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.
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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.
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.
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.
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. :-)
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