Why you should stop tracking email opens and links in your newsletters

Image for post
Image for post

Every modern email client — especially the ones that put an emphasis on privacy like Fastmail and ProtonMail — blocks loading images by default.

Why? Because of the rampant use of tracking pixels in email marketing over the last two decades.

With this post I’ll quickly go into:

  1. What tracking pixels are
  2. The new rules under GDPR and CCPA
  3. Some thoughts on how inaccurate email tracking data is
  4. How shifting views on internet privacy mean your audience/users/customers probably want you to use a more ethical solution
  5. How Groupy’s privacy-first approach to email newsletters is different in more ways than one

What are tracking pixels

The GDPR working group says email tracking is anything that lets the sender know:

  • If an email they sent was opened or read
  • When that email was opened
  • How many times it was opened
  • If it was transferred to others
  • To which email server it was sent, including its location
  • What kind of web navigator and operating system the recipient of the email uses

Email Service Providers (ESPs) like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, Intercom, and countless others, use the loading of images or the clicking of links in emails to track what’s being seen and engaged with in.

The new privacy rules

Now, it should be said, that ever since the adoption of HTML emails in the late 1990s, companies have been tracking emails. We’re now going on over two decades of email tracking.

But, with the passage of GDPR a couple of years ago, and the CCPA more recently, you’re now supposed to get explicit permission to track emails.

Most, of course, still don’t. And many would say that not being able to track the open rates of their emails would adversely affect their business.

But I would argue, especially with email newsletters, that not only should you not want to spy on your subscribers without first explicitly asking for permission to do so, but you’re getting such bad or incomplete data that it’s simply not worth the potential damage to your brand.

Bad or incomplete data

As I mentioned earlier, every modern email client blocks images by default. Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird. They all do. So, by default in every major email app, tracking is being blocked unless the user implicitly accepts the images.

Some companies, especially larger corporations concerned about the privacy of their employees, don’t allow the loading of images from outside email addresses at all.

And on top of all that, there are dozens of emails plugins for blocking tracking pixels. For years now I’ve used a plugin called Pixel Block with my Gmail account. It makes sure that — even if I load images from an HTML email — the hidden 1x1 transparent GIF that is the actual tracking pixel still gets blocked.

So, if a company is purging email addresses that block tracking — inaccurately thinking that they just never open their emails — in order to save money with their ESP, they are incorrectly deleting my email and all the emails of people like me.

The rise of privacy-first online businesses

In the wake of the 2016 election and data privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica, users have become more aware of how their data is being abused and fighting back.

  • Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin have over 10,000,000 users each.
  • Apple is making huge strides with their entire ecosystem to ensure better privacy by default.
  • People and companies are leaving the data-harvesting hellscapes of Twitter and Facebook in droves for smaller, more private communities powered by the likes of Circle.
  • And privacy-first web analytics companies like Fathom Analytics and Plausible Analytics are making small but noticeable inroads on Google’s analytics monopoly.

How Groupy’s different

So with all this in mind, by using tracking pixels and links in your marketing and newsletter emails, you are:

  • Probably breaking the rules laid out by GDPR and CCPA
  • Relying on data — powered by a 20-year-old transparent GIF hack — that is unreliable at best and dangerous to follow at worst
  • Most likely subjecting the email address, location, etc of you subscribers, users, and customers to a huge data lake somewhere to be bought and sold around by foreign governments, multinationals, etc

Groupy’s trying something different.

No tracking pixels. No link tracking. Nothing.

And instead of relying on faulty open rates, you can drive people to your newsletter website to interact with your newsletter through views, replies, and applause.

Your newsletter’s website doesn’t store any personal data about your users, so it doesn’t need a cookie banner, and it serves as both an archive of your content and a mini-community where your subscribers can interact with you and your company or product.

Want to start a more ethical email newsletter? Groupy is forever free for the first 50 subscribers and will never track you or them. Give it a try here.

This topic was originally posted in the Groupy Newsletter. Groupy is a privacy-first email newsletter platform that doesn’t spy on your subscribers

Written by

Occasional thoughts on how to build a successful one person business. Husband & father of three.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store