Click tracking in commercial bulk e-mail

Direct marketing isn’t rocket science, but it’s not the simplest thing in the world either. And it pays to learn from example, especially when that example is the Direct Marketing Association, the trade organization of the direct marketing industry.

For example: The subject line is clear and authoritative and speaks directly to things I want. It says Improve deliverability and drive response rates

Well, that’s basically my job description right there, so of course I opened it immediately.

Inside, I found some not-terribly-exciting business-like graphics. They weren’t that important, though. Even if I hadn’t loaded the images, I’d have gotten the gist of the offer immediately: A $29 webinar on improving your e-mail marketing.

More importantly, it’s free for members, and we all know about the power of free by now. I doubt the DMA expects many people to pay the $29, but they use the price to send a signal that this free webinar is valuable, and that you’re special.

And of course, there’s a big red button that says REGISTER NOW. Which, of course, I clicked.

And that’s where the problem appeared. The DMA, like countless other bulk e-mail senders, uses click tracking to determine who clicks a link in what message at what time. They do it by having every link in an e-mail go through a special redirect URL that tracks the relevant data and assembles reports. It’s convenient for the sender, and it’s largely transparent to the end-user.

It looks a little sketchy, but most people won’t really care about the fact that a link that will wind up at some sub-page of is making a quick stop over at

That works great, unless you’re sending that e-mail message to someone with a restrictive workplace network policy. For example, me. Instead of a signup process for that appealing online seminar, I got a warning about misusing corporate resources and trying to visit prohibited web pages.

Not every recipient will have a firewall set like mine, but do you really want to turn away anyone, especially when there are other ways to track clicks?

For example, instead of using a redirect to a dedicated domain, the DMA could have sewn their tracking system into their main web host, which certainly has its own tracking system internally. Each recipient would be assigned a unique ID which would be appended to every link, like so:

Of course, that would require very close collaboration between the web development team and the e-mail marketing team. In many organizations, web and e-mail don’t work as closely together as they should. They have slightly different goals: The web team wants overall traffic, the e-mail team is focused on click-through. Both want conversion, of course, but the way they measure all the ancillary details makes it hard for them to get on the same page technically.

So they wind up with two tracking systems that don’t work well together, and that leads not only to missed opportunities—people turned away by errors in the click forwarding system—but also to less effective reporting. The e-mail team will know they got 1,000 click-throughs, and the web team might know they got 100 sign-ups. But will the two teams know how many of the signups are driven by the e-mail and how many are a result of organic traffic, or the front page navigation, or SEO?

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