4 min read

They are coming for your spy pixels.

If this, then that becomes how we dictate what comes next. And comparing this data with the marketplace, including competition, creates a paralyzing effect on our culture, our brand and our audiences.
They are coming for your spy pixels.
Photo by Killian Cartignies / Unsplash

(I wrote this article a few months ago and it was posted it on a separate site. Posting publicly here after a few updates...)

I’m sympathetic, but that’s a YP, not an MP, so fuck you and your tracking pixels. I’m blocking them and you should too.

— https://daringfireball.net/linked/2021/02/26/buttondown

Have you ever dove into the history of email? While it’s certainly not Bourne-level excitement, it is rather fascinating.

Some highlights:

  • The first electrical transmission of messages began in the 19th century
  • Queen Elizabeth II sent the first email from a head of state in 1976
  • Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign became the first to use email in 1976
  • The first U.S. President to use internet email was Bill Clinton in the 1990s

Today, email seems so commonplace. Even boring:

  • I send a message
  • You receive the message
  • Next

If so boring, why all the fuss recently about email?

“Over the years, there have been laws passed regarding email communication to prevent the spread of junk email, and other advances continue to be made as email continues to be a main method of communication for many people.”


Hey, the email client from the makers of 37 Signals, introduced a new way to communicate with the world using email: Users can send emails to a specific email address and their email is published to a web page.

Here’s a quote from one of Hey’s founders, Jason Fried, using the new service:

“Speaking of Web 1.0, HEY World pages are lighting fast. No javascript, no tracking, no junk. They're a shoutout to simpler times. Respect.“


No tracking.

That’s what the fuss is all about.

“Wait. There is tracking in email messaging?”, you might ask.


When you send an email through an email service provider platform, those email include a small image within the email. When the email is opened, that small image acts as a beacon, notifying the platform it has been opened (and thus received by the intended email address). That beacon data is sent to the email service provider, allowing the sender to understand who is engaging with their emails.

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Why is this important?

If you are a business utilizing email marketing, you are likely looking for guidance on how well your email messaging performs:

  • How many people opened your email
  • How many times your email was opened
  • Which links were clicked

Why is that important?

  • If you know how many people opened your email, you can assume your subject line was well-written
  • If you know how many times your email was opened, you can assume your brand is seen positively by the recipients
  • If you know which links were clicked, you can assume your service / product / giveaway is of interest to the recipients

All helpful information, especially as businesses are focusing on data-driven results to support their decision-making.

“This tracking seems harmless”, you might say. And you are right. It does seem harmless.

Like all things, it’s how you use the data – and whether you receive the recipients permission to use their email address – that starts a “spy pixel”-like conversation.

See, other information can be made available within some ESP platforms, including:

  • Email client data
  • Location data

When this other data is pulled, it crosses a privacy line.

That’s not good for your brand and it can tag you as an untrustworthy business or individual.

“But wait, how am I supposed to know whether my messaging is successful?”, you might ask.

How this impacts you.

All businesses have competitors. Whether it’s a competing service or product, or even competing for time, businesses are focused on being better than their competition, attracting new clients while ensuring current clients continue coming back for more.

While some businesses argue focusing on competition is counter-productive (of which I agree), many leaders have been taught that it’s important to keep tabs on the competitor landscape.

And to some extent, they are right.

Until they aren’t.

Comparing your products, services, branding, positioning, et al, to the competition tends to create a lack of differentiation between businesses. And if your business isn’t unique, what’s the point?

If business A is successful with product 1, business B probably thinks to itself: “We need to build a product 2 in order to be successful”.

What does competition have to do with spy pixels?

Data gets us into this funny habit of hyper-focusing not on qualitative outcomes but rather on quantitative outcomes.

If this, then that becomes how we dictate what comes next. And comparing this data with the marketplace, including our competition, creates a paralyzing effect on our culture, our brand and our audiences.

Unoriginal products → declining demand → demoralizing culture → etc.

Do I recommend you stop tracking your email marketing? That’s a tough one. If you’re not fully behind either strategy (tracking v. non-tracking), here are three questions to ask yourself that can help with your next steps:

  • Does tracking violate your company’s mission, vision, values?
  • Do your employees have a strong opinion?
  • Do your clients have a strong opinion?

Will any of this matter?

Probably not.

Given the number of technology challenges in today’s world, pixels in emails probably won’t get a lot of sustained attention in the public.