How Email Open Tracking Quietly Took Over the Web

“I JUST CAME across this email,” began the message, a long overdue reply. But I knew the sender was lying. He’d opened my email nearly six months ago. On a Mac. In Palo Alto. At night.

I knew this because I was running the email tracking service Streak, which notified me as soon as my message had been opened. It told me where, when, and on what kind of device it was read. With Streak enabled, I felt like an inside trader whenever I glanced at my inbox, privy to details that gave me maybe a little too much information. And I certainly wasn’t alone.

There are some 269 billion emails sent and received daily. That’s roughly 35 emails for every person on the planet, every day. Over 40 percent of those emails are tracked, according to a study published last June by OMC, an “email intelligence” company that also builds anti-tracking tools.

The tech is pretty simple. Tracking clients embed a line of code in the body of an email—usually in a 1×1 pixel image, so tiny it’s invisible, but also in elements like hyperlinks and custom fonts. When a recipient opens the email, the tracking client recognizes that pixel has been downloaded, as well as where and on what device. Newsletter services, marketers, and advertisers have used the technique for years, to collect data about their open rates; major tech companies like Facebook and Twitter followed suit in their ongoing quest to profile and predict our behavior online.

But lately, a surprising—and growing—number of tracked emails are being sent not from corporations, but acquaintances. “We have been in touch with users that were tracked by their spouses, business partners, competitors,” says Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC. “It’s the wild, wild west out there.”

According to OMC’s data, a full 19 percent of all “conversational” email is now tracked. That’s one in five of the emails you get from your friends. And you probably never noticed.

“Surprisingly, while there is a vast literature on web tracking, email tracking has seen little research,” noted an October 2017 paper published by three Princeton computer scientists. All of this means that billions of emails are sent every day to millions of people who have never consented in any way to be tracked, but are being tracked nonetheless. And Seroussi believes that some, at least, are in serious danger as a result.

AS RECENTLY AS the mid-2000s, email tracking was almost entirely unknown to the mainstream public. Then in 2006, an early tracking service called ReadNotify made waves when a lawsuit revealed that HP had used the product to trace the origins of a scandalous email that had leaked to the press. The intrusiveness (and simplicity) of the tactic came as something of a shock, even though newsletter services, salespeople, and marketers had long used email tracking to gather data.

Seroussi says that Gmail was the ice breaker here—he points back to the days when sponsored links first started showing up in our inboxes, based on tracked data. At the time it seemed invasive, even unsettling. “Now,” he says, “it’s common knowledge and everyone’s fine with it.” Gmail’s foray was the signal flare; when advertisers and salespeople realized they too could send targeted ads based on tracked data, with little lasting pushback, the practice grew more pervasive.

“I do not know of a single established sales team in [the online sales industry] that does not use some form of email open tracking,” says John-Henry Scherck, a content marketing pro and the principal consultant at Growth Plays. “I think it will be a matter of time before either everyone uses them,” Scherck says, “or major email providers block them entirely.”

That’s partly to do with spam. “Competent spammers will track any activity on your email because they tend to buy entire lists of addresses and will actively try to rule out spam traps or unused emails,” says Andrei Afloarei, a spam researcher with Bitdefender. “If you click on any link in one of their messages they will know your address is being used and might actually cause them to send more spam your way.”

But marketing and online sales—even spammers—are no longer responsible for the bulk of the tracking. “Now, it’s the major tech companies,” Seroussi says. “Amazon has been using them a lot, Facebook has been using them. Facebook is the number one tracker besides MailChimp.” When Facebook sends you an email notifying you about new activity on your account, “it opens an app in background, and now Facebook knows where you are, the device you’re using, the last picture you’ve taken—they get everything.”

Both Amazon and Facebook “deeplink all of the clickable links within the email to trigger actions on their app running on your device,” Seroussi says. “Depending on permissions set by the user, Facebook will have access to almost everything from Camera Roll, location, and many other logs that are hidden. But even if a user has disabled location permission on his device, email tracking will bypass this restriction and still provide Facebook with the user’s location.”

I STUMBLED UPON the world of email tracking last year, while working on a book about the iPhone and the notoriously secretive company that produces it. I’d reached out to Apple to request some interviews, and the PR team had initially seemed polite and receptive. We exchanged a few emails. Then they went radio silent. Months went by, and my unanswered emails piled up. I started to wonder if anyone was reading them at all.

That’s when, inspired by another journalist who’d been stonewalled by Apple, I installed the email tracker Streak. It was free, and took about 30 seconds. Then, I sent another email to my press contact. A notification popped up on my screen: My email had been opened almost immediately, inside Cupertino, on an iPhone. Then it was opened again, on an iMac, and again, and again. My messages were not only being read, but widely disseminated. It was maddening, watching the grey little notification box—“Someone just viewed ‘Regarding book interviews’—pop up over and over and over, without a reply.

So I decided to go straight to the top. If Apple’s PR team was reading my emails, maybe Tim Cook would, too.

I wrote Cook a lengthy email detailing the reasons he should join me for an interview. When I didn’t hear back, I drafted a brief follow-up, enabled Streak, hit send. Hours later, I got the notification: My email had been read. Yet one glaring detail looked off. According to Streak, the email had been read on a Windows Desktop computer.

Maybe it was a fluke. But after a few weeks, I sent another follow up, and the email was read again. On a Windows machine.

That seemed crazy, so I emailed Streak to ask about the accuracy of its service, disclosing that I was a journalist. In the confusing email exchange with Andrew from Support that followed, I was told that Streak is “very accurate,” as it can let you know what time zone or state your lead is in—but only if you’re a salesperson. Andrew stressed that “if you’re a reporter and wanted to track someone’s whereabouts, [it’s] not at all accurate.” It quickly became clear that Andrew had the unenviable task of threading a razor thin needle: maintaining that Streak both supplied very precise data but was also a friendly and non-intrusive product. After all, Streak users want the most accurate information possible, but the public might chafe if it knew just how accurate that data was—and considered what it could be used for besides honing sales pitches. This is the paradox that threatens to pop the email tracking bubble as it grows into ubiquity. No wonder Andrew got Orwellian: “Accuracy is entirely subjective,” he insisted, at one point.

Andrew did, however, unequivocally say that if Streak listed the kind of device used—as opposed to listing unknown—then that info was also “very accurate.” Even if pertained to the CEO of Apple.

IF TIM COOK is a closet Windows user (who knows! Maybe his Compaq days never fully rubbed off) or even if he outsources his email correspondence to a firm that does, then it’s a fine example of the sort of private data email tracking can dredge up even on our most powerful public figures.

“Look, everybody opens emails, even if they don’t respond to them,” Seroussi says. “If you can learn where a celebrity is—or anyone—just by emailing them, it’s a security threat.” It could be used as a tool for stalkers, harassers, even thieves who might be sending you spam emails just to see if you’re home.

“During the 2016 election, we sent a tracked email out to the US senators, and the people running for the presidency,” Seroussi says. “We wanted to know, were they doing anything about tracking? Obviously, the answer was no. We typically got the location of their devices, the IP addresses; you could pinpoint almost exactly where they were, which hotels they were staying at.”

This is what worries Bitdefender’s Afloarei about malicious spammers who use trackers, too. “As for the dangers of being tracked in spam, one must keep in mind the kind of people that do the tracking, and the fact that they can find out your IP address and therefore your location or workplace,” he says. Just by watching you open your email, Afloarei says spammers can learn your schedule (“based on the time you check your email”), your itinerary (based on how you check mail at home, on the bus, or so on), and personal preferences (based on where they harvested the email; say, a sports forum, or a music fansite).

Because so many people can be looked up on social media based on email addresses, or their jobs and locations, Afloarei says it’s “pretty easy” to correlate all the data and track someone down in person. “Granted, most spammers are only interested in getting your credit card or simply getting you infected and part of their botnet, but the truly devious ones can deduct so much information besides all that.”

There’s one more reason to be wary: Email tracking is evolving. Research from October looked at emails from newsletter and mailing list services from the 14,000 most popular websites on the web, and found that 85 percent contained trackers—and 30 percent leak your email addresses to outside corporations, without your consent.

So, if you sign up for a newsletter, even from a trusted source, there’s a one in three chance that the email that newsletter service sends you will be loaded with a tracking image hosted on an outside server, that contains your email address in its code and can then share your email address with a “large network of third parties.” Your email address, in other words, is apt to be shared with tracking companies, marketing firms, and data brokers like Axiom, if you as much as open an email with a tracker, or click on a link inside.

“You can have tens of parties receive your email address,” says Steven Englehart, one of the computer scientists behind the study. “Your email hash is really your identity, right? If you go to a store, make a purchase or sign up for something—everything we do today is associated with your email.” Data brokers have long stockpiled information on consumers through web tracking: browsing habits, personal bios, and location data. But adding an email address into the mix, Englehart says, is even more reason for alarm.

“This kind of tracking creates a big dataset. If a dataset leaks with email hashes, then it’d be trivial for anyone to go see that person’s data, and people would have no idea that data even existed,” he says. “You can compare it to the Experian data leak, which exposed people’s social security numbers, and could cause fraud. In my mind, this leak would be even worse. Because it’s not just financial fraud, but intimate details of people’s lives.”

Given the risks, perhaps what’s most striking about the rise of ubiquitous email tracking is how relatively quietly it’s happened—even in a moment marked by increased awareness of security issues.

“It’s shifted. It’s more and more used in conversational threads. In business emails. This is what scares us the most,” Seroussi says. “One out of six people that emails you is sending a tracker, and it’s real life”—not marketing, not spammers. “It could be your friend, your wife, your boss, this number is really mind boggling—you give up a lot of privacy just opening emails.”

AFTER THE GREAT Tim Cook Email Tracking Incident, I left Streak on. I’d found, grudgingly, that it was useful; it was sometimes more efficient to know when sources had read my email and when I might need to nudge them again. But because I was using the same Gmail account for personal and professional use, I ended up tracking friends and family, too. That’s when I saw how starkly tracking violates the lightly-coded social norms of email etiquette. I watched close friends read an email and not respond for days. I saw right through every white lie about email (about not receiving it, or it getting stuck in the spam folder). Sure, it’s occasionally nice; you can get a rough sense of how many people read the latest update to the weekend plans on a thread, and you can feel confident that your brother isn’t blowing you off, he’s just really bad at reading email. But it mostly serves to add yet another unnecessary layer of expectation onto our already notification-addled lives, another social metric to fret over, and another box to click on feverishly whenever it arrives. Not to mention a tinge of surreptitious digital voyeurism.

Clearly, this is a situation that the tracking outfits want to avoid. They’ve kept mostly to the shadows, harvesting useful sales data and email open rate info without causing too many ripples; the last thing they want is for their products to be deemed invasive or spyware. This, however, puts them in a deeply awkward position: In order to stand out amongst a burgeoning field of email tracking services, they need to tout their accuracy and ease of use—while somehow giving the public the impression the data they’re soaking up isn’t a threat.

As the number of easy-to-use, free tracking products proliferates—some email clients are beginning to simply ship with tracking features, as Airmail did in 2016—we’re going to have to contend with a digital social landscape where there’s an insurgent mix of trackers and trackees. And, increasingly—anti-trackers.

IF YOU DON’T want people to know your precise whereabouts whenever you glance at a specially priced offer for a cruise featuring your favorite 90s alt rock bands; if you’d rather Facebook not harvest your device data every time a former high school classmate inveighs against Trump in a comment on one of your vacation pics; if you’re the CEO of one of the top technology companies in the world and you’d rather not be associated with using a rival’s product—you have options.

A host of anti-tracking services have sprung up to combat the rising tide of inbox tracers—from Ugly Mail, to PixelBlock, to SendersUgly Mail notifies you when an email is carrying a tracking pixel, and PixelBlock prevents it from opening. Senders makes use of a similar product formerly known as Trackbuster, as part of service that displays info (Twitter, LinkedIn account, etc) about the sender of the email you’re reading. Using these services, I spotted more than a few acquaintances and even some contacts I consider friends using tracking in their correspondence.

But even those methods aren’t foolproof. Tracking methods are always evolving and improving, and finding ways around the current crop of track-blockers. “It’s a fight we’re having over the last couple of years,” Seroussi says. “They can’t counter all the methods that we know—so they get around the block by setting up new infrastructures. It’s a chase, they’re doing a job.”

To prevent third-parties from leaking your email, meanwhile, Princeton’s Englehart says “the only surefire solution right now is to block images by default.” That is, turn on image-blocking in your email client, so you can’t receive any images at all.

OMC has found dozens of novel methods that newfangled trackers are using to get your email open info. “We found 70 different ways where they use tracking,” Seroussi says, “Sometimes it’s a color, sometimes it’s a font, sometimes it’s a pixel, and sometimes it’s a link.” It’s an arms race, and one side has an immense advantage.

When Seroussi debuted Trackbuster in 2014, he was expecting a few hundred downloads. Within hours, he’d had 12,000. People who knew about email tracking—often trackers themselves, ironically—were eager for a way to quash it. Still, other trackers are furious with what the track-blockers are doing. “We receive death threats,” he says, more agitated than angered. It’s the wild west, after all. “They’ve been trying to destroy us for two years.”

Scherck, the marketing consultant, thinks that Google could up and kill email tracking altogether. “I do think public opinion could turn on email tracking, especially if Gmail started alerting users to tracking by default inside of Gmail with pop ups, or some native version of Ugly Email,” he says. “Just look at how consumers have turned on Facebook for their advertising. People absolutely hated that Uber was buying data on who was using Lyft from” It would only take a strong enough nudge. “Most consumers don’t understand just how much information they are giving up,” he says.

If Google and the other big tech firms won’t budge, though, Seroussi believes the problem is serious enough to warrant government intervention. “If the big companies don’t want to do something about it, there should be a law defining certain kinds of tracking,” he says. And if nothing is done at all, Seroussi thinks it’s only a matter of time before email tracking is used for malign purposes, potentially in a very public way. “I always wonder when a big story is going to come out and say that people broke into a house because they used email trackers to know the victims were out of town,” he says. “It’s probably already happened.”

As for me, I was tired of all the tracking. After a couple months of ambiguous insights, I didn’t want to know who was opening my emails and not replying anymore. I didn’t want to wait, strung-out-like, for a notification to ring in a response from a crucial source. I didn’t want to feel like I was breaking the rules of whatever slipshod digital social compact we’ve got; my semi-spying days were done. I deleted Streak, and left Senders running—and kept a screenshot of Tim Cook’s Windows on my desktop as a souvenir.

Source: Wired

‘Mailsploit’ Lets Hackers Forge Perfect Email Spoofs

PRETENDING TO BE someone you’re not in an email has never been quite hard enough—hence phishing, that eternal scourge of internet security. But now one researcher has dug up a new collection of bugs in email programs that in many cases strip away even the existing, imperfect protections against email impersonation, allowing anyone to undetectably spoof a message with no hint at all to the recipient.

On Tuesday, security researcher and programmer Sabri Haddouche revealed Mailsploit, an array of methods for spoofing email in more than a dozen common email clients, including Apple Mail for iOS and macOS, Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Microsoft Mail, and Outlook 2016, as well as a long list of less common clients including Opera Mail, Airmail, Spark, Guerrilla Mail and Aol Mail. By combining the bugs in those email clients with quirks in how operating systems handle certain kinds of text, Haddouche was able to craft email headers that, to the recipient, give every indication of having been sent from whatever address the fraudster chooses. The potential for phishing schemes is enormous.

A demo Haddouche has made available on his website describing the Mailsploit attack lets anyone send emails from any address they choose; think [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or any other corporate executive, politician, friend, family member, or associate that might trick someone into giving up their secrets. Thanks to Mailsploit’s tricks, no amount of scrutiny in the email client can reveal the fakery.

“This makes these spoofed emails virtually unstoppable at this point in time,” writes Haddouche, who works as a developer for secure messaging service Wire.

Missing DMARC

Email spoofing is a hacker trick as old as email itself. But over the years, administrators of email servers have increasingly adopted authentication systems, most recently one known as Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance, which blocks spoofed emails by carefully filtering out those whose headers pretend to come from a different source than the server that sent them. Partly as a result, phishers today generally have to use fake domains—the part of the email address after the “@”—that resemble real ones, or cram real-looking domains into the “name” field of their email. Either case is fairly easy to spot, if you’re careful to hover over or click on the “from” field of any suspicious-looking email.

But Mailsploit’s tricks defeat DMARC by exploiting how email servers handle text data differently than desktop and mobile operating systems. By crafting email headers to take advantage of flawed implementation of a 25-year-old system for coding ASCII characters in email headers known as RFC-1342, and the idiosyncrasies of how Windows, Android, iOS, and macOS handle text, Haddouche has shown that he can trick email servers into reading email headers one way, while email client programs read them differently.

“The cleverness of this attack is that everything comes from the right source from the perspective of the mail server, but at the moment it’s displayed to the user it comes from someone else,” says Dan Kaminsky, a protocol-focused security researcher and chief scientist at cybersecurity firm White Ops. “The authentication system for the server sees one thing. The authentication system for humans sees another.”

Patchwork Fixes

Haddouche says he contacted all of the affected firms months ago to warn them about the vulnerabilities he’s found. Yahoo Mail, Protonmail and Hushmail have already fixed their bugs, while Apple and Microsoft have told Haddouche they’re working on a fix, he says. Most other affected services haven’t responded, Haddouche says. Haddouche’s full list of affected email clients and their responses to his Mailsploit research is here.

Mozilla and Opera, meanwhile, both say they don’t plan to fix their Mailsploit bugs, instead describing them as server-side problems. And that response may be more than just a lazy dodge: Haddouche tells WIRED that email providers and firewalls can also be set to filter out his attack, even if email clients remain vulnerable.

Beyond the specific bugs Mailsploit highlights, Haddouche’s research points to a more fundamental problem with email authentication, says Kaminsky. Security add-ons for email like DMARC were designed to stop spam, not targeted spoofing, he points out. The fact that its whitelisting function also prevents most spoofing is almost an accident, he argues, and one that actually guarantees an email comes from who it appears to come from. “This all part of the goop of email being a ’90s protocol before security was a big deal,” Kaminsky says. “The system that accidentally prevents you from pretending to be the president of the US is good enough for spam protection, but it’s not good enough for phishing protection.”

Haddouche recommends that users stay tuned for more security updates to their email clients to fix the Mailsploit bugs, and that they consider switching in general to secure messengers like Wire, Whatsapp or Signal, which use more robust authentication mechanisms.

And in the meantime, it’s always wise to treat emails with caution. Before opening an attachment or even clicking a link, it’s worth reaching out to the person via another channel for confirmation the message comes from who it claims to come from. And if you do get a message from [email protected], don’t give him your PayPal password.


Ray Tomlinson, email inventor and selector of @ symbol, dies aged 74

Tributes flow for the American computer scientist who ‘changed the way the world communicates.

Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email and the man who picked the @ symbol for addresses, has died aged 74.

“A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers,” Raytheon spokesman Mike Doble said in a statement confirming his death.

Doble said Tomlinson died on Saturday morning but he did not know if he was at home and did not have a confirmed cause of death. Tomlinson worked in the company’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The tech world reacted with sadness over the passing of Tomlinson, who became a cult figure for his invention in 1971 of a program for ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, that allowed people to send person-to-person messages to other computer users on other servers.

Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map,”

Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf called his death “very sad news.”

“His work changed the way the world communicates and yet, for all his accomplishments, he remained humble, kind and generous with his time and talents,” Doble said.

Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Tomlinson went to school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT in the 1960s, and was working at research and development company Bolt Beranek and Newman – now Raytheon BBN Technologies – when he made his email breakthrough.

The program changed the way people communicate both in business and in personal life, revolutionising how “millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans”, reads his biography on the Internet Hall of Fame website.

According to a 1998 profile in Forbes magazine, Tomlinson showed a colleague his invention and then, famously, said: “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

At the time, few people had personal computers. The popularity of personal email wouldn’t take off until years later but has become an integral part of modern life.

“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said of his creation of network email.

Tomlinson once said in a company interview that he created email “mostly because it seemed like a neat idea”. The first email was sent between two machines that were side-by-side, according to that interview.

He said the test messages were “entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them”. But when he was satisfied that the program seemed to work, he announced it via his own invention by sending a message to co-workers explaining how it could be used.

Tomlinson chose the @ symbol to connect the username with the destination address and it has become part of the international language of communication.

Kuzman said Tomlinson was looking at the keyboard and needed something that would not otherwise be part of the address and that seemed to be a logical solution.

“It is a symbol that probably would have gone away if not for email,” she said.

Around the time email started to become a household word, Tomlinson began receiving worldwide recognition for his achievement.

In 2000, he received the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum. From there followed honors that included a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Science, and an Innovation award from Discover magazine, and the Eduard-Rhein Cultural Award, according to his biography.

He lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts where he raised miniature sheep. Attempts to contact his family were unsuccessful.

While more general email protocols were later developed and adopted, Tomlinson’s contributions were never forgotten.

“He was pretty philosophical about it all,” Kuzman said. “And was surprisingly not addicted to email.”

Source: The Guardian

The Key to Creating Effective Emails

A lead marketer shares the vital component to crafting impactful emails.

Most all email marketers ask themselves this one question: How do I keep my messages out of the spam folder? Mailify‘s CMO Eric Krattenstein says the answer is simple: content. The strategy behind that answer, however, is a bit more complicated. In a lucid (and humorous) Q&A, Krattenstein breaks down what readers are looking for in emails, the things marketers should avoid, and what the future of email marketing holds.

What makes an email message effective?
An effective email provides value to the recipient in the form of content that is both relevant and unique. Your readers are constantly flooded with emails, so as marketers we need to remember that what we deliver must not only look good but be unique and hyper-targeted to our recipients. Stand out from the overcrowded inbox by drawing the reader in with a great subject line and pre-header, and then deliver excellent content once you’ve won the open.

You’ve got to know your audience to be able to understand how to speak with them effectively. A key point here is to also remember you are speaking with your audience, not at them. If you treat email like a personal conversation—rather than a billboard—you’re on the right track.

What are readers looking for in an email from marketers?
Statistically, we know that most readers subscribe to email lists to receive discounts and promotions. Of course, that doesn’t mean every email you send needs to be selling something; it’s important to find balance. What readers are really looking for is value—and it isn’t always monetary. Share with them what you do best and how it can help them. If you run a DIY blog, share recent projects and advice. If you’re a digital marketing agency, provide useful tips for optimizing a website for Google’s latest algorithm update.

How does content fill those needs from the audience?
Email is all about content. More and more companies today are investing time and money into content strategies designed to develop and distribute great pieces of thought leadership content in the form of eBooks, whitepapers, videos, and the like. The same qualities that cause this content to get shared and distributed are what make email subscribers want to read it.

Marketers can be extremely successful either repurposing that content for email newsletters or using email as an additional lever for viewership. Imagine a great eBook you wrote with 10 great pieces of advice. Repurpose that eBook into a series of 10 extremely helpful email newsletters to let your subscribers benefit from the same great content via the channel they’ve chosen to use.

How do you pick the right content for an audience—and the company?
Well that’s the question that marketers have been asking since the beginning of the profession, right? How do I position myself to best resonate with my viewers? Since email is just another cog in your marketing machine, the same considerations for content and tone that you apply to other marketing materials should be true to your email as well. That said, the beauty of digital marketing (and email specifically) is the ability to segment based on data. The only sure-fire way to pick the right content is to test. Split testing your email campaigns allows you to get a real world look into what makes your recipients tick. Use the results for your tests and historical engagement data to create a model for the type of content your recipients respond to and then plan accordingly.

Is a content plan really that important for email marketers?
When we speak with clients, especially small businesses, we find that one of the primary issues we encounter is the irregularity of frequency and substance in their email campaigns. Having a content strategy in place allows a marketer to schedule their campaigns ahead of time, preventing the last-minute scramble to “get an email out.” Planning ahead with your email content strategy also makes it easier for marketers to look at the big picture and plan for seasonal events or promos.

Should email marketing always be a part of a content plan?
Absolutely. With email marketing you’ve got a proven channel for matching content with eyeballs. Even if email is just a supporting player in your content strategy, the fact that it is unparalleled in terms of cost-efficiency and the relatively small amount of time it takes to execute means marketers have no reason not to use it. Email marketing is so versatile that it can always be adapted to the needs of the overall content strategy. Email could be the focus of the content—like a series of 10 informative newsletters from the previous example—or it could be another outlet for driving traffic to a landing page for content downloads and lead generation.

What should readers expect when they open an email and read content?
(I love this question.) Readers should expect to open an email and not be able to think anything other than, “Wow, this email is exactly what I needed.” If you know your audience, each email you send should be so targeted and relevant that they can’t help but believe you are inside their heads waiting for the perfect time to send that coupon or the exact piece of information they were looking for.

What would you like to see less of in email content creation?
I think one of the things I’d like to see email marketers improve on is not always feeling the need to go the “hard sales” route in every email. It requires a lot of trust in the program, but a good email marketing strategy establishes trust and builds relationships—the revenue will follow. Believe in your content.

What would you like to see more of in email content creation?
I’d love to see email marketers start to embrace a mobile-first approach to their email campaigns when it makes sense. We know the number of emails being opened via mobile devices is increasing each year, but very few marketers specifically plan for these circumstances. Designing your emails to be responsive is a good start, but it goes further. When marketers realize that the chances of their email being viewed on a mobile device are greater than it being viewed on a desktop, the entire campaign should change. Can your recipient easily complete your desired call-to-action from their smartphone? Does your landing page take too long to load on a 3G/4G connection?

What do you see for the future of email content?
The future of email is exciting. Eventually email client capabilities will catch up to the creativity and ingenuity of marketers (I’m looking at you Outlook), and email can be taken to new levels. Videos, animations, interactive experiences; all of the things that make great dynamic Web content will be delivered right to your inbox. Spam filtering and inbox segmentation will continue to improve, which will even further increase the need for email marketers to deliver exceptional content and establish great relationships or be discarded.


Author: Natasha D. Smith, Senior Editor

Your E-mail Font Is Ruining Your Life

Well, maybe not your life. But certainly your reputation with people of good taste.

Helvetica, the hip font of choice for brands and typeface nerds, is the default font setting for Apple Mail. Gmail defaults to Arial, a font one designer called Helvetica’s “ugly bastard son.” If the browser doesn’t support Arial, Gmail will use Helvetica instead.

While Helvetica is beloved by design nerds for its neutrality, its uniformity and lack of consistent spacing make it hard to read in large chunks of text. “The letters are too close together,” said Nadine Chahine, a type designer at Monotype. “That makes it too tight.”

Arial, like Helvetica, has what font designers call “ambiguous” letter shapes that make it difficult to parse lots of words in a row. “If you imagine b, d, p, and q, those are letter forms that all the children always mess up. They are mirror forms of one another,” font designer Bruno Maag said. “That feature is emphasized in a font like Arial, where the shapes are literally mirror forms.”

See how the b and d mirror each other below, and how the space between the h and thee in Helvetica is slightly larger than it is between the t and the i? These may seem like nuances here, but both make the words harder to read when they’re packed in great swatches of text and you’re reading a lot of e-mail.

And you are. Working Americans spend almost a third of the workweek checking and reading e-mail. In a 40-hour week, that’s over 11 hours a week reading online communications in fonts that aren’t doing our eyes any favors.

E-mail “clients” — the programs you use to check your e-mail, like Gmail, Apple Mail, and Outlook — tend to favor sans serif fonts, in which the letters don’t have end strokes, like Helvetica, Arial, and Microsoft Outlook’s default Calibri. (Gmail, Outlook, and Apple Mail are the three most popular desktop email clients, a study of over 1 billion emails found.)

“It used to be, until relatively recently, that most readers in a corporate environment would not have very high-resolution screens,” typographer Gerry Leonidas said. Simpler fonts, without all the details and design elements that come with serifs, would render cleaner on those lower-resolution screens. But “in the recent four or five years, we have significantly higher resolution to get good spacing, clean separation, so you don’t get grayscaling of characters,” Leonidas said. So e-mail clients no longer have to use sans serif fonts.

Under the weight of decades of history, though, they often default to them —  tragically, in Maag’s view.

“The argument that a serif font is too fussy doesn’t cut it anymore,” he said. “You want a font where the letter forms are not ambiguous.” Serif fonts, because of the additional stroke added to the ends of each character, tend to have that quality. See how the serifs in Georgia, below, give each letter its own character.

The key to a good font is legibility, a combination of speed, comprehension, comfort, and a kind of emotional acceptance of the font. The way the letters are shaped, the spaces between them, and the spaces within the letters themselves all determine how easy something is to read.

“When we read, we don’t read letter by letter,” Jose Scaglione, who designed Literata, the custom font for Google Play books, said. “We recognize a group of letters and recognize the interaction that exists between black and the white.”

Bookerly, the new font designed by Maag for the Kindle, is a serif font, which many believe is better for reading long blocks of text, although there is much debate andconflicting research about its merits over its sans counterpart. “Each character shape is very unique,” Maag said of Bookerly. “It creates a harmonious, varied word shape.” According to internal tests done by Amazon, Bookerly reads 2 percent better than previous fonts on speed, comprehension, and emotional acceptance, Maag said.

Literata was designed with the same principles in mind. The designers elongated the ascenders and descenders —  the top of the d and the bottom of the p, for example — to improve recognition of word shape. They also made the characters a bit wider.

Although the daily grind often requires sifting through a novel’s worth of e-mail, we interact with digital communication in a different way than we do books, and ideally fonts should reflect those varied experiences. Bookerly was designed for sustained reading of a single document and takes fatigue into account. For e-mails, we generally scan a couple of paragraphs. Having letters with wide, consistent spacing is most important for quick reading, the designers we interviewed said. A serif font will also make it easier to distinguish between letters.

Even today, users don’t have to subject their eyes to Helvetica’s or Arial’s blunted letter shapes. Gmail’s preferences offer six additional fonts and customization of the width of the letters. Apple Mail has even more font options.

In fact, anyone who knows anything about fonts does change the settings. For his own e-mail experience, Maag likes Verdana (sans serif) or Georgia (serif), which both have more “open” shapes than Helvetica and Arial. Verdana, as you can see below, has more, and more even, spacing between letters. Scaglione also likes Georgia. Chahine has an affinity for Calibri and Verdana. Leonidas used to use Verdana but upgraded to HD screens and now uses a font called Input.

Maybe it’s time for e-mail clients to change the default settings. “I do believe that organizations can certainly improve lives by specifying better fonts, which of course has an effect on how you read your e-mail,” Maag said.

Even better, what about giving the people a Bookerly for e-mail? “In theory, yes. A font for reading e-mails could be possible,” says Scaglione. Dare to dream.

Source: BloombergBusiness