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What is a tracking pixel?

How do tracking pixels optimize marketing and emails while invading user privacy?
Marketing email with tracking pixel embedded.
Tracking pixels, cross site cookies, and ad networks follow users around the web to make marketing more powerful and pernicious. However, these marketing campaigns generally come at the expense of user privacy, as personal information - email open time, location, IP address, and more personal information is tracked. In this blog, we’ll cover how tracking and marketing pixels work, how they’re used in marketing efforts or email tracking apps, and how privacy-forward email products are blocking them.

Tracking pixel overview

Tracking pixels are primarily used in email marketing and on brand marketing sites, like a homepage. Their general use is to track conversions, where the tracking pixel can capture an event like a user loading a page or opening an email. These pixels report back critical information, including the time a user visited a site, the location an email was opened (via IP address), and perhaps even other information, like private information attached to cookies regarding the user’s demographics and identity.On the email side, marketing email is a form of direct marketing that uses email messages to communicate commercial or fundraising messages to an audience. From product updates and launches to sales and discounts, all brands communicate with users via email as a primary channel. In its broadest sense, every email sent to a potential or current customer could be considered email marketing.However, the term “email marketing” is usually used to refer to sending emails with the purpose of enhancing the relationship of a merchant with its current or previous customers, encouraging customer loyalty and repeat business, acquiring new customers, or convincing current customers to purchase something immediately. All of these categories can become critical revenue drivers for a business’ bottom line.

How do tracking pixels work?

A tracking pixel is a type of technology used to collect data about the activity of users on a particular website. This data is then used to provide insights into the effectiveness of online advertising campaigns. The tracking pixel is a small image file that is placed on a web page. When a user visits the page, the tracking pixel is downloaded and the user's activity is tracked. This data is then used to assess the effectiveness of online advertising campaigns. The tracking pixel is a useful tool for marketers as it provides insights into the behavior of users. This data can be used to improve the targeting of online advertising campaigns and to assess the effectiveness of different marketing strategies.Generally, a tracking pixel is a graphic with dimensions of 1x1 pixels that is inserted into an HTML page. The tracking pixel is invisible to the user and is used to track page views or unique visitors. The tracking pixel is typically placed in the header or footer of a web page.The tracking pixel can be used to track how many times the page or email has been viewed, how long the user spent on the page or email, and what actions the user took. The tracking pixel can also be used to track the user's IP address, browser type, and other information. The tracking pixel is typically a 1x1 pixel image that is invisible to the user, but tracking data can be collected from other assets as well, such as larger images, GIF files, or downloaded script files. The tracking pixel can be placed in different locations on the page or email, and can be placed in multiple pages or emails. The tracking pixel is generally used for marketing and advertising purposes, to track the effectiveness of campaigns and to gather data about users.

Why do marketers and senders use them?

Conversion is king for marketers. All marketing campaigns seek a particular goal - or conversion - wherein a user takes an action, like visiting a site, purchasing an item, or using some piece of software. Here are a few reasons why marketers use tracking pixels to collect information:To optimize emails and open rates: There are a number of reasons why marketers track email open rate. One reason is to gauge the effectiveness of their email campaigns. By tracking email open rate, marketers can see how many people are actually opening and reading the emails they are sending. This information can then be used to make adjustments to future campaigns.Another reason why marketers track email open rate is to track the engagement of their subscribers. By knowing how many people are opening and reading their emails, marketers can get a better idea of how engaged their subscribers are. This information can be used to improve the content of future emails, or to make changes to the way emails are delivered.Finally, tracking email open rate can also help marketers identify potential problems with their email campaigns. If a large number of people are not opening emails, or if a particular type of device begins showing open rate issues, it may be an indication that there is something wrong with the campaign. This information can then be used to make changes and improve the campaign.To optimize ad spend: Using Facebook pixels, Google pixels, and other social media marketing pixels allows companies to optimize the dollars they spend on advertising, such as Facebook ads or Google search ads. Tracking pixels are used to optimize ads by measuring ad exposure and determining which ads are being seen by users. By measuring ad exposure, tracking pixels can help ad publishers and ad networks optimize ad campaigns and improve ad performance. Knowing when, where, and how often you visit a particular website provides critical marketing information, such as conversion rates, for companies.To redesign websites, emails, and content: Tracking pixels can be used to optimize websites by helping to measure website traffic. For example, adding pixels on certain pages, functions, or snippets of code can yield critical insights on sales conversion and other user behavior. Metrics products, such as Google Analytics, have sophisticated funnel creation capabilities for measuring exactly how users interact with their sites. Sometimes, more advanced analytics products (including Google Analytics) will track far more information about a website’s user experience, such as heatmaps of where users’ mouses move, operating system or device information, and any information entered into a site’s forms.

How to block tracking pixels

There is generally no completely bulletproof way to block all tracking pixels, but there are some methods you can use to try to reduce the amount of tracking that occurs. One way is to install a browser extension that blocks known tracking pixels (see more examples below, such as the EFF’s Privacy Badger extension). Alternatively, some browsers, such as Firefox (particularly configured with the most privacy-focused settings) and Brave, will automatically block websites from loading tracking pixels, email marketing may not always be prevented in these cases.Another way is to use a private browsing mode, which will prevent some tracking from occurring. Finally, you can clear your cookies regularly, which will prevent some tracking cookies from being placed on your computer. These cookies are often used to make remarketing even more effective: If you load the Facebook pixel on multiple sites, shared cookies will follow you around the web, enabling retargeting and even more invasive marketing campaigns.

Blocking tracking pixels: Browser extensions

We’ll briefly explore the best software for blocking tracking pixels, retargeting pixels, and other invasive spyware embedded inside emails. No matter the browser you use, we highly recommend installing one of these extensions inside your browser. Both of the extensions below are open-source, widely vetted, and used by millions of people to protect privacy.Privacy Badger: Privacy Badger is a popular Chrome browser extension built by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Privacy Browser is completely open-source, with its source code available for viewing and modifying at this GitHub URL. Furthermore, the EFF is extremely highly regarded among technical audiences and the privacy community, suggesting that their product is an excellent addition to a browsing experience for blocking user behavior tracking.Ghostery: Ghostery is another common privacy-focused tracker blocker that operates inside a user’s browser. It is currently available in the Chrome web store and is used by millions of individuals to browse the web more privately. By blocking certain trackers or code from loading, Ghostery claims to not only protect user data, but also improve page speed and load times by reducing the amount of HTML or Javascript required to load a particular webpage. Ghostery is also open-source.

Blocking tracking pixels: Private browsers

Privacy-focused web browsers are a simple, free, and user-friendly way to protect your browser and user data from monetization by tracking pixels. These browsers have similar functionality to the extensions above but build them directly into the user experience of a web browser.Firefox browser: Firefox is an open-source web browser created by the Mozilla Foundation. Firefox boasts hundreds of millions of users, a decades-long history, and credible technical alternatives to Google Chrome, Safari, and other big tech web browsers. Firefox alsoBrave browser: Brave is a privacy-focused web browser used by over 60 million people worldwide. Brave has many features available to users across crypto and privacy, including built-in tracking protection, a built in crypto wallet (Brave Wallet), and various technology to block digital ads and disable all tracking pixel code.

Blocking tracking pixels: Privacy-first email

Above, we outlined some software that will block tracking pixels from collecting information on ad campaigns and website visitors. In this section, we’ll briefly cover email plugins and providers that do this automatically.Email tracking can be even more invasive and hidden; for example, trackers could be hidden inside small or large images inside emails, or inside other content that email marketers include, such as a custom GIF. When the email is loadedDuckDuckGo email forwarding: DuckDuckGo recently launched an email forwarding solution to block trackers inside emails. Although the service will pass emails from an anonymous, disposable @duck email address to an inbox of your choosing, it does not provide a full inbox replacement.Apple Mail Privacy Protection: Newer versions of Apple’s iOS and macOS mail apps will try to block tracking pixels by preloading emails. This method is not completely foolproof, but it does yield significantly less reliable data (as emails may be preloaded in the background), so marketers can no longer depend on this source of user data.Skiff Mail: Skiff Mail is privacy-first, end-to-end encrypted email provider that uses proxy servers to block sensitive user information, such as IP address, device information, and more. Skiff also integrates collaboration, notes, and file sharing apps (Pages and Drive) for an entire privacy-first collaboration suite. Finally, Skiff’s encryption and mail client code is open-source, giving users more transparency into how the products work and protect users.

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