Read Time: 16 min

Delivering Episode 16: Privacy Expectations in Email Marketing

In this episode of Delivering, host Jason Rodriguez tries to work through the ongoing discussion around digital privacy and how it relates to email marketing. How is tracking information used in email marketing? Do subscribers know they’re being tracked? And should marketers stop tracking subscribers?

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Delivering, a podcast about email design, strategy, copywriting, development, and the email marketing industry. I’m your host, Jason Rodriguez. Delivering is brought to you by Litmus—the only platform trusted by professionals to help you send email with confidence, every time. Over 600,000 marketing professionals use Litmus’ tools to build, test, and analyze better email campaigns faster.

Head over to litmus.com to start your free 7-day trial of Litmus, and start sending better emails today.

Be sure to subscribe to Delivering on iTunes or Spotify to listen to future episodes and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #DeliveringPodcast.

First things first: In this episode of Delivering, I’m going to talk about digital privacy. I have a lot of feelings about this topic and the wider issues around what’s typically referred to as surveillance capitalism. Those feelings are often contradictory and confusing.

As a human being, I value privacy and expect privacy as a natural right. As a marketer, I understand the need for behavior tracking in a lot of cases and how beneficial it can be to better know your customers and tailor their experiences to provide value. As an idealist, I’d love a world where there are viable, large-scale alternatives to surveillance capitalism in online publishing and email marketing. As a pragmatist, I recognize that—at least for most people—those alternatives simply don’t exist.

I told you it was confusing. I’m putting that disclaimer up front because I’m still working through a lot of these ideas and feelings. I have mixed feelings about digital privacy, as I’m sure many of you do. While I’m going to talk about the recent discussion about privacy online and in email, I’m not even going to attempt to say there’s one right side in this discussion. I think I’m going to land on one side, but we’ll see as I work my way through this stuff.

I also don’t want to sound like this is some massive rant against David Heinemeier Hansson, either. I think the web is indebted to DHH and Ruby on Rails, I think Basecamp is a great product (and one we use at Litmus), and I absolutely love the Basecamp team’s evangelism around saner work environments in general and remote work in particular. I just think that the latest opinions coming from DHH are too sweeping and general to be propagated widely.

I’d absolutely LOVE to hear your take on the privacy in email debate. So, if you have strong feelings—or any feelings at all—on the subject after listening to this episode, email me at jason@litmus.com or Tweet at me using the #DeliveringPodcast hashtag.

Ok, here goes nothing…

In the last episode of Delivering, I talked a bit about Basecamp’s new email service, Hey.com. From the scant information released so far, it seems like the driving force behind Hey.com is privacy. That’s been made clearer than ever with another post from DHH called, “Mailing list software should stop spying on subscribers” which makes the case for dropping what DHH calls spy pixels.

There’s a lot to unpack in this post and similar ones on the Signal V. Noise blog.

And it’s not just Basecamp taking this stance, either. A new, privacy-focused publication called The Markup has been vocal about privacy expectations in email newsletters, too. In their first email newsletter, they talk about how it took them five weeks and eight different email service providers before finding one that allows them to fully disable tracking features.

There are plenty of other posts and Twitter threads discussing the issue of privacy expectations in email, too.

I think the main issue I have with the argument laid out by DHH is that it confuses two things: personal emails and marketing emails. Here’s a quote from the article:

But whether these open rates are “useful” or not is irrelevant. They’re invasive, they’re extracted without consent, and they break the basic assumptions most people have about email. There’s a general understanding that if you take actions on the internet, like clicking a link or visiting a site, there’s some tracking associated with that. We might not like it, but at least we have a vague understanding of it. Not so with email spy pixels.

Just about every normal person (i.e. someone not working in internet marketing) has been surprised, pissed, or at least dismayed when I tell them about spy pixels in emails. The idea that simply opening an email subjects you to tracking is a completely foreign one to most people.

Separate from this article, he and a bunch of other people bring up the Superhuman débâcle, wherein Superhuman—an email client for Gmail users—was found to be doing some very invasive email tracking with their application. What I think is lost is that Superhuman isn’t an email service provider. It’s a client that people use to receive marketing emails, sure, but more importantly to send both personal and business emails to friends, bosses, colleagues, and family members.

I totally agree that adding tracking behaviour to emails that you write out yourself, personal and professional ones, is breaking privacy expectations. I agree that no normal person would expect those emails to be tracked and provide information on when, where, and how you opened an email. I’m pissed that people are creating tools out there to do that, too.

But there’s a distinction that should be made between those types of emails and marketing emails. I simply don’t think it’s true that those emails don’t take into account consent for tracking.

DHH says that, “There’s a general understanding that if you take actions on the internet, like clicking a link or visiting a site, there’s some tracking associated with that… Not so with email spy pixels.” That’s simply not true. While that statement is backed up with his anecdotal evidence, I think it’s wrong to assume your expectations—and those of the handful of people you talked to—are the same as everyone else’s expectations.

While email was originally intended to be used for personal and professional communication, for better or worse, it is now a marketing channel, too. People willingly sign up for marketing emails with the expectation that the content in those emails can be tailored based on their preferences and behaviors, and that they are consenting to their behavior being tracked just like on a website.

Although dark patterns like pre-ticked consent checkboxes and list selling exist, a lot of work has been done in the industry to make consent and data usage clearer and provide subscribers with mechanisms to opt-out of those practices when desired. There’s legislation like GDPR that is explicit in how that should be handled and I know from personal experience how much effort and money was spent by email marketers around the world to adhere to GDPR, not to mention things like CAN-SPAM, CASL, and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

Many email service providers now include explicit consent and tracking language on signup forms, clarifying for subscribers what happens when they sign up and how tracked behavior will be used.

Personal emails and marketing emails are just two different things and the expectation of privacy in both scenarios is, and should be different, too.

In both the Basecamp posts and The Markup’s comments, I think they’re taking a very privileged stance, too. At one point, DHH says in response to removing tracking from Basecamp emails:

And do you know what? It’s been fine! Not being able to track open rates, and fret over whether that meant our subject lines weren’t providing just the right HOOK, has actually been a relief.

Similarly, The Markup states:

At The Markup, we don’t think we need granular stats on who opened our email and when, or what device they were on, or where they were when they opened it.

Both Basecamp and The Markup are operating from very privileged places. Basecamp is a massively profitable business—kudos to them!—and The Markup is sitting on something like $25 million in investment from Craig Newmark and others. They both have built-in audiences and have the luxury of ignoring what they think are vanity metrics like open rates.

Although I agree that open rates are almost always a vanity metric, email tracking provides insights well beyond open and click rates. At Litmus, we provide insights on read times, whether or not your email has been forwarded or printed, and what kind of rendering engine or email client and device was used to view your email. All of that is comparable to the regular tracking that is a “general understanding” on the web. That kind of data, along with the data that is tracked by most email service providers, is valuable for so many reasons.

Looking at email client usage and device opens allows email designers and developers to understand how emails are rendered and fix broken emails for subscribers, providing a much better and—oftentimes—much more accessible experience for people.

What links are clicked, what content was of interest, how subscribers go through your website after clicking on an email—all of that helps marketers tailor the subscriber experience and provide valuable content instead of making blind assumptions about what’s important to them. It powers all of the marketing automation that drives business, sure, but also provides better experiences for subscribers.

It’s nice to say that losing all of that’s been “fine,” but fine for who? It’s a relief to you to not have to spend time on analyzing email performance but I’d wager that plenty of subscribers in that scenario will stop caring about those emails since they don’t take into account their behavior and preferences. They’ll get a shittier experience in favor of the developer experience, which is almost always a bad stance to take. What matters is what subscribers and customers want and need, and we learn about that not only through conversations, customer interviews, and user research, but by seeing how people actually interact with what we put out into the world.

And thinking you don’t need granular stats and not needing those stats are two different things, too. Not everyone has millions in funding and the luxury of glossing over newsletter stats as a way to gauge the health of a business. You may not think you need those stats, but what happens when the funding runs out, or you take on investors or advertisers that want those metrics as table stakes for funding? You’ll need them then.

So many companies are trying to do what Basecamp has long advocated: pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming profitable and sustainable. People are working hard—often harder than anyone should—to build good things that help others and impact the world for the better. But most of them don’t have the resources to and luxury of dropping tracking from emails.

I also know from all the research we’ve done at Litmus that marketers—and email marketing teams in particular—are often undervalued and massively under resourced. For those teams that are struggling to get the budget and resources they need, email stats are all they have. They need that data to show that their work is effective, that subscribers love what they’re doing, and that they’re contributing to the business.

Whether or not you personally like email tracking is kind of irrelevant. It’s valuable to so many sides of the equation: businesses of course, but subscribers and the marketers trying to do their job well, too. It’s hard for me to advocate against that.

OK, here’s the confusing part, though: I’m increasingly dismayed by what surveillance capitalism and the complete disregard for basic privacy has done to the world. When I think about actual spying by the likes of the NSA and the Five Eyes countries, how companies like Facebook and other big tech giants make all their money by vacuuming up as much personal information as possible, and how that information is used to undermine democracy and basic human decency, I feel sick.

There are massive digital privacy concerns that need to be addressed. The more I think about it, though, what Basecamp and The Markup are talking about isn’t really an issue. I think what Superhuman was doing—and to be clear, they’re not the only ones—needs to be addressed, but email marketing writ large is using email tracking ethically.

Those articles and others like it talk a lot about consent. DHH says at one point:

Don’t do it by default, ask for informed consent if you must.

Here, I 100% agree. Even though most email service providers enable tracking by default, I think that—especially since GDPR disrupted the industry—email marketers actually are asking for informed consent from subscribers. Whether or not DHH’s small sample group agrees, my own experience over the last decade in the email industry tells me that the average subscriber understands that marketers can and do collect data through tracking to improve their experience. It’s expected and, increasingly, written out for them in the forms they use to sign up for an email list.

When it comes down to it, I absolutely wish that there were viable business options outside of using tracking across websites and emails. I wish that everyone had a vocal audience that engages with them through conversations over email or social media. I wish that more companies could flourish without having to track customer data.

I know they’re out there and people are—and should continue to—experiment with them, but they’re not operating at scale. We still need tools to help us identify what’s working for us and our subscribers. In email, that’s tracking subscriber behaviour. When something else comes up—and I really hope it does—then I’ll wholeheartedly advocate for that. But until then, it’s hard for me to tell everyone to stop trying to understand their subscribers.

Alright… I think all of this has further taught me that the modern world, both online and off, is horribly confusing. What’s good for one person or group of people isn’t always good for everyone. But we should all be working for the greater good.

While there will always be bad actors, regardless of where you live or what industry you work in, I think that email marketers are actually doing good work here. The industry is made up of largely benevolent people whose sole purpose is to improve their subscribers’ lives. And I hope that we keep engaging in conversations like this one so that we can keep improving things even more. Here, I’ll end on another quote from DHH, which I’ve already put on a Post-It on my computer:

This isn’t going to magically make everything better. It’s not going to fix all the issues we have with privacy online or even all the deceptive practices around mailing lists. But it’s going to make things a little better. And if we keep making things a little better, we’ll eventually wake up to a world that’s a lot better.

Again, my thoughts are evolving on this topic and it’s one that I’m always learning about. If you think I’ve got it completely wrong—or right, for that matter—email me at jason@litmus.com and let me know.

That wraps it up for this week. Be sure to subscribe to Delivering on iTunes or Spotify to listen to future episodes and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #DeliveringPodcast.

If you could give us a review, that’d be amazing, too.

And be sure to head over to litmus.com to start your free 7-day trial of Litmus—the only platform trusted by professionals to help you send email with confidence, every time. Over 600,000 marketing professionals use Litmus’ tools to build, test, and analyze better email campaigns faster. Go to litmus.com to start your free 7-day trial of Litmus, and start sending better emails today.

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