Emails Opened? Is there a reliable way to tell?

It's very common to want confirmation that an email has been opened, delivered, or read. In the age of spam, it's simply not possible with any accuracy.

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In my business, it is critical I know that emails I have sent were received & opened. The emails are time sensitive and contain deadline dates for the information requested.

I have searched for things like “emails opened” and asked questions… but all that has been futile.

I am certain I am not the only person unable to find an answer to this problem.

That’s because there is no answer to this problem.

And you’re quite right, you’re not the only person wishing otherwise.

But wishing – or even the statements of some companies that claim to be able to do it – doesn’t make it so.

I’ll explain why.

Emails opened: the bottom line

I want to start by making this very clear: there is no 100% reliable way to tell with certainty that an email you send has, or has not, been received, opened, or
read.

None.

If your business relies on that, then you need to investigate alternative approaches to communicate with your target clientele.

I often get a lot of push-back when I make those statements, but that’s the way it is. There’s no magic tool or technique that can make it otherwise.

Why you can’t tell

There are a couple of conceptual reasons for this, and you can choose one or the other, depending on your cynicism:

  • Email is broken.
  • Your recipient’s right to privacy trumps your need to know.

We can argue about the first all you want, but it’s really that second that says it all.

It’s spam that made everyone realize just how important that last one is. Spam is the reason email programs disable the mechanisms that could be used to track email reception.

So you can blame spam, if you like, for making this impossible. Whether that’s part of “Email is broken”, or “right to privacy”, it is what it is, and at the risk of repeating myself, it means you cannot reliably track with certainty whether or not a specific email has been opened or read.

Period.

Emails Opened?Traditional methods

There are two traditional methods to track whether or not an email has been received or opened.

1. Delivery and Read Receipts

Email protocol allows email messages to include a request for a “Delivery Receipt” and/or a “Read Receipt”.

The idea is that when the message is delivered to the inbox, the email program would automatically send a “delivery receipt” email back to the sender, saying, “it’s been delivered”.

Similarly, when the email is opened, the email program would automatically send a “Read Receipt” email back to the sender, saying, “it’s been opened”. (Whether someone actually read it is beyond the abilities of computer to know; all they can say is “it was opened and displayed on the screen”.)

Here’s the problem: most email programs no longer respond to delivery or read receipts, which means that the requests are completely ignored. You’ll get no notification, even if you ask for one. At best, the program may ask the recipient whether or not the receipt should be sent. Most recipients, of course, say “no”.

The reason is, as you might have guessed, spam. Spammers use receipts to validate that an email they’re sending to is a valid email address, and thus should be spammed even more.

No one wants that, so the feature is completely disabled by default.

2. Tracking Images or “Bugs”

In HTML or rich-text email, images can be included in email messages. Those images can be included with the message, or they can be fetched from some location on the internet in order to be displayed. A good example is The Ask Leo Newsletter. It includes at least two images: a logo at the top, and my signature at the bottom. The images themselves are not actually included in the email, but instead are references to images stored on an Ask Leo! web site.

I can tell when those images are referenced. When you open an email with those images, and have image display enabled, your email program makes a request of my web server to fetch those images for display. My web server can log that. In fact, it’s possible to include in that request not only the image desired, but also the email address of the recipient of the message that needs the image (I do not).

In other words, it sounds like a perfect tracking mechanism to determine whether an email has been opened or not. . .

. . . which is why spammers started doing exactly that. To determine whether or not an email address was valid, they would send a message with an image and some additional information unique to that email address. If the image was ever fetched, that told the spammer they had a valid email address with a real person who looked at it, and thus deserved more spam.

And that, in turn, is why email programs no longer display images by default. If image display is disabled, then the entire approach to tracking via image references fails completely.

Email open tracking services

As I said, I get push back from individuals or services who provide open and delivery tracking services, telling me that their service is special – their service works.

The techniques they use fall into two buckets:

  • Image-open tracking, as I describe above,  may work for many recipients, but it simply cannot be relied upon to work for every recipient. Even a single recipient that refuses to display images invalidates the claim.
  • It’s not email. As I’ll describe in a moment, one technique is to move the message delivery away from the email infrastructure to some kind of private message delivery tool. Usually this is done by forcing the recipient to visit a specific web site if they want to get the message. This doesn’t track how many people got or opened the email; it only tracks the number of people willing to take the extra step to get the message.

Lack of data tells you nothing

For the record: most companies that offer to track email delivery and email opens use image references. Since many people do enable image display – typically for people they know and trust – it can still work – sort of. However:

  • If an image is referenced, then the email was displayed. Success? Not really. Just because it was displayed on someone’s screen doesn’t mean that it was actually read.
  • If an image was not referenced, then the email may have been lost, or ignored, or routed to a spam filter. Or it might have been read with image display turned off. There’s simply no way to know,

The technique is simply not 100% reliable.

Alternatives

The most common alternative boils down to using a private messaging system.

The technique works like this: you place your message on an on-line service of some sort – perhaps even your own web server – and then email a link to the message, instead of the message itself. In order to read your message, the recipient must click on the link and visit the web server holding the message. That visit can be reliably logged.

Exchange Server is another kind of private messaging system. People on an Exchange Server-based system (for instance, at a business) sending to others on that same system can often get reliable notification that email has been read or opened.

But if the email message can simply be read on its own, without requiring external resources – just by showing up in someone’s inbox – there’s just no way to know with 100% certainty whether or not the message was delivered, opened, read, or ignored completely.

How open tracking can still be valuable

As I mentioned, I have open tracking on The Ask Leo! Newsletter. You’re probably wondering why I do so, if it’s so unreliable?

It may be unreliable, but in general it’s consistent.

To begin with, I don’t care about specific opens. I can’t know with 100% certainty whether or not you’ve opened my newsletter. And that’s OK.

What I do care about is trends over time. If this week’s newsletter shows that 50% of the newsletters were opened (meaning that my logo and signature were displayed when someone opened the newsletter), and then next week that drops to 25%, I care about that. I care about that a lot, as a matter of fact.

This kind of aggregate trend over time is what open rates are really good for, and you’ll find that almost every newsletter you receive likely has some form enabled. We’re not looking at you, specifically, but we are looking how our subscribers, as a group, are reacting to what we provide. A sudden drop in open rates can mean many things, ranging from terribly uninteresting content to filters that have decided that email was spam.

What it does mean is that the sender needs to pay attention and address the issue.

And hopefully, from that we learn what you find most interesting and engaging, and more likely to be delivered to your inbox instead of your spam folder.

And that all leads to better newsletters for everyone. :-)

This is an update to an article originally posted : December 23, 2009
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Comments

    • ALLEN DEAN

      Status 2 worked great for several years. After a computer crash 4 or 5 years ago (think it waswin2k before crash–but the switched to XP. I was never able to get it back up and working. Their automated system created a loop that kept me from getting back online. Their tech support never responded even though I had the premium service MSGSTATUS2. Because order number, etc was on crashed hard drive I couldnt enter the info needed to get into their tech support I finaly made contact through a third party, a reviewer who ran a blog of some kind. My MSGSTATUS2 account was reset and it initially appeared I was back in business. But my outlook (oex no longer available) msgs were not tagged or at least never showed up on the Dashboard as they had before and my efforts to again get support seemed to have been ignored-or never received. After spending countless hours (much>24) I gave up and went to gmail that allowed an image based track system. I recently Installed an old 2003 version of office on my win7 pro system. I have wondered if I should try msgtag now that image based methods are no longer 100%. Would be interesting to see if msgtagstatus2 support has gotten more responsive.

  1. Gregg

    There is a way to track e-mails.
    Try SpyPig – http://www.spypig.com/

    You put a bug in the email(s), either hidden or shown with an icon. (I prefer hidden).

    Once the sent email has been “opened”, a return email from Spypig alerts you and provides a general address or location of who opened it, i.e., Bangkok Thailand, Houston Texas, as well as the IP address.

    Try it. It has a few limitations but it’s FREE!
    Check it out.

    A “bug” in your email is an image, and that only works a) in HTML emails that are viewed in HTML, AND b) if images are turned on by the recipient. This technique is not, NOT, NOT 100% accurate, as I’ve stated many, many times.

    Leo
    30-Dec-2009

  2. Linn

    For those people who “blame” email for being so untrackable, remember that most paper mail doesn’t have reliable proof of reading, either. Yes you posted it, yes it was delivered, yes it was even signed for (by some illegible name) and even yes it was handed to the addressee. And she threw it straight in the bin because she didn’t realise how important it was, or it looked like junk mail. So the sender has “proof of delivery” but no-one read it! It’s not an email-specific problem.
    And just like paper mail, you can REASONABLY rely on the fact that IN MOST NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES email IS delivered, and IS read. If it’s not deliverable you will be told. Yes, that system is probably not 100% good enough for military or even some business cases where it is really important but for most of our email it works. If you aren’t told anything to the contrary, it’s been delivered, and probably been read.
    One big exception is when you’ve sent an email to someone for the first time, and you’re not in their contacts/address book, and their over-zealous (IMO) email system has intercepted it. BT/Yahoo does that. And many of their customers don’t know that the intercepted email is put in a junkmail or bulk mail folder that can only be seen via Webmail access, and these same customers don’t remember being told about that (they were) and/or don’t know how to get into webmail, or where to look find out how.
    If Leo doesn’t agree with my general perceptions, I’m sure he’ll explain, below :o)
    And if he says I’m wrong, I’ll believe him. :o)

    About the only tweak I’d make to your thoughts is simply that it’s (sadly) not always safe to assume that email’s been delivered if you hear nothing. Many failures are silent these days, as are some of the many accidentally deliveries into the spam/junk folder. The vast majority of mail is delivered, yes, but it’s actually no longer safe to trust that “silence implies receipt”. If important, I’ll add to the message “let me know that you got this” for a manual confirmation that the email made it and was actually read.

    Leo
    30-Dec-2009

    • Bill

      The Spam collection is the one most people never check or don’t even know it exists or how to get to it.
      I have a friend that falls into the later category in spite of my attempts to train them.

      There is another group: Those who intended to send email, sent it to an old email address, or forgot to hit send and left it sitting in the drafts folder.
      The last of those is one I do occasionally.
      Person from first paragraph had two of the other reasons recently. Two people were rather irate about them not responding to their emails. As tech support, I searched their gmail account (which never deletes anything) and there was no messages from either of the people relating to the “unreturned” ones. Both regularly send the person emails to the proper address but there would be a slim chance of them using an address that ended 4 1/2 years ago. My best guess is that they thought about sending it (but didn’t actually write it) or having a surprise coming when they have a reason to look in their drafts folder.

  3. Russ

    This is interesting. I have had a couple of times when signing up on a site or reseting a password, that the system sends an email request to verify its really me. After I reply, then it sends my needed info in a return email or lets me log on, etc. I.E. in their sent email include: please click on this link, follow instructions, etc. I would think this would be a way for this person to have some sort of verification if his/her email was verified it was received and read by someone wanting to read it… The idea is is you have to read the email to get the info you requested in the first place. What do you think leo?

    The issue is more about people who claim they never got a message, and yet did. People are (desperately) looking for a technology solution to prove that “yes you got it, and you opened it”. Sadly there’s no reliable way to do so.

    Leo
    30-Dec-2009

  4. Zaher Farhat

    It is very easy to be notified about all messages (Delivered & Read). you have to only set this option active in your outlook as bellow

    1. In Microsoft Outlook, on the Tools menu, click Options.
    2. Click E-mail Options.
    3. Click Tracking Options.
    4. Select the Read receipt or the Delivery receipt check box.

    This is actually the most unreliable method of all. Almost all email programs now routinely ignore these requests. As, I believe, is stated in the article you just commented on.

    Leo
    30-Dec-2009

  5. Janet

    Most of these comments are re-statements of what Leo has said. The various commercial services which offer “delivery confirmation” are embedding a small– typically one-pixel and marked transparent– image that must be fetched from their servers. If the receiver’s e-mail program requests that picture, then you know that the e-mail program is trying to display the e-mail. But as Leo said, if the receiver’s e-mail program is set to not display pictures, then you won’t know that your message has been opened. And, some e-mail programs display a pre-view of the message, which will make it look like the e-mail was read, when in reality is was just partially displayed on the screen. The human recipient might not even be physically present at the terminal when that happens, if he/she left the e-mail client up over night.

    Zaher’s comment explains how to request a receipt. As Leo said, however, most e-mail servers will ignore the request without notifying anyone. Some companies do enable this feature, but typically for *internal* e-mails only; so this might have some applicability for you.

    Russ’s comment about the “click the link” e-mails is a version of what Leo said about private messaging. If you look at the details of the link by right clicking on it, you’ll probably see a long string of apparent gibberish after the site name. That’s a “serial number” if you will, which identifies you as a recipient of a previous e-mail to the server when you click on the link. The server then gives you a custom response– reset your password, view the important message, whatever. This requires your recipient to click on a link, however– and we all know that you should not do that unless you’re VERY sure that you know what you’re doing.

    Adding yourself to the “To:” line will tell you if your message was sent to the outbound queue, but it doesn’t tell you that any of the other recipients received it. Usually, you can get the same result by looking in your outbox or sent items folder as well. Beyond telling you that your LAN and the backside of your own e-mail server is up, it doesn’t tell you much. Although I should say, I use this technique myself fairly frequently, because I like filing copies of my outbound mail in the same folder as inbound mail from each client or project. But that doesn’t mean it is a solid proxy for receipt.

    Lastly, most e-mail programs have a display setting to inform you whether you have read an e-mail or not– an open letter symbol, boldfacing, etc. This is a display setting only– no notification is sent to the sender, and the user can change a message status from “read” to “unread” and back any number of times, with or without actually reading it. I have a BlackBerry and a laptop, and e-mails opened on one will still appear as “unread” on the other device, for example. So that wouldn’t help the sender track who has or has not read a message.

    In short– ditto what Leo said. E-mail is just not feasible for highly time-sensitive or legally-binding communications– for many, many reasons; the lack of delivery confirmation is just one of them.

  6. Duane

    AOL has a ‘check status’ feature — but it works only with mail sent from one’s AOL account to another AOL account/email address.

    • Wm. Long

      My whole family and many friends are long time AOL users. The great “check status” feature works giving the actual time that the recipient open the sender’s email. How come this works only for AOL to AOL email?

      • Bill

        It works because AOL controls the entire chain that the email uses. This is why it also works with Exchange servers for people inside a company.
        Once it leaves AOL’s system, other systems (for reasons explained in the article) will usually NOT tell AOL that it was opened. I can imagine (because of the amount of spam that AOL allowed in the past) that other systems would really not want to give any indication back to AOL.

      • Because they’re in control of the entire path – or more importantly, both endpoints – and choose to make it work.

  7. Maryella Brown

    My question is how do you set up confirmation of email sent and read on BT Yahoo mail You can in outlook express as the person above mentioned, but how do you do this on BTYahoo Mail.

  8. Tony

    What about the service offered by DidTheyReadIt. I’ve used the free trial version and it appeared to work, but I never actually bought it after the trial expired.

  9. Junaid

    There are many email tracking tools that lets you know when email you’ve sent gets read.Users get free return email notifications, and/or SMS/ICQ instant messages when email they’ve sent gets opened, and can track their emails reading history also.

    As I’ve stated time and time again, including in the article above, these services are not reliable.

    Leo
    13-Feb-2010

  10. John Bennett

    I have used MSGTAG for several years now and find that it is VERY reliable. OK, if your addressee does not use HTML it does not. However, for all HTML messages it has never let me down. No, I am not connected with RoboForm in any way!

  11. Chris

    There are tracking systems that work pretty well one is MsGTag that is effective for most emails and one which I have recently started using is http://www.readnotify.com/ which works in more than 95% of messages sent plus also tracks when PDF and other documents are opened – great for me as I send my invoices as PDFs

  12. Bob

    Reading through, the mention of receipt/read requests reminds me of an amusing message I received once, in reply to a read request. It said “The recipient declined to give a response”.
    Now, to my mind, that means the recipient got the e-mail, got the popup saying “the sender requested confirmation, do you want to respond?”, and then clicked ‘no’.
    If this is correct, then clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in effect means ‘yes’. If my assumption is wrong, how would I have gotten such a message?

  13. Lance

    The comments here are kind of comical. It’s as if people didn’t even read the article. They saw what it was about and jumped right down to the comments section to endorse one system or another that claims to verify that an e-mail has been received and read, every one of those systems being an obvious variation on one of the two methods Leo wrote about above, stating very clearly why they’re not reliable.

  14. Alan Haynes

    I’ve been using MailChimp for a year now to send mail to about 80 people I know. MailChimp offers extensive statistics including who opened it, clicked on it, etc.

    I noticed a very small percentage of opens, so I asked those who showed as unopened whether they’d received the email. They said they’d read it.

    My conclusion: many people read their mail in Preview mode. They rarely click on it to open it. I do this tooinOutlook 2013. Am I right that previewing an email does not count as an open?

    • Mark Jacobs

      That would depend on how each email program or email web interface handles it. And as Leo said, the verification methods often simply don’t work.

  15. Mark A

    @ Geoff

    Geoff, use a better quality blanket, I found that those cheap Chinese imports are just not up to it.

  16. Uncle Lee

    Message receipts is a Microsoft thing. There is a better email system than Exchange – Novell GroupWise. When you look at your sent items’ properties, you will see when your email is read and/or forwarded. This email system is much better than Exchange. They had this feature 15+ years ago. I doubt in my lifetime will Microsoft ever have these features built in.

  17. Holly

    Hey Joe, I totally understand what you are saying and respect it, but I recently stumbled across a company that claims they can do “audit tracking” of emails through servers, (Not image based pixels etc.) The company is called R Post, (Registered Email Services). I watched a few of their how it works videos, and I am wondering, if the technology to prove delivery of an email, and its contents is possible now (even without opening the email) or is this company just exaggerating / twisting their claims?

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