What do Microsoft, iPhone, bots, Gmail and GDPR all have in common?
They’re all screwing up my email analytics.
For years, I’ve been having the same conversation with my clients and colleagues. I would present them with email marketing metrics and someone would tell me that they use the “preview” function inside Microsoft and that it doesn’t count as an “opened email.” I would explain that it would in fact count as open as long as the images were turned on. (The images contain hidden tracking pixels and pings the originating server.) Then I’d remind them that even if someone truly does open an email, but doesn’t ‘click here to download pictures,’ then that wouldn’t count as an open. After all that, everyone would be left very confused and sort of feeling like perhaps it balances itself out and that the “open rate” may be somewhat accurate.
In June, 2021, Apple issue a Press Release announcing new features to help users control and monitor apps’ use of their data. While this new feature offers more security for iPhone users in a variety of different ways, it also has a direct impact on marketer’s email metrics. When iPhone users update an iOS device to iOS 15, and open the Apple Mail app, they see a popup asking whether they’d like to “Protect Mail activity.” If they select the “Protect Mail activity” option, Apple hides their IP address.
This means that any email opened (even if it’s Gmail or a business email address) from the Apple Mail app on any device, will have its IP address masked, and therefore, marketers will not know if and when the email was opened.
Large companies, particular in highly regulated industries, are deploying email security bots that scan incoming emails for content, links and attachments. These bots are not lazy. They will click on every single link, and they’ll do it within seconds. This leaves the marketer scratching her head and thinking, “What? My lead clicked on everything at the same time? That doesn’t look right.”
Not only are the open rates unreliable, the clicks rates might be wrong too. The metrics show inflated open and click rates, an increase in unsubscribes, and inaccurate web visitor stats. While there are some hacks that can be used to try and identify these bots and filter them out, it’s tricky because you don’t want to filter out activity from a human prospect. Email automation systems such as HubSpot and Pardot offer tools to help filter the bots out of the email marketing analytics. Unfortunately, even those tools don’t filter them all out.
What does this all mean?
It means they’re all screwing up my email analytics!
We marketers have been watching Google Analytics and other reporting tools—such as HubSpot—over the last few years as the percent of website traffic coming from tablets and mobile phones has been increasing. And now we are looking even closer at email clients to track email activities by Gmail, Android, Outlook, Apple Mail, etc. We’ve been working hard to design responsive emails that look nice on a variety of devices. But now, these metrics are more important than ever. We have to design beautiful emails across platforms and we have to scrutinize our email metrics with a new perspective, putting more emphasis on long-term trends, as we try to apply historical campaign results to new campaigns.
Anyone who has used MS Outlook for email in the past, has probably noticed the “preview or preheader text” on their incoming emails. It’s a brief description of what’s in the email, shown as a preview in the inbox next to the subject line. All the major email automation providers have a tool built-in where marketers can specify what that preview text should say. This is valuable space! If there is no preview text specified, most email servers will extract text from the first few lines of the email.
So, here’s the problem with using Gmail on a desktop (this is not usually an issue on a phone). The default setting in the desktop app does not show the preview text. Most people don’t even notice this and don’t change the setting. (It takes a Google search and about five clicks to change the setting.)
Desktop gmail causes two email analytics problems for marketers
Firstly, as they look at their email campaign results, they have to be mindful that Gmail desktop users are most likely NOT seeing the preview text. This may not seem to be of significant consequence, however, when doing A/B tests and carefully comparing apples to apples, an orange may sneak in to the mix without the marketer even realizing it. There are very few variables that impact email open rates—who it’s from, when it goes out, the subject line, the preview text and more recently, the recipient’s device settings. Consequently, each of these variables have to be measured accurately, especially when doing A/B testing.
The other problem comes up before the marketing email even goes out. Let’s say the marketer sends a test email to the boss. Then, the boss approves the email and the email goes out. Yay. The marketer is excited to see the results when he gets a call from the boss. Apparently, the boss opened the real email on her smart phone, and she saw the preview text (which she hadn’t seen when she approved the email on her desktop). She says that the preview text line is all wrong and the marketer gets reprimanded. At the point, it’s less about email analytics and more about ‘staying out of trouble.’ Lesson learned. (No, this didn’t happen to me…it almost did.)
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was updated in May, 2020. The GDPR requirements are very comprehensive and would warrant its own blog. I’m just going to give one example here of how GDPR requirements can impact email marketing metrics (screwup my email analytics!). While GDPR is a directive for the European Union, American marketers have to comply for a few reasons.
One reason is that the U.S. is likely to follow the EU’s lead and enact their own versions of data protection laws that will affect marketers. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect on January 1, 2020. And The California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) (also known as CCPA 2.0) significantly amends and expands the CCPA, will become fully operative until January 1, 2023. You can read more about these acts here. Marketers will need a thorough review of their data privacy policies and advice from legal counsel. This will become a higher priority as additional U.S. states (or the federal government) enact their own versions of these data privacy laws.
It’s also worth nothing that even for marketers working outside of the GDPR-footprint and outside of California, the major email automation platforms (HubSpot, Marketo, etc.) have their own terms of service that marketers have to comply with. HubSpot, for example, will only allow you to send marketing emails to a contact list if the:
- Contacts personally provided their email address to your brand directly
- Contacts granted you permission to email them
- You emailed the contacts in the list within the past year
- You have an accompanying unsubscribe or suppression list
Marketers who do not comply with HubSpot’s policy will be at risk of suspension.
Managing your Database
A final note on GDPR relates to managing the email database. Since these new data privacy laws have been emerging, some marketers are implementing a “quick fix” (a hack) and simply suppressing all European email addresses from their marketing emails. This can be dangerous because you can’t rely on the fields in a database to determine where a contact is actually located. The data resides in most CRMs is too unreliable. Using IP data is a more reliable way to identify where the contact actually is. Either way, marketers will need to be more diligent in the future about both knowing which countries are in the GDPR footprint, and then capturing them in the database and suppressing them from marketing campaigns.
Let me just be clear. I am not anti-data privacy laws. After all, when data that should be kept private gets in the wrong hands, bad things can happen. I’m just pointing out that marketers need to be aware of the laws and put systems in place to ensure compliance. Larger companies will drive these processes down from the top. Marketers who work for medium and smaller companies don’t usually have that luxury.