I am sure that I read in one of your newsletter emails that people don’t know if we read emails that we send them. I don’t know who reads my emails that I send on. So can you please explain this email that I received today? I just copied the body of the email, and yes, I guess I had subscribed at some point, but I haven’t had much in the way of emails from them in a long long time. Here is the email content:
We’ve noticed you haven’t been reading our emails lately.
Maybe you’re getting too many emails in your inbox. Maybe the information we’re sending isn’t useful to you anymore.
Whatever the reason, we don’t want to send you anything you don’t want.
If you’d like to unsubscribe, please do so now.
Or, if we’re wrong and you want to keep your current subscription, just let us know.
Please choose from one of the following options:
Keep me subscribed
How did they know I hadn’t been reading?
There’s perhaps a too-subtle turn of phrase that I use when talking about email tracking that probably leads to your confusion.
I didn’t say they “can’t” tell if you’ve opened the mail – what I said was they “can’t reliably” tell.
That’s a pretty important difference.
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How open tracking works
What’s called “email open tracking” works one of two ways:
- An image reference is placed in the email that is actually stored on the sender’s server. When the email is displayed (i.e. the mail is opened) with images turned on, that image is fetched. The act of retrieving the image to display also carries with it some information that says, “This was opened for the copy of the newsletter that was sent to Leo.” As a result, they know that Leo opened the email.
- Links in the email are “redirected” – meaning that instead of going to their destination directly, they first go through a click tracker, and then get redirected or forwarded on to the actual destination. Once again, the act of performing that redirection also carries with it some information that says, “This click came from the copy of the newsletter that was sent to Leo.” By clicking a link in that newsletter, they know that Leo had to open that newsletter to get at that link.
That can give newsletter senders (such as myself) a pretty good idea of whether or not the newsletter is being read and what is getting clicked on more often.
But it’s not a perfect system, which is why I say it’s not reliable.
How open tracking fails
Open tracking relies on one of two things: images being displayed or links being clicked.
The default configuration for many email programs is to not display images by default. Thus, you can open and read many newsletters1 without ever fetching an image.
And if you never click a link, you never click a link.
So, with no images displayed and no links clicked, you may well have opened and read the newsletter. The sender simply has no way to know that you did.
Opening is not reading
One thing that no technology can tell you is if the email was actually read. At best, all we can say is that it was opened and probably displayed.
There’s simply no way to know that someone’s eyes actually scanned or read an email and understood it.
Heck, even when people reply to a message, it’s often clear that they didn’t read and understand it. :-)
Why newsletter publishers care
The other question is why might publishers actually care about this stuff.
Well, as a newsletter publisher myself, I can tell you: it’s all about spam. Rather it’s all about reputation.
You see, if you use a web-based email provider – like Gmail, say – they can tell that you’ve opened the mail, simply because you’re using their interface to do exactly that. They don’t send that information back to anyone, but they know. If they see a newsletter that the majority of recipients don’t open, that most people don’t read, then they infer that the newsletter’s probably not that valuable.
In fact, it might even be spam.
If that happens enough, the newsletter or its sender is given a poor reputation, and the email provider will start putting it into the spam folder instead of the inbox, possibly for most (if not all other) subscribers.
As a result, if a newsletter publisher can’t tell if you’ve opened their newsletter in a while, they’ll often send a message such as the one you received. Any of three things will happen:
- You’ll never see it because you’re actually not opening that newsletter. Eventually, your subscription will be removed.
- You’ll opt to keep receiving the newsletter.
- You’ll opt to stop receiving the newsletter.
The net result for the publisher is a newsletter that’s sent only to people who actually want it. That means a better reputation, which in turn means that the newsletter is less likely to be marked as spam for everyone.
And yes, I do this once a year, typically in the spring.