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Stealth-Tracking and the Worst Sales Call of the Year

The salesperson on the phone introduced herself and continued by saying "my technology tells me that you opened my email . . ."

I cut her off, proclaiming perhaps too loudly that we are not interested in doing business with any company that checks up on whether we've opened our email.

(It's possible to send regular email that requests a return receipt from the reader. That's not what this is about.)

I'm not a novice. I know that the stealth technology exists to perform this kind of tracking.

I was taken back at how brazen and aggressive was the effort to interest me, and by extension my clients, in what I feel is basic eaves-dropping. Maybe it's marginally legal, but I was always taught that it isn't polite!

When we give our email address out online most of us know by now that we will likely receive email from the organization to which it was surrendered. We may rightly be concerned that our email address could be shared beyond that organization and that it might become food for more spam. Look at what happened to the folks who donated to assist the Schindler family with legal fees. The New York Times reports that their email addresses are for sale through a direct marketing firm. Whatever side of that issue you might be on, it gives email marketing a bad name.

I like to both send and receive HTML formatted email. It's easier to read. Many of us have not realized that when we open an HTML formatted email we may be communicating with a database.

Any graphic and/or any link embedded in an HTML email can have an extended name that can be used for stealth tracking. To find it you have to look at the raw source code for the email. In a link you may find a '?' character followed by a series of characters. The formula was first used extensively by affiliate programs in order to give credit for a purchase to the website that referred the buyer. The larger the number of characters after the '?', the more complex the information that may be passed to the database.

Another, more up front way of using this tracking technology is to add visible parameters to the link such as /clickthru/redir/5458/10780/rms. I'm pretty sure this tells the database that reader number 10780 (me) clicked on and was redirected to the actual link behind entry number 5456 on the database. The sender of the email now knows that I had at least a passing interest in "a free weblog hosting service for civil society organizations working in the humanitarian, development, and human rights sectors."

There is no doubt that many nonprofits and the companies that serve them use stealth technology in their donor relations management. Most still do it in subtle ways to which most of us would not object. I have an affiliate account with that applies some of these principles. I've used a less sophisticated version of basic affiliate tracking for a couple of clients. And I've set up simple counters on HTML email graphics so a client would know how many of their appeal emails were actually opened. I believe that given the volume of Internet data, these techniques are essential. You can't manage what you can't count.

My fear is that by brazenly eaves-dropping some companies will cause limitations to be legislated that will make it harder for nonprofits to work the Internet legitimately. That's the threat.

Which company called me? If I publish their name, or the names of the nonprofit clients they tout, it might just help them. Call me and I'll tell you. And I won't stealth-track anything about you. I don't even have caller id.

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