Email tracking privacy concerns may force email service providers to change what they report

All major email service providers (ESPs) track message open rates and link clicks. There are now renewed concerns by some privacy advocates that this practice equates to spying on users.

Anyone who has managed a campaign through an email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor knows that they can track how many people open messages and click on links. ESPs also provide granular data, showing who opened a message, how many times they opened it, which links they clicked, and how many times they clicked it. Paul Jarvis, Co-founder of privacy-focused Fathom Analytics, says the practice of using tracking pixels and links is the equivalent of marketers spying on users.

Whether or not the data provided via these tracking pixels is useful feels immaterial as it amounts to secretly spying on subscribers (unless you have a note about it before a person subscribes, which I’ve never seen from anyone, ever).

The catalyst for Jarvis’ recent declaration was sparked by David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails, and Co-founder and CTO at Basecamp. Hansson wrote in 2019 how they were ending pixel trackers in Basecamp emails.

The tech industry has been so used to capturing whatever data it could for so long that it has almost forgotten to ask whether it should. But that question is finally being asked. And the answer is obvious: This gluttonous collection of data must stop.

Hansson concluded that privacy isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also better business. Discerning customers are already demanding it, and everyone else will too soon enough.

How to turn off click and open tracking

While it’s unclear if enough people or governments will demand to not be tracked, some of the larger ESPs do provide options for limiting tracking. MailChimp provides the option to completely turn off tracking clicks and to also disable open tracking.

Campaign Monitor takes a more nuanced approach. They won’t track subscribers only if the subscriber has requested to not be tracked. The only way a subscriber can request not to be tracked is if the account owner has enabled the option in the subscribe form or the subscriber preferences page. The one exception to this is if the message is sent as a plain text message. If it’s plain text, Campaign Monitors says they can only provide basic reporting, which excludes opens and clicks.

Like MailChimp, Campaign Monitor does allow the ability for its customers to disable link tracking and image downloading, but unlike MailChimp, they must request it from their Compliance department. Coywolf uses Campaign Monitor for its ESP, so I contacted their Compliance team to request that it be activated for our account and also to find out why customers have to ask permission not to track clicks and images. In their reply to me, they couldn’t go into any details, but they did provide some insight into the reasoning behind the process.

We are always happy to enable this for legitimate use, but we have made the decision not to open this up to all customers by default, in an effort to mitigate any potential abuse.

Terry Godier, an experienced email marketer, and Founder of Conversion Gold and IndieMailer, said the type of abuse Campaign Monitor was likely referring to was the use of harmful links. Godier stated that “ESPs likely discourage it because they want to have the ability to disable links identified by spam after they’ve been sent.”

MailChimp and Campaign Monitor both require their customers to have a history of sent campaigns before they disable link tracking. MailChimp also echoed Godier’s reasoning, stating in their documentation that its requirement is meant to protect against malicious links.

Finding the middle ground for email tracking

The open rate is essential for ESPs and marketers because it enables them to judge the quality of email lists. Tracking clicks is also vital because it’s used to measure the effectiveness of campaigns and verify unrecorded opens. The biggest issue is what personally identifiable data, if any, should be recorded and reported.

Sophisticated email marketers need granular data because it enables them to cull and automate personalized communication. Perhaps marketers can have intelligent automation, and subscribers can have privacy through obfuscating personally identifiable data.

If Hansson is correct, and more people are going to demand more privacy, then there’s an opportunity for ESPs like Campaign Monitor to take a leadership role in providing privacy-focused campaigns, automation, and reports. It’s also an opportunity for a new company, similar to what Fathom Analytics did for website tracking and analytics, to fill this growing demand.

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Jon is the founder and Managing Editor of Coywolf. He has over 25 years of experience in web development, SaaS, internet strategy, digital marketing, and entrepreneurship. Follow @henshaw