An unwelcome email marketing tactic


A marketing email from Dell caught my eye amongst all the inbox content because of the subject line: “Was it something we said?”

Curiosity piqued, I clicked on it to open it, and saw the eye-catching image you see above.

The mixture of garish colours and popping eyes of the model really grabbed my attention, almost making my heart skip a beat. Whoa! I thought. What is this?

Then I was taken aback when I read the text alongside the ‘Shock, horror!’ title:

Can we take a minute of your time? It’s just that it seems you haven’t opened any of our recent emails.

Wtf? I thought to myself. How does Dell know I haven’t opened an email?

That’s the question I asked on Twitter when I posted the image.

It quickly turned out that asking such a question was exposing my naivete about current email marketing practice, as my Twitter community was quick to point out.

Tim Almond:

the old single pixel request thing…

Rob Clark:

html email with a uniquely named 1 pixel gif is my guess.Server gets a request for that pixel,they know you looked at the email.

Mike Keliher:

Knowing whether someone opened an e-mail is a common feature of e-mail audience/campaign management software.

Tim again:

I use thunderbird which allows you to block requests for image from senders. So, if I get some junk, they don’t know.

More from Mike:

I can also tell whether a person forwarded the e-mail and to whom. I haven’t done the creepy "why aren’t you reading?" though.

I commented back along the lines that I consider this behaviour as spying and dislike it a lot.

Which prompted this from Mike:

that e-mail is pushy. But the "spying" thing isn’t Dell’s fault. That’s a standard function. How it was used is Dell’s fault.

And from Tim:

I tend to agree – it’s the sort of thing that makes people uncomfortable.

Tim added:

I think other companies do similar tracking, but don’t write in ways that make it obvious that they’re tracking you ;)

PaulieA said this:

all email marketing software tells the sender if the email has been opened…bit sinister i guess, but that’s how it is

And Donna Papacosta:

That being said, I don’t think I would email the customer a 2nd time saying "Hey you didn’t open the previous message."

I think Donna’s final comment resonated the most for me.

Things like 1-pixel GIFs that phone home and email marketing software that, unknown to you, tracks you are one thing (two, actually).

As PaulieA said, that’s how it is. Whether it makes me the customer feel uncomfortable or not is neither here nor there, I guess.

Maybe it’s the approach in Dell’s email that offends me, the wording that in one way or another says “We’re watching you and what you do on your computer, and you won’t know about it – unless you don’t open our emails, and then we’re gonna jump on you.”

I’m disappointed that it’s Dell I’m writing about in this post. I’ve got to know many Dell people over the past few years, because of social media. I like and respect them.

This email and the distasteful email marketing employed clearly is from another part of Dell.

What I’ll call the anti-social media part.

Suffice it to say that Dell marketing emails now go to the spam filter.

[Later] Reading through this post after publishing it, I was struck by one of Tim Almond’s comments, about his using Thunderbird that lets you block images in emails.

I use Outlook which lets me do exactly the same thing. I have such image-blocking set as the default.

However, I can allow images in email to get through automatically from companies and individuals I classify as trusted.

Dell is one such company.

Not now the anti-social media part, though.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Lloyd Davis

    I got the same mail today. I replied instantly saying “There. Happy now? :)” I haven’t heard from them since. Perhaps it was the smiley.

    I’ll try them again tomorrow ;)

  2. Bruce Eric Anderson (bruceericatdell)

    Neville: as one of Dell’s social media guys, all I can say is we’re sorry, we apologize for the line that this e-mail campaign clearly crossed. We certainly don’t like being seen as a company that acts like ‘big brother’ and I’ll ensure our UK marketing folks are aware of your disdain for this practice.


  3. Armin

    Isn’t the discussion above exactly demonstrating the risks and pitfalls of trying to track HTML e-mails?

    With most e-mail software (and possibly a lot of webmail applications? I don’t use webmail, so I’m not sure) allowing to block external images, isn’t the risk quite huge to get “false positives”?

    How many people will have received the mail above (or something similar from other companies) despite them having actually read the previous mails? If you don’t allow these web beacons to load those trackers will think you haven’t read the mail, even though you actually have.

  4. neville

    Lloyd, I wonder how many other people who Dell emailed are offended by it. Quite a few, I’d guess. And it is just a guess.

    Bruce, thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it.

    Your comment actually highlights the gap between traditional marketing and the newer social communication. You’re a social media guy, as you said, and so you dropped by and left a comment. Would a traditional marketer have done that as spontaneously? Who knows but I don’t think so.

    Makes me think of Andy Lark’s quite enlightening views about social media and marketing as he articulated in a short interview at the recent Latitude launch, where he said:

    The social media stuff is probably the most important we do today, from a marketing stand point. The other elements of the marketing mix have sort of become more and more transactional and more and more tactical in nature. Social media stuff is much more strategic… Use social media to power the fundamental of the business. That’s what we’re focused on.

    Yep, transactional: that’s how I see the marketing email I received.

    Not a good result.

  5. neville

    I think we were typing at the same time, Armin.

    Good points which highlight the uselessness of the whole tracking approach.

    Can’t see it stopping this practice, though. It’s a numbers game, about mass marketing not relationship building.

    Relationship damaging, more like.

  6. Shel Holtz

    Of course, the ability to track who has opened and not opened email is generally used to determine the effectiveness of the email, not to target individual recipients! If your open rate is dropping, it’s a sign that maybe you need to improve your subject lines, send less email, or consider an alternate channel to reach the audience.

    Email marketing is still a very hot business (just listen to Wall and Penn talk about it on “Marketing Over Coffee,” and there are few people smarter than they are about social media), and knowing the open rate can be very helpful. This particular use of the information, though, I agree is disconcerting.

    Good to see the Dell social media folks respond so quickly. Maybe Bruce needs to have a sit-down with the traditional marketing folks!

  7. David Brain

    Neville fascinating stuff. I spoke at length to Dell and other firms about how they organised to manage the new reality and it is so difficult for big firms. outsiders of course think that they act coherently as one entity and of course the reality is they don’t and whilst one part of the firm (the bit we know well and respect so much) get it and play well, it is almost impossible to line- up and train the netire company. Command and control is the marketing sickness that social media is only beginning to cure and even the best of patients are not immune to adopting the old ways somewhere in the body corporate. Cultures take a while to change, but I note Bruce’s comment above and bet that this is noe more department that will now have the message. Great spot though!

  8. Alex Briggs

    Also pleasantly surprised that Dell responded to openly and quickly. Honesty and transparency have already cancelled out the original email in my mind.
    On another note, the writing students of Colorado State University are now being asked to comment on you. Noticed that a podcast we did a year ago has been downloaded over a 1,000 times this week. On further checking, you are part of the syllabus for a college writing course.

  9. neville

    I think you’re absolutely right, David, that this is illustrative of the gaps that exist within the same organization. So it’s a fact that tempers some of my thinking on this matter.

    Gaps or not, I think this type of marketing activity is sinister (to steal a word from one of the commenters on Twitter yesterday); and to Shel’s point re email effectiveness vs targeting individuals, it seems to me doubtful that the marketing folk who employed this email tactic would even have thought of that difference.

    Alex, I’m not sure it has wholly cancelled things out. Gone a very long way, though.

    And re the writing students at Colorado State University, that is really something!

  10. Chip Griffin

    And up I pop to be the contrarian here. While I agree that Dell’s specific message in this case was not very subtle, the practice of tracking and acting on that data can improve response rates for the company and satisfaction of the customers.

    Knowing who is looking at your messages and who isn’t (and tailoring future messages to their behavior) can dramatically improve an email campaign. Direct marketers use these techniques all the time with mail and phone campaigns (ever notice after you buy something from a mail order house and then start getting extra catalogs with different stuff in it?).

    I would actually argue that more companies should take advantage of this granularity to improve their marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any SME-tailored offerings that offer those capabilities with sufficient use to make the practice more widespread.

    As to the concern raised about “false positives” because of image blocking and how that may influence this email message, here’s my response: my guess by the screen shot you posted is that the message itself was an image. If you block images, you wouldn’t see it.

    The bottom line is that there’s nothing “big brotherish” about what’s going on here. If Dell finds a way to track your dealings with, then there’s probably a beef to be had. But a company that you have a business relationship is smart to know how you are responding to their messaging.

  11. neville

    I love a contrarian view!

    You make a good case, Chip, and I’m not going to disagree with your overriding point re tracking.

    And perhaps I ought to be clearer than I might have been about what offended me most about this email.

    It wasn’t so much the tracking aspect itself, more the way in which it became clear that what I do with my email was being monitored as the text pointed out (“you haven’t opened any of our recent emails”).

    Maybe every other company who I get email from does the same thing in tracking, eg, the 1-pixel GIF or whatever. But I don ‘t want that shoved in my face the way Dell’s email did. That’s “big brotherish” to me.

    So in addition to my trusted/untrusted email rule that lets images in trusted email be downloaded automatically, I have a new policy about such marketing emails – any email that contains only an image gets deleted immediately. I’ll know before clicking because of preview mode.

    Of course I doubt that will prevent tracking. But I won’t click to open the email, and it makes me feel better.

  12. Will Rowan

    I remember getting this (10th June, apparently: I guess remembering 3 month old emails is an occupational hazard ;-)… This is a little like the old readers’ Digest letter that opened “Are you happy living at 17 Acacia Avenue?”
    – looking at the source code, it has a unique tracking code, so opening the html email will tell Dell that I opened their email.
    – and there’s a personal offer code in the email.
    – so dell are testing & measuring their emails: good standard stuff: No real news there.
    – but if I got mine in June, and Neville’s arrived 3+ months later in September, then it looks like this email is doing good business for Dell
    – so like the old Readers Digest letter, there’s a very good chance that if it’s a) being opened &/or b) generating traffic at &/or c) selling Dell kit, then they’ll keep sending it out.

    The difference from analogue Readers Digest would be if digital media are transparent enough for Dell to feel that folk who find this approach intrusive can make enough bad noise to counter the opening/traffic/sales impact that the email is probably having.

    thanks for posting Neville!

  13. neville

    That’s a good analysis, Will, thanks.

    I wonder how many people are a) unhappy to get such emails and if so, b) bother to communicate their dissatisfaction to the sender, either via email (Lloyd did!) or via a public means, eg, a blog.

    The blog is the easiest way to express it, I think.

  14. Chip Griffin

    @Neville- the blog is the easiest way for YOU to express your views, but remember that the vast majority of people who have received that email don’t have their own blog. As for your new rule, I applaud you for acting on your beliefs, though it seems that you are making things more difficult on yourself by the extra work you need to go through to process email, plus you are missing out on potentially appealing offers. In my mind, you are punishing yourself, not the sender. But to each his own.

  15. neville

    Chip, I couldn’t agree more: my new rule does make things a bit difficult in managing email.

    As for missing out on potentially appealing offers, well, I guess I’ll lose.

    I can live with that. Maybe the day will come when I’ll get an offer that’s communicated in a way tailored to my preferences in how I’d like to be communicated with rather than some form of mass communication that smacks me in the face if I don’t read the stuff.

    Not holding my breath, though.

  16. neville

    A further thought on all this, in a pretty good post by Matthew Patterson entitled “Less stalking, more talking.”

    Matthew, who’s with the company that makes Campaign Monitor email marketing software, writes about my post and my experience.

    I very much like these comments he makes:

    […] It’s a timely reminder that privacy and the ownership of their own activity is very important to most people. Even though the open and click tracking is available, we should treat it very carefully.

    That means not being too aggressive in your phrasing, and not assuming that the small amount of information you have about someone’s activity means you understand what they want and need.

    […] So tread carefully, be respectful of people’s inbox, their privacy and the complex balance between making an email useful, and abusing personal information. If you are dealing with particularly sensitive topics, like health, then you probably need to be even more cautious.

    If you want to see the viewpoint of someone who has a vested interest in email marketing, please head on over to Matthew’s post. Leave a comment, tell him what you think.

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