Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tracking email receipts through images

I pinched a technique from EMail marketeers last week. It goes by the cool name of a web beacon or web bug and is used to detect when someone reads (or at least opens) an email.

Our application is like a work flow system and it sends out a whole bunch of emails. I'm a little sceptical about who reads them, especially since I've got a bunch of rules that automatically ignore about 20-30 emails a day.

For a new email alert to a distribution list, I decided to code in a beacon. 

First for each email sent, it grabs a unique identifier. You can use a plain sequence, but I opted for a GUID. It is harder for anyone to guess other values for GUIDs and it is easy for me to tell which ones come from the test environment and which ones from production.

      v_guid_vc varchar2(32);
      v_guid_vc := sys_guid();

Then, the email HTML body included an image link

v_body := v_body || 
  'img src="http://'||v_host||'/PKG_MAIL.image?i_val='||v_guid_vc||''' ';

These mails go out to internal users, and Outlook is the primary email tool. The technique doesn't work for users reading their mail through Outlook webmail or the iOS email. The host is behind our firewall and will be unreachable from a home email account. But our company standard Outlook config will happily try to render that image when the user opens the email at their desk. And when that happens, it tries to get the image content by calling PKG_MAIL.image and telling us the GUID we associated with that email.

When we get that image request, we record the GUID, timestamp, IP address, user agent and cookie data. If the user happens to be logged into our system at that time, the cookie will tell us who the reader is. If not, the IP address will give us a clue. [When someone logs into the application, we record the userid and IP address, so we can see if someone logged in from that address recently.] Once we've recorded that data, we return a standard image content, irrespective of the GUID passed in.

No one has to click any link for the picture rendering / email read to be logged.

Rather than sending one email to ten recipients (with the same GUID), you will be better off sending ten variations with their own GUIDs. If you are sending the email to a specific individual, you may not need that excess logging (unless you want to track forwarded emails too). 

Personal email clients, such as Thunderbird and GMail, tend not to open remote images by default, offering a vague "privacy" warning. This is what they are warning you about. It means that Dominos probably know that I read their email vouchers about 5 minutes before ordering a pizza. And they will know whether I am using Thunderbird or Chome, and a bunch of other stuff about me. But, cheaper pizza !