The New York Times told the story of an executive who received a call at 10:30 pm on his smartphone from a marketer, minutes after opening an e-mail message from the same marketer. Coincidence? The executive didn't think so, and after some investigation found that the marketer had planted a tracking mechanism in the e-mail message.
This marketer took e-mail marketing to the creepy zone. The marketer arrogantly assumed the executive, a) wouldn't mind the tracking and privacy invasion; and b) was agreeable to receiving a late-night phone call. Inappropriate. If the executive was driving his car, the late-night call could have created a distracted driving risk. Dangerous.
This marketer isn't alone. According to The New York Times:
"The trackers are traditionally offered by email marketing services like GetResponse and MailChimp. They have a legitimate use: to help commercial entities send messages tailored for specific types of customers. The New York Times, too, uses email trackers in its newsletters. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on digital rights, estimates that practically every marketing email now contains some form of a tracker."
The e-mail tracking is possible because most users view HTML e-mail messages. One e-mail vendor's website home page highlights the industry's position:
Marketers want to know when, where, what device you use, and what link(s) you click on with their e-mails and advertisements. Yes, marketers should be able to evaluate their e-mail and marketing programs. At the same time, consumers have valid needs, often including privacy and the desire not to be tracked.
According to Pew Research, consumers perform a variety of tasks to thwart online tracking and data collection: delete browser cookies or browser history (59 percent), refuse to provide personal information irrelevant to the transaction (57 percent), set their browser to disable or turn off browser cookies (34 percent), and more. 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints. Plus, the growth in usage of ad-blockers by consumers highlights the desire not to be tracked (since many advertising networks contain tracking mechanisms):
"Between 15 to 17% of the U.S. population reportedly use ad blockers, and the number is double that for millennials. The numbers are even higher in Europe, and up to 80-90% in the case of specialty tech and gaming sites."
So, balance and respect are key. If marketers and advertisers are going to plant trackers in e-mail messages, then be honest and transparent: say so. Notify consumers. Provide opt-in mechanisms for consumers that don't mind the tracking.
Don't be that creepy marketer.
Will marketers act with respect and not go to the creepy, dark side? History suggests otherwise, given the litany of covert technologies marketers and advertisers have used to track consumers online: browser cookies, zombie cookies, zombie e-tags, Flash cookies to regenerate browser cookies users have deleted, super cookies, canvas finger-printing, and more recently cross-device tracking.
Aware consumers realize that surveillance isn't performed only by government spy agencies. Private-sector corporate marketers and advertisers do it, too. The New York Times article discussed one of the e-mail trackers used:
"... MailTrack, which is a plug-in for Google’s Chrome browser that can quickly insert a hidden tracking pixel into a message..."
Unfortunately, both the good guys and bad guys (e.g., spammers, phishers) use e-mail trackers. Experts advise consumers to expect trackers planted in messages, and:
"A basic method for thwarting some email trackers involves disabling emails from automatically loading images, including invisible tracking pixels. But that doesn’t defeat all trackers, which are also hiding in other places like fonts and web links."
What are your opinions of e-mail trackers? What software do you use to detect e-mail trackers?
[Editor's Note: an earlier version of this post linked the "cross-device tracking" text to a CBS News article. That link was updated to a more descriptive article at Ars Technica.]