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Why Banning Tracking Pixels Could Cause More Harm Than Good

In the West Wing there is a climactic scene in which a character argues passionately about the legislative and regulatory battles that mark each generation. The next two decades, he says, will be defined by privacy on the internet and on ‘cell phones’. Filmed in 1999, it could not be more prescient. We are living in an age where there is fierce ethical and legal debate over just how private the online world should be.  

A seemingly minor front opened up in this battle in June when Apple unveiled its iOS update. Among its new services was ‘Mail Privacy Protection’ – which ‘stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user’. As many marketers will know, these pixels are used by a huge number of organizations to track engagement and tailor the content of their email marketing and newsletters. Email, despite competition from numerous other channels, remains the number one means of communication and engagement for nearly every organization, and indeed the number one preference for customers of every age. Fundamentally altering how this process works will have profound implications.

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The issue at play here is not the why of Apple’s approach – I’ll leave it to others to argue about motives – it is more about the how. A blanket ban on such a crucial marketing tool will inevitably create unintended consequences which I believe will actually end up giving consumers and businesses a worse deal. As a consumer, I no longer choose the relationship I have with each brand, and how much I trust them with my data. This one size fits approach – either privacy or personalization, does not offer that nuance.

 Let’s start by drilling into what tracking pixels actually do. They tell the sender how many people opened their emails, when they were opened, how often and, in some cases, what links were clicked or which articles people spent time reading.  

These data points are the bedrock of any marketing strategy. Not only do they enable better-tailored content, sent at more appropriate times and at a frequency that suits the receiver, but they are also one of the few ways marketers can actually assess the effectiveness of their campaigns.

It is very important to note that in the vast majority of cases, tracking pixels only tell the sender what has happened to their email and little else about the recipient. In comparison to personal data that is collected and monetized from other sources – such as social media – tracking pixels are fairly benign. In addition, because of GDPR, consumers should only receive marketing emails from companies after they have given their explicit consent. In nearly every case this consent follows users signing up to a product or service and providing basic personal information. Put another way, tracking pixels generally do not learn anything new about a person – save for how they engage with the emails they have consented to receive.

Let us think about this for a moment.

Tracking pixels provide some of the most important data points for a marketing strategy and customer experience using the most limited amount of personal information.

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A blanket ban on tracking pixels will cause a profound insights vacuum. This leads to two unpalatable scenarios for consumers. One – businesses seek out new ways to find these data points which create a risk of being far more intrusive. Two – marketers launch entirely blind spray and pray campaigns. Untailored content is naturally much less effective because it provides a worse customer experience. People will get more irrelevant information and emails may be delivered too frequently or not often enough for their preference.

 To marketers who work outside email campaigns, this might sound like a storm in a teacup. But it’s worth remembering that emails still account for a vast amount of marketing spend and are often the first stage on the customer journey. Damaging email effectiveness will impact the whole omnichannel experience. Furthermore, how we got to this stage is a good lesson for every marketer to think about. Banning tracking pixels seems like a good option to the uninformed because of a lack of transparency in how data is collected and used and a wider lack of understanding among consumers.

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Tracking pixels sound scary – especially when they are described as ‘invisible’ because the industry has kept these techniques deliberately opaque. In my experience, when people are actually told exactly how they work and the experiences they enable – especially compared to the intrusiveness of other practices – they are far less perturbed. They are empowered to make a value judgment that a little insight into their email behavior is worth it if they receive useful tailored content.

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In short, a little data education and demystification goes an incredibly long way. By empowering people to make these value judgments through better data education there would have been no desire or need for a blanket ban.

There is a certain irony that the poor marketing and branding of tracking pixels made them easy to ban. As I’ve outlined, they are actually one of the most effective and least intrusive ways to personalize content for consumers. If the marketing industry had been upfront about this with consumers from the start and sought to better educate them, we probably would never have ended up in this position. What we can learn from it is that the industry as a whole needs to be more transparent and prioritize educating people on its practices. Otherwise, we will see more and more crucial tools taken away that will ultimately drive worse experiences or more underhand marketing practices.

In that scenario, nobody wins.

 [To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]

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