If you have any history with or knowledge of the marketing industry, you’re most likely familiar with spy pixels (tracking pixels).

If not, here’s a quick run down. They really are exactly what the name states – they are a tiny image which is embedded in an email. Usually invisible to the receiver, the pixel can allow a company access to details about their customers.

The 1px by 1px square image is usually a .GIF or .PNG file which is coded into an email, usually coloured suitably to be disguised within, and is activated as soon as the email is opened.

You’re probably familiar as they are seen as a useful marketing strategy, as they are a practical way for companies to be able to find out information about their campaign success, leading to more insight and development in future communications.

Tracking pixels are not recognised by most spam filters, but there is software available which can block emails containing them.

What information can they provide?

Spy pixels can allow access to details such as:

  • When an email was opened
  • How many times an email was opened
  • Where the user was (physical location) when opening the email
  • What device the email was opened on

Companies can also use spy pixels to determine the click rate and open rate of their emails, which is why they are so often used.

Marketing teams require information such as this in order for them to tailor their efforts and ensure effective communication. Tracking pixels don’t collect sensitive information such as the recipient’s exact location, bank details, or private browsing history.

In the UK and Europe, it is required that companies state the use of tracking pixels, and they do often require consent. This consent is, however, often included in email terms which users agree to, therefore they’re most likely unaware of what they’re signing up for.

The use of spy pixels is not currently a breach of data protection law. However, some see it as a huge invasion of privacy. Although a company may be using the trackers simply to determine a campaign’s success, many believe that they should state the use in their privacy policy.

British Airways have admitted to using spy pixels, claiming the data is only used internally in order to determine more information about customers, and never shared elsewhere. This received a mixed response, with some customers not understanding why their data needs to be collected in this way.

What does the future have in store for spy pixel tracking?

The conversation about spy pixels is certainly an interesting one, and is one that needs to happen.

Defenders of the trackers say they are a commonplace marketing tactic, and this is true. It is difficult to track an email campaign’s success without the use of them, after all.

However, if companies are able to access information about who has opened their emails and are then following up on them with more emails and even, in some cases, phone calls, that’s when the concerns begin.

The future of reporting may be uncertain if there continues to be misuse of these trackers. Customers will become more suspicious, and with the development of more sophisticated blockers, tracking email open and click rate could be unavailable to us sooner than we think.

What do you think – should spy pixels be allowed? How else could we collect this data? Don’t forget to submit your opinion pieces and all other article ideas via our Typeform.