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No more spy pixels

opinion  Paul Jarvis · Mar 1, 2020

This post was originally published on my now-defunct personal site. It’s been republished here on Fathom as the ideas found within it have informed and inspired our approach to business, privacy and philosophy.

(This was sent to my newsletter on March 1st, 2020.)

Hello reader,

I don’t know if you’ve opened or read this newsletter.

Honestly, I have no idea. I won’t ever know this again either. I’ve turned off tracking pixels for this mailing list, and plan on leaving them turned off, forever.

If you aren’t aware, a “tracking pixel” is a tiny blank image that’s embedded in newsletters so the sender can see details about you and how you engage with the emails they send. Mostly it’s used to gauge overall open and click rates (which can be useful), but they can also be used to drill down into each individual subscriber to see things like how many times they open emails, what they click on, etc.

So why turn these off, you might ask? Tracking pixels are so helpful! You can see exactly who opened what and better target them! You can use them to prune your mailing lists of folks who don’t regularly open your newsletter! You can tell which emails or subject lines convert the best into opens!

The problem is, tracking pixels spy on people - and most folks (unless they use specific email client software) who receive the emails aren’t aware of the spying that’s taking place, as those tracking pixels load automatically in most cases.

As an email marketer myself, if I look at the data from Mailchimp, I have the ability to see: which of you opened my emails, how many times, top countries by opens, even predicted demographics (age range and gender). Mailchimp of course isn’t alone in providing these capabilities, every single ESP tracks similar data from every subscriber. It’s an industry as a whole thing, not a company-specific thing. And luckily in Mailchimp, you can easily disable the tracking pixel in campaigns and automations. Which is what I’ve done, as well as confirmed with Mailchimp support that by turning them off, tracking pixels are now completely absent from my emails.

Of course you can simply choose to not look at this data (I never did, especially the demographic bits, that always felt weird to me). But if you use tracking pixels then that data is still being collected and stored.

Whether or not the data provided via these tracking pixels is useful feels immaterial as it amounts to secretly spying on subscribers (unless you have a note about it before a person subscribes, which I’ve never seen from anyone, ever). My subscribers are important to me - as is their privacy. And just like my website doesn’t track any personal data about visitors because I use my own product, Fathom Analytics, I want to honour and respect the privacy of those on my mailing list too.

When it came to light that the email client SuperHuman was tracking opens/read receipts, the internet rage-tweeted about it heavily. Yet, the same folks who expressed outrage still no doubt use their newsletter software with tracking pixels turned on because they want that useful data. But just because something is useful, doesn’t make it right.

Basecamp realized the gravity of this privacy invasion and removed tracking pixels from their newsletters, and the more I thought about it, the more I came to the same conclusion. Heck, I run a privacy-focused website analytics company that has a hard line against tracking individuals and individual data on websites, so it’s time to follow suit on email and not track individuals there either. Unfortunately there’s currently no “Fathom for email” yet... but we may build out that feature in the future (add-able to any ESP). It wouldn’t help with pruning stale subscribers (since no personal data would be collected), but it would help with showing the aggregate of opens and clicks for campaigns.

I realize the potential cost of turning tracking off for this list, but the benefits of not spying on you far outweigh their use. As far as I can tell, this won’t negatively affect my income—since the only data I looked at previously was open rate to roughly inform what I wrote about in the future. Not to mention the most important metric I have for this mailing list is replies from my readers which won’t be affected by removing tracking pixels. Without them, my newsletter is still just as easy to read and consume (and reply to). I just won’t know anything about who specifically reads or clicks on it any longer.

So there you have it. I now know zero about your habits around consuming my emails from here on out. I’m as curious as you are as to whether this will change anything for the worse. Let’s see what happens!

Paul Jarvis

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

Pixel cat

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