosted, the sender can see who’s opened and displayed their email.
There are two very large problems with this technique:
- It works only with HTML or “Rich text” email.
- It works only if users have “display images” enabled.
That last point is particularly telling. Most email programs now default to not displaying images in email. The recipient has to enable it, often by adding the sender’s email address to the list of “trusted” senders.
But if the image is not displayed, then the email cannot be tracked. It’s just that simple.
Put another way:
- If your email is plain text, there’s no way to automatically track whether it’s been opened or read. Period.
- If your email is in HTML, then only those recipients who’ve enabled images can be tracked. The rest appear to have never opened your email, even though they may have.
There are many tracking services out there that gloss over this fact. They’ll claim lots of success, but it all boils down to this: you cannot tell with any certainty that someone hasn’t read your email. They may have opened it and read it without images turned on, defeating any tracking ability.
And even if you do get notification for those folks with images turned on, all that tells you is that the email was displayed – it does not tell you that the email was actually read.
The only truly accurate way to track whether your email is being read is simply to note whether the recipient acted on it by telling you, by replying, by clicking a link in the email or by doing something else that can only be attributed to having read that email.