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Demystifying Email Open & Clickthrough Tracking by Cultivate CommunicationsEver wondered how email service providers can create tracking reports that show you exactly who opens and clicks on links in your messages?

First, let’s “Geek it up” a little bit so you understand how an email moves through cyberspace and what enables you to view emails on your phone, tablet, or computer.

Blasting an email marketing message to prospects on a list is NOT the same process as sending a single email to a colleague or customer. Email marketers typically construct their emails using image-rich HTML (HyperText Markup Language) templates that they either build themselves or get from the email service provider (ESP) they use.

There’s a common misconception about images (and even video) in email messages. It’s often assumed that when you place an image in your email template, that image is sent along with your email message to the recipient. But that would be a “relative file path” and would necessitate sending a folder of images along with the text of your email, thus creating a MASSIVE file in the process.

To avoid that, email marketers instead assign images in an HTML template a file path that always points to a specific URL where each image lives in an online directory. So when a reader clicks on an email message to read it, the HTML file looks for those URLs anytime it encounters an image. The image in the online directory instantly gets pulled into the HTML file and — voilà — you’ve got a pretty, image-laden email to look at (even though there were never really any pictures in the email — just URLs as  pointers/placeholders).

Calling to a directory on the internet to display an email image is what makes tracking “email opens” possible.
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Tracking email open rates is only possible with image-rich HTML templates, not their plain text counterparts that get sent along for the ride. Before your email campaign goes out the door, the system you’re using places a tiny beacon — usually a 1×1 px clear .gif — on the bottom of the message. When your email hits inboxes, people {hopefully LOTS of people} will start opening your message. Anytime someone opens your message, the HTML file calls to a server for images, where it sees a certain file path. This specific image beacon download is how “email opens” are tracked, tied to a specific list member, then reported back to you.

Tracking clickthroughs is more straightforward and can be done on both HTML and plain text emails. Tracking which links people click on in your emails works by lacing your links with Google Analytics, or more commonly by letting your links get routed through your ESP’s servers before they take readers to their final destination on the web. The only caveat here is that URLs can get pretty long, so sending them through your ESP’s servers may make your URLs look like something like this:

http://lyris.datak9.com/t/210189/3245336/11545/0/?u=aHR0cDovL3d3dy3d&x=a46d9dd7

instead of this:

 https://www.cultivate-communications.com

So now that you have an understanding of how email tracking works, let’s look at how to make email tracking reports work for you . . .

Email tracking reports are like a dipstick that measures your email performance and email engagement.
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For example, if you consistently see spikes in hard bounces, it’s an indicator that your data is decaying at a faster rate than you’re sending out emails and growing your list. You should increase your send frequency and get more sign-up forms on your website. Using trigger messages is a great way to increase response rates, too.

Open and clickthrough tracking reports can be a salesperson’s best friend. Through the act of opening and clicking on links in your email, list members are identifying themselves as prospects interested in what you have to say. Because we’re able to tie opens and clicks to a real person — complete with a name and email address — your salespeople can know exactly who’s looking at what, and when! Knowing what type of content people are reading (and what time of day they are reading your messages) is a great way to get your foot in the door . . . But be careful not to use your email tracking data to “creep out” your customers like Big Brother!

If you’re looking to make your email program work even harder, contact us today for an email marketing audit and consultation.

Got more questions about how email tracking works? Let us know in the comments below, or drop Cultivate a line on Twitter.

Mike Kissel

See all articles by Mike Kissel
Connect with Mike online: LinkedIn

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