The Inbox Arms Race – Is There a Downside to Tracking Personal Emails?

The Inbox Arms Race – Is There a Downside to Tracking Personal Emails? post image

About a year ago, somebody mentioned that I should install software that would tell me when people who emailed me were tracking whether or not I opened, re-opened, or clicked on their email.

Sure, I thought. Takes 45 seconds. I selected Ugly Email. This browser extension monitors your inbox for tracking pixels from services like Yesware, Bananatag, and Streak. It then notifies you with a little ‘eye icon’ if they are present.

Couldn’t hurt to be reminded that certain opens and clicks were transmitting data back to the sender. Right?

But something I didn’t expect started happening. And over the past year, it’s been happening more and more.

I’ve discovered that people are using software that tracks my behavior while sending me ‘personal’ emails.

These aren’t emails from help-desks or email lists.

Some examples are: people asking if you want to hang out and grab a beer. Or sharing an interesting article. Letting me know that they’ve started a new business based on a recent podcast episode. Or seeing if I’m willing to swing by their conference next year. And, of course, for soft solicitations like, ‘do you think this story would be good on your podcast?’

I’ve also found service providers, like one of my lawyers, for example, to be tracking my behavior.

So why am I writing this blog post?

Well, once I knew others were tracking my behavior, it changed.

I am now much more unlikely– and by ‘much’ I mean at least a 100% reduction in the number of emails I respond to– to check out links, or reply to messages, or read the content of any email that’s being tracked. (This is not true of email lists that I’ve signed up for, or help-desks etc).

By tracking your email in my inbox, without my consent, you are, in effect, saying that you have the right to access information about my behavior inside my inbox.

Now, I’m sure, many people who use this tactic probably don’t actually think this (most of the time). But to me, that’s precisely what they’re saying.

Maybe I’m old school but I’m attached to the idea that, if you send me an email, I am entitled to the right of privacy to consider reading it, or not, without being tracked.

Perhaps this is just email going social? Facebook and Whatsapp (often) track when social contacts read your messages? Why shouldn’t email?

On a few occasions, I’ve responded to the sender (because they’re friends) and asked them about it.

Most reminded me that it’s fairly easy to block this sort of thing. But why should the onus be on me?

I just wonder if there are more downstream effects that don’t get ‘tracked’?

Particularly in these, more casual emails that I’m seeing them being used in– where the relationship is clearly peer to peer and not customer to buyer– doesn’t tracking behavior in personal correspondence undermine that relationship?

Maybe I’m overthinking it and it doesn’t matter all that much. But I’m writing to say that perhaps there’s a hidden cost to these actions that hasn’t been accounted for yet.

There’s a broader point too. I think that, sometimes, technology makes it easy for us to ignore the basic decencies we’ve agreed upon elsewhere.

Do you really assume that you’ve earned permission to see what happens in my inbox, just because you sent me an email?

Well, maybe so.

What do you think?

1) Does it make strategic sense to track casual outreach emails to your peers and colleagues? If yes, would you continue to do so if you knew over 50% of recipients had installed software that informed them about what you were doing?

2) Do you think it’s ethical and/or cool?

I wrote this on an airplane, so therefore didn’t run it by my tech savvy friends. Perhaps I’m simply mistaken about how all this works. If so, I’d love your insights. Certainly this is an interesting space for those creating the software tools involved.



Published on 12.13.16
  • I personally don’t like receiving emails that track whether or not I opened them. I don’t have any software that tells me whether or not they’re doing it nor do I look for the “signs”, I think it’d drive me nuts to really KNOW for sure.

    Essentially, I just assume every email in my inbox is being tracked and that when I open it without responding right away that the other person knows.

    In the past, I’ve experimented with sending those emails with the tracking included but abandoned that practice quite a while ago. Feels too creepy.

  • Fair points Dan. I use an email tracking software, It sits behind the scenes of my whole business Google Apps account so if Im emailing a client, prospect or my mum, it ‘does the same thing’ regardless of the recipient. Im not sure you can switch these things on or off depending on whom you are sending them to? TBH I find it relevant to see when a proposal has been opened or opened again a few days later (deeper review), other than that, I dont notice who else does what.

    Maybe it’s not as intrusive as you think, it’s just ‘all on or all off’. Thoughts?


  • The privacy war is over, your side lost! ;)

    If you’re serious about privacy then you aren’t using a google mail account, have a facebook account, or use an iphone.

    Dude there is no privacy online. Act as if everything you are doing is being tracked, as it is.

    Now the real question is do the people who track you have any reasonable expectation of your response or to get a specific behavior they desire… absolutely not.

  • Yup, completely agree. The person that sent you that email might be looking to see if you opened it or not, but Google is definitely monitoring to see if you opened it or not.

    At first this really bothered me and me being a programmer I started running my own mail server. I quickly found out that by default most email provides like AOL, Yahoo, Google, etc. block (or send to spam) unknown email servers to prevent spam. So that test didn’t last to long. Basically, get use to being tracked.

  • yeah that’s interesting, I guess I never really saw this as a privacy concern though. For me it’s an issue of taste. If you want to track your request to ‘catch up over coffee with me’ at least for me, that greatly reduces the chances that i’ll open the email or have coffee. I guess that’s why i wrote this post is because everyone just assumes this is the way things are gonna go and I’m not sure, I feel their might be others like me who see this as a fundamental change in the way email works, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be cool with it. Even if I do get cool with it I think it would still ultimately mean that I’ll open a lot less of my email.

  • hey Michael yeah this is essentially what everyone who I wrote to personally said to me. Many have brought up the case of invoicing, and to me that’s a pretty interesting case. That person owes you money you want to see if they are aware of that fact. I can understand that.

    I guess for me there could be a tipping point, if my entire inbox were littered with little ‘eyes’ telling me everyone is tracking all my emails (or the majority) my behavior would likely adjust, but for me I’m just way less likely to open an email that’s being tracked regardless of the reason.

    Another note: many on FB have said ‘they don’t even check the data’ which is similar to the ‘my software does it automatically’ which to me is fair enough but doesn’t really change the core of my problem that tracking changes the nature of email to one of a type of a private surveillance tool so I probably will just delete emails from people who want that type of information from me.

  • it could certainly drive you nuts or at least to write a blog post! :D

  • also one other reason I wrote this post: is just from a strategic perspective. Most of the people who I wrote to about this essentially felt that they ‘couldn’t lose’ by tracking these types of emails. I just wanted to provide a little bit of resistance to that idea. That there might be a case for removing tracking from certain high-stakes emails.

  • Christian

    Interesting stuff Dan, definitely strikes a chord. Damian is right about the outcome of the privacy war, but this is different. Most of us have probably given up on any efforts to avoid the “institutional” tracking by even the smallest companies, but that does not make it ok for personal interactions. Not cool. Also, not sure how valuable the data is that you generate here, especially weighed against the concerns of people finding out.

    Would love to hear more about the likes of Ugly Email who help you put up a fight (however futile). Maybe an episode?

  • yep that’s basically my point. Agree it would be fascinating to hear more about this from the level of the tech.

  • I stopped using email tracking software about a year ago and replaced it with a tactic that feels outdated but is more life affirming.

    Optimizing every percentage point of every transaction is fashionable right now, but the arms race will end in tears for marketers who think they can outrun the rest.

    The sustainable move is to be conspicuously human and apply Roman engineering to your pipeline.

  • You said it in a paragraph, took me a blog post!

  • Roman engineering?

  • Tobias

    I think your reaction is a little bit exaggerated. In the tangible world, you have registered mail with reply advice. It is doing exactly the same thing. It is just more obvious and expensive. The issue is more, because it is cheap nobody really thinks about it. If you use your tool and follow your rule, you make it expensive again. That’s all. Behavior is human, technology is just a tool. I might be narcissistic (care about MY mail), empathetic (care about YOU getting the message) or controlling (care about your BEHAVIOR). Your tool doesn’t know. I would be more scared about the mails that are not marked by your tool. It might be someone who wants to control you and uses technology that you don’t know (yet). So much to the arms race. It is an important topic. If people know that mails can be easily detected maybe embarrassment will reduce usage. My guess is that we get used to it.

  • …like…arches and acqeducts and stuff? ;);)

  • Trevor Pirtle

    I think a lot of this has to do with privacy. I don’t want people to know things about me unless I volunteer the information. I would prefer if instead, I could simply mark a message as read instead of being forced to. I had a lot of resistance to FB making this mandatory on the messaging app.

    If someone messages me, even someone I know and like, and I know they will see I’ve seen their message if I look at it, I’m much less likely to open it, because they may think “why has this person not responded to me?” which can lead to all sorts of complications. Then sometimes I end up completely forgetting about the message.

    Thanks for the notice, though, I hadn’t heard of these apps and will install one now.

  • fair enough!

  • agree leads to complications, the original idea of email following more or less snail-mail conventions meant everyone was on the same page in terms of the privacy agreement, with these new tools not so much

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