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April 29, 2021

Marketers, It’s Time to Rethink Email Engagement Metrics

The way marketers measure email engagement is changing, due to new security threats and restrictions. Read about them and see how you can keep track of your email engagement.

Marketers want to know about email engagement. They’re wondering, “Who’s reading our messages and who’s not? Are they interested in what we have to say? How do I know which link in the email is getting the most traction? How will I know when it’s time to suppress sending to uninterested contacts?”

Well, the answer to those questions may sound simple using standard email logic, but there are many outside factors that can have a large impact on your email engagement metrics.

Let’s look at four of those factors and how they can affect your email engagement metrics.

4 Email Issues That Could Affect Your Email Engagement

1. Privacy Concerns

What it affects: Lack of email open and click reporting

An open tracking pixel is a small hidden image in an HTML email message. When downloaded, it can gather the following information about an individual:

  • Date and timestamp of when the message was opened
  • IP address associated with a device’s internet connection
  • Location of where the message was opened
  • Email client/browser being used to view the message

In some jurisdictions, the organization sending the message may be required to gather consent to track and/or turn off tracking altogether. Furthermore, there are a few articles floating around that emails are “spying” on individuals, which has led to recipients disabling image downloading by default and/or reaching out to the sender to turn off tracking.

What this means for marketers:

If you are sending internationally, discuss with your legal counsel if transparency of email tracking is needed on your subscription forms. Also, keep in mind that there’s no way to know if someone has turned off downloading of images by default or is using some other tracking pixel remover. For these privacy reasons, this may cause a decline in your reported open rates.

2. Images Aren’t Downloaded by Default

What it affects: Lack of open reporting

Many private domains prevent images from being downloaded automatically on a received message to protect their users and their company’s internal digital environment. This means the open tracking pixel mentioned above is also not going to download to provide that feedback to the sender – unless the user is able to download the images on their own.

Additionally, if the recipient has concerns over privacy as stated above, they may choose to disable automatic downloading of images even if it’s allowed by their organization.

What this means for marketers:

Individuals with this setting turned on at the organizational level will not show email open metrics.

3. Message Length

What it affects: Lack of open reporting

When messages exceed a certain length/size limit, the messages can become “clipped” by some mail providers. This prevents the tracking pixel from being downloaded (many times found at the bottom of an email). This is mostly seen at Gmail and Google accounts if the message exceeds ~102KB.

What this means for marketers:

Gmail/Google users that are opening and interacting with the email may not show up in your open metrics – unless they have fully opened the entire clipped message or if the tracking pixel is located at the top of the message.

4. Spam Appliance Scanning

What it affects: Falsely inflated open and click tracking

Cyber criminals, also known as “bad actors,” look for human vulnerabilities to prey on. The pandemic and other breaking news stories are used as leverage to phish email and mobile users alike. This is causing an influx of seemingly legitimate emails to be scanned and scrutinized more heavily, resulting in false click data.

When a spam appliance scans a message, it will follow the links contained in that message resulting in a “click” on all scanned links. Most sending systems will assume that if a click occurs, there has been human interaction and will assume that the message was opened.

Making this assumption helps provide supposedly a “truer” open rate in the case where someone’s email client doesn’t download images (causing an open). There are some workarounds to this, but they aren’t fail-safe.

What this means for marketers:

An inflated open/click rate can create a false sense of engagement with contact lists and cause marketers to send more messages to non-engaged individuals, and this could lead to spam complaints. It also creates a false sense of overall engagement when certain individuals aren’t really interested or actively using their email account.

What Can Email Marketers Do to Measure Engagement?

I’m beginning to see a paradigm shift in how these metrics are being gathered and shared in the industry. Verizon Media Group (VMG) is already using new tracking feeds that provide aggregate data instead of a single individual’s personal info to gather engagement metrics.

Based on these concerns that I outlined, it’s very possible that we may see other mailbox providers follow suit, especially with all of the new privacy laws state-side coming into effect and more being written as we speak.

With that said, what can you do in the meantime? Well, you can certainly continue with the current signals, but you’ll need to take this new shift into consideration when comparing old and new data. You may have had an amazing open rate last year, but as these metrics begin to transition, you may see a dip in your current and future rates.

Not only that, but it will be more difficult to decide whether you should continue sending to or suppress “unengaged” contacts if the current metrics are not entirely accurate. Email marketers may need to create and use other signals to decide whether their audience is engaged or not.

Test This Email Engagement Alternative

Here’s an approach I’m going to call, “Assume engaged unless proven otherwise.” What does this mean? Just what it sounds like – but with some testing.

Here’s how to do it:

Send out a quarterly, “Are you still interested?” email which requires a box to be checked in order to continue receiving email communication. This helps because you don’t need to use click or open data for this. This would also encourage contacts to change their preferences, unsubscribe, or update their contact information.

Tip: I would suggest that the email contain two large buttons that say, “Yes, I’m still interested” and “No, please unsubscribe me.” The “Yes” button would take the individual to a preference page containing a check box to confirm they want to continue receiving email communication. The “No” button would take them to an unsubscribe page which would globally unsubscribe the individual from all mailings.

You may not need to take this aggressive approach quite yet, but it’s definitely something that marketers will want to consider as these personally identifying signals begin to change/diminish.

No matter which direction you go, I would suggest providing more conspicuous ways for your contacts to unsubscribe or update their preferences by including these options at the top of your emails as well as in the footer, just to get those uninterested folks off of your list.

Amanda DeLuke

Amanda DeLuke, CIPP/E, CIPM, is a Senior Privacy Analyst and co-chair for Women in Technology at Higher Logic. She has been with Higher Logic for almost a decade in various roles from account management and implementation to deliverability and security/privacy. She is currently a member of the International Association of Privacy Professionals and M3 Anti-Abuse Working Group where she is an AI & Public Policy committee member. While she’s not busy at work, she is a mom to identical twin boys and a volunteer mentor and cycling coach for young girls.