The internet is finally coming out of its long haze on privacy, but it’s with one hell of a hangover. So many practices that were once taken for granted are now getting a second, more critical look. One of those is the practice of spying on whether recipients of marketing emails open them or not.
Back in August, we vowed to stop using such spying pixels in our Basecamp emails. And do you know what? It’s been fine! Not being able to track open rates, and fret over whether that meant our subject lines weren’t providing just the right HOOK, has actually been a relief.
But whether these open rates are “useful” or not is irrelevant. They’re invasive, they’re extracted without consent, and they break the basic assumptions most people have about email. There’s a general understanding that if you take actions on the internet, like clicking a link or visiting a site, there’s some tracking associated with that. We might not like it, but at least we have a vague understanding of it. Not so with email spy pixels.
Just about every normal person (i.e. someone not working in internet marketing) has been surprised, pissed, or at least dismayed when I tell them about spy pixels in emails. The idea that simply opening an email subjects you to tracking is a completely foreign one to most people.
When I’ve raised this concern in conversations with people in the marketing industry, a lot of them have taken offense to the term “spy pixels”. Affixing the spying label made a lot of them uncomfortable, because they were just trying to help! I get that nobody wants to think of themselves as the bad guy (Eilish not withstanding), but using the word “spy” isn’t exactly a reach.
Here’s the dictionary definition of a spy: “a person who secretly collects and reports information on the activities, movements, and plans”. That fits pretty well to a spy pixel that tracks whether you open an email or not, without your knowledge or consent!
So. Let’s stop doing that. Collectively. And the best place to instigate reform is with the mailing list software we use. A modest proposal for a basic ethics reform:
1) Mailing list software should not have spy pixels turned on by default. This is the most important step, because users will follow the lead of their software. It must be OK to spy on whether people open my marketing emails if the software I’m using it provides that by default.
2) Mailing list software can ask for explicit consent when the sender really does want to track open rates. Let the sender include a disclaimer at the bottom of their email: “[The sender] would like to know when you open this email to help improve their newsletter. If that’s OK with you, [please opt-in to providing read receipts]. Thanks!”.
That’s it. Don’t do it by default, ask for informed consent if you must. Being respectful of someone’s privacy isn’t rocket science.
And remember, you can still tag your links in those emails with ?source=newsletter or whatever to see whether your call-to-action is working. As we discussed, people have a basic understanding that clicking links and visiting websites – explicit actions they take! – has some tracking involved.
This isn’t going to magically make everything better. It’s not going to fix all the issues we have with privacy online or even all the deceptive practices around mailing lists. But it’s going to make things a little better. And if we keep making things a little better, we’ll eventually wake up to a world that’s a lot better.