They can tell I read their email?


Creative Commons License photo credit: solidstate_

Over the last 2 days, we’ve talked about poorly thought through emails.

Today, one more email that should have been thought about a bit more.

Last week, I received an email from a guy whose email newsletter I receive. The subject of this random email? “I saw you open my newsletter, any questions I can answer?”

On top of that, there was no email body text.

That’s right. An email that says “I saw you open my newsletter” with no other text.

Where’s the spy cam?

So how can emailers figure out that I opened an email? Several ways. Legal ones, of course.

Emailers can tell if you opened your email if they include an image in the email that has a unique “web address” (like http://www.website.com/markriffeyopenedmyemail.jpg). If you open the email, that image is loaded from their web server.

Like any web server, it logs when a file is loaded into a browser (or elsewhere). If the name of the image is unique (or there is software on the server to make it appear that way internally to them), then it can record that someone (not necessarily you, but probably you) viewed that particular image.

It doesn’t see onto your computer or anything like that, it simply notes that a computer somewhere (yours or someone else’s) asked it to load an image file name associated with you.

Emailers can also tell if you opened if you click a link in the email – not because there’s a spycam – but because links in the email are customized by their email software to make them unique to you. Same principle.

These links still go to the page you wanted, of course.

All of this is decades old technology, but we haven’t gotten to the dumb part: The discomfort of the subject line of the email.

Discomfort leads to unsubscribes

A programmer (as others might) knows how the emailer might know I’ve opened (not necessarily read) their email, but for anyone else, saying “I saw you open my newsletter” is inviting them to unsubscribe.

Saying it to a programmer is kinda dumb (not that the emailer knows that). Saying it to anyone else could be fatal to their email list.

Be very careful with those who have chosen to value your thoughts enough to subscribe to your blog, newsletter or email address.

You can lose it all in a heartbeat with one inopportune comment.