Superhuman and Human-Scale Media

An email analytics call-to-arms

Ranjan here, and today I'll be talking about email tracking and newsletter analytics.

Note: Next week my co-host Can and I are back to our regular Margins schedule.

First thing. To everyone reading this newsletter, we can see if you read it, and how many times you opened it. If you never knew about email tracking, I understand that sounds weird.

This is what we see:

Email pixel tracking is an archaic (been around since the 1990s) technology that enables this. In the past, it was mostly relegated to bulk email marketing, but about a decade ago, startups popped up that made it part of a salesperson’s workflow. Soon, Chrome extensions made it possible for anyone to track from their personal inboxes, but only growth hacker-y type people paid attention. Recently, a buzzy startup made tracking your individual email recipients a core product feature.

Email tracking from your inbox, allows you to see if, when, how many times, and in some cases, where, someone opened your email.

I get it. It’s creepy.

The Debate

Mike Davidson, who blogs at MikeIndustries, wrote a thoughtful post on how Superhuman teaches its users to spy on their friends and family. The same technology that quietly lurked amongst salespeople & marketers, is now turned on by default, for your personal inbox.

He outlined a ton of really creepy scenarios where this could be used, such as:

The key point: The people you email don't know they are being tracked, which makes this a flagrant privacy issue. There's a whole host of sub-debates, and if you want to dive in, I'd strongly recommend reading the post. It's really good (along with his followup).

Email Analytics

The Background: I first learned the Dark Arts of Email Tracking while working at the Financial Times. I was running business development for a $5,000 a year subscription product. We used Salesforce. We also had a daily newsletter and I quickly realized I could cross-reference newsletter open data with sales email open data to see which readers were highly engaged with us. They were reading our newsletters and opening my sales outreach emails, so they naturally made for better prospects. I’d try a little harder with them.

That seems reasonable, right?

This made the act of email tracking seem natural. Over the years, I generally kept business email tracking as part of my workflow. And that’s honestly how I thought of it, as a workflow thing, with zero regard for the privacy implications. It was just standard sales stuff.

Critical Note: I had installed Yesware, one of these tracking tools, on my personal email a long time back. Right away, it felt incredibly creepy to me and I removed it.

What is Email Tracking

This is important, especially for any of our readers still weirded out that we know if you’re reading.

Side note: Substack’s dashboard does not provide location data so we’d never know where you opened the email. But, to repeat, we know if, and how many times you open.

A tiny 1x1 image pixel is inserted into the email. Every time you open the email, that image is loaded which sends data back to the email sending platform. If you forward it to a bunch of people, it will register all those opens directly to you. A lot of people (including my co-host Can) express incredulity as to the reliability of this data.

I’ve tested this. A lot. I've sent emails and opened them on different devices, browsers and clients as controlled experiments. There are a bunch of quirks and it’s nowhere near 100% accurate, but it's reliably, directionally right. If you see someone opening a lot, on a repeated basis, there's a high probability they're engaged with your newsletter.

Sales Mindset

This entire kerfuffle was a reminder for what job function blinders can do to your perspective. I assumed everyone knew about email tracking. Not only do marketing and sales tools not hide it, companies like Hubspot celebrate it, with case studies like "Here's how email tracking helped close a $100,000 deal":

…and they describe the feature with language aggressive enough to make a Superhuman blush:

With SalesHub Email Tracking, you're provided with more than just valuable information about your contact’s engagement with your emails. You also get to see their professional history, where they live, details about their company, their twitter feed, social profiles (emphasis added), your email history with them, and more.

It really works for direct sales. If I ever saw a lead suddenly open an email after a few weeks, and I subsequently reach out, I’m much more likely to get a response.

I assumed this was an accepted industry standard, but Mike's piece definitely made me feel dirty about this. I remember little moments, like where I saw the location data of a lead’s open, and thought "oh, it's August and they're in Greece. Must be nice." That's really weird. And the more people understand this, the more they’ll be conscious of if/when they open any email.

Individual Email Tracking = a Dark Art.

A Call-to-Arms

I’m glad this conversation has been started, because in the hierarchy of email tracking, the idea of using it in your personal inbox is really, really creepy. For work emails, I’m finally moving towards the mindset it’s problematic (especially for any non-sales function, like with your boss).

But for newsletters, it's an incredible thing and a very important soldier in the battle to save our attention. Even Mike, along with many others appalled by Superhuman, were in agreement newsletters are “different” (from Mike Davidson):

I’m generally not moved by straw man arguments that attempt to paint bulk newsletter analytics with the same brush as email surveillance. News organizations are well within their rights to employ the former while criticizing the latter.

From Mike Isaac:

But I do worry, if everyone blocks images in email, and email clients starting turning them off by default, it would kill the ability of newsletter creators to acquire this data, and that would be really bad. Here’s why.

Newsletter Light Magic

I had to google the opposite of Dark Arts, and apparently from Harry Potter, it's Light Magic. I've never seen any of the movies or read the books. I’m not proud of that or anything, I just never have.

Back to fact that we can see if you, the reader, have opened this Margins newsletter, and how many times you have. I want to not only make sure you’re aware of this, I want you to know how important it is to me.

User-level analytics force you to think about your audience as real-life people. It's almost emotional. It bestows a humanity to the entire process. It's no longer just numbers on a dashboard, or celebrating "100,000 pageviews" or "10 million video views". Bringing this stuff down to the human level makes it more like Kevin Kelly's 1,000 True Fans.

This is important. So many of today's media and tech problems are from the creator's detachment from the end consumer, where you see numbers, not people. Looking at the activity of individual email addresses, where you recognize many of them, forces you to think about the people reading you. When you write, you’re writing to real people. We stress about this side project because of the caliber of domains and people reading.

The Substack Example

The Substack Analytics dashboard perfectly outlines the people vs. numbers distinction. They have two prominent metrics on the dashboard: Total Views and Total Opens.

Some real-life Margins data from the early days:

  • Total Opens is the aggregate number of email opens as per the tracking pixel.

  • Total Views (we assume) is the number of Webpage Views of the post (a standard Google Analytics-style pageview number) + Total Opens.

  • Subtracting the two (1,143 here) gives you the web-only views.

We write the Margins just to write, but affirmation certainly helps. A lot. Total Opens is where our core audience lives, and Total Views is where the non-email, non-core viewership happens. That difference is almost a proxy for how appealing it was to a widespread audience.

If we just started writing about Trump (….or Sweetgreen’s impact on society), that proxy is almost invariably higher than the wonky stuff. Luckily, we have no monetary incentive for pageviews, so I feel comfortable writing 2,000 words about email analytics, but the validation is from knowing the right 10-20 people are reading.

YOU CANNOT HACK TOTAL OPENS.

High total opens, from the same person, over an extended period of time, is one of the purest media metrics there is. You can trick someone into opening your email with a clickbait-y subject line, but that kills the relationship. The only reason someone chooses to open your email, out of all the shit in their inbox, repeatedly, is because it's at least somewhat interesting to them.

Newsletters vs. Social Media

But Ranjan, don’t you see real people and names in your social media interactions?

This is a very important distinction to me. We love when y'all tweet and share our stuff (and please continue to do so), but anything publicly posted carries at least a sliver of a performative element. It's like how my co-host Can and I have some exchanges directly on Twitter, while some things we reserve for The Margins Slack (….right, Can?).

There is nothing performative about repeatedly opening a newsletter. You get no followers, or Likes, or public credibility of any sort. It's a quiet, peaceful way of demonstrating true engagement. It’s the holy grail of content analytics; a pure, unadulterated glimpse into real people liking what you're doing.

But, it's the same private nature that makes it so valuable and real, which makes it creepy. It’s the lack of transparency that makes it weird. Which is why I'm glad Mike brought this up, because I want people to be aware of this, and I want us to get rid of the bad stuff (individual email tracking), so we don't lose the good (bulk newsletter tracking).

And again, we might notice your email address if you’re opening this newsletter, and it’s what makes this whole project worth it.

Obsession

This might all come off as weirdly intense, but it’s because the field of newsletter analytics is coincidentally what I'm professionally obsessed with. Our team has been conducting an interview series on the exact topic of going deeper than aggregate metrics and human-scale email analytics. Media companies are starting to shift away from chasing blind, anonymous traffic, and email is a big part of leading the way.

With our company newsletter, we periodically review readers we’ve deemed important. If they are not engaged, we try to figure out what we could be doing wrong? We also start conversations with our engaged readers, and sometimes send them stuff.

I like to think of it like if you go to a hotel or airline and they surprise you with some personalized service. “Hey Mr. Roy, we’ve seen you order steak so here’s one on the house”. It’s wonderful, because they’re using your data to better serve you. That’s kind of the dream here.

Decentralized

Email is such a quirky, weird, beautiful thing. Anytime you use a closed ecosystem app (Facebook, Twitter), it's sucking up far more data. Email only has a few data points, and it's one of the few where the creators, themselves, have real access. Our audience is ours. That ownership is a privilege, especially when we know that people we respect are reading.

It’s not just me - you can see just how passionate newsletter creators are about the ownership of their audience in this Twitter debate about a new breed of newsletter aggregators like Stoop Inbox. We don’t like living in a world of disintermediation:

So let’s keep email analytics weird. Let’s make any kind of individual email tracking a thing of the past. Superhuman should go further and get rid of it, and Salesforce, Hubspot, Mailtrackr, ToutApp, along with the entire crew should remove it as a feature.

Everyone should become aware that tracking exists and that their open data is being sent the newsletter creator, and that creator should invest time using that data to better serve their audiences.

The Backlash

Thanks to Mike for starting this conversation, and even better, writing a proper, old-fashioned blog post. And thanks to Superhuman for taking some action (though not enough according to Mike). Thanks to all the media folk who covered it, and, maybe, thanks to the arrogant folks who made this more of a social media battle than it might have otherwise been. Maybe to make people stop and think about something, you need villains as part of that process nowadays.


If you made it this far, thank you for reading, and if you have any thoughts at all, please send them in. As you can tell, I’m really interested in this stuff.

One last piece for any Future of Media-ish folks. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that media companies should take on more of a CRM mentality, not just the salespeople, but the journalists as well (from a 2014 piece I wrote):

Imagine if the entire editorial staff at each of these companies was entirely focused on that same collection of user information. Their first stop in the morning was not a CMS, but a CRM. Their collective job was to make sure each one of those individuals was properly informed. It could be writing articles, finding links, navigating social media, giving talks, making introductions to experts, aggregating data, literally anything that helped inform your individual users.

Instead of guessing what might be important to an audience of unknowns, you would actually know, you’d see the results, and you’d constantly improve. There would be real people with real feedback letting you know if you’re doing your job.

Imagine if the core of a media organization was that CRM-like collection of information, individual-level, unified views of every single user you touch. Your single most important asset was that amassed collection of relationships, 1:1 relationships between your entire firm and that individual user.

…thank you for coming to my TED Talk :)