September 29, 2023

Decoding email performance: Is it human or machine?

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🖱️ Understanding non-human interaction and its impact on your email and newsletter marketing efforts

From Open Rate to Click Rate to Conversion Rate, each of these metrics offers insights, but with evolving challenges.

Metrics can help provide a quantitative, measurable performance for your campaigns.

Whether you’re building reports, monitoring engagement or conducting experiments, finding out what your readers are engaging with — like what they’re clicking — is crucial to understanding and improving your newsletter and email marketing.

Over the years, new developments have added an asterisk to some of these metrics: A “Take-this-number-with-a-grain-of-salt”.

Metrics commonly used in email and newsletter marketing: Open Rate, Click Rate, Conversion Rate.

Here's a dive into some primary metrics and some challenges they face:

Open Rate

Apple Mail Privacy Protection (Apple MPP) brought a new layer of complexity to Open Rate.

Apple MPP, while ensuring user privacy, can lead to artificially inflated open rates.


Because every email sent to a user with this feature enabled is marked as "opened," even if the recipient hasn't viewed it.

It's crucial for marketers to gauge how many subscribers are likely using Apple MPP. By working with your Email Service Provider (ESP) and understanding its functionalities, you can estimate a range – a "ceiling" and a "floor" – to determine a more representative Open Rate.

Conversion Rate

Conversion Rate, vital for measuring campaign success, is influenced by ever-evolving technological shifts and user privacy trends.

The iOS 17 update has cast a spotlight on link tracking nuances. Take, for instance, advertising parameters like FBCLID and GCLID. These unique identifiers, essential for click tracking, also underpin the creation of specialized data models and “lookalike” audiences.

But iOS 17 introduces a wrinkle. Apple's removal of specific link data, when within its Apple Mail client or during private Safari sessions, affects more than just click tracking. This change ripples through to attribution models, alters promotional dynamics and can even impact website-user interactions.

Consider this: If you're sculpting audience profiles based on user engagement patterns, the iOS 17 update might dilute or distort these insights.

The overarching takeaway? While the immediate impact of the iOS 17 update may not be evident in your email metrics today, its ripple effects across your website and broader marketing initiatives could circle back, impacting email marketing strategies in other ways. As well as potential discrepancies in recording and reporting conversions might arise.

Staying updated and understanding your tools and systems is essential for a clear view of conversion data.

Click Rate

Click Rate was always a key metric, but became even more relied on once Open Rate become more impacted by updates like Apple MPP.

But now, we're seeing another challenge: bot clicks.

As technology advances, bot clicks have emerged as a significant factor. Often driven by security software, these bots "click" on links within emails to verify their safety. While this is a protective measure, it has the unintended consequence of inflating click data.

Understanding the nature and source of these bots is pivotal to ensure that the Click Rate accurately reflects genuine reader engagement, rather than automated security processes.

We’ve discussed Open Rate and iOS 17 and Link Tracking previously, but let’s dive deeper into Click Rate and some of its impact for a moment:

🤖 What are email click bots?

Email click bots predominantly stem from security software, like Barracuda or Microsoft Defender.

What is the primary goal for email click bots?

To protect email recipients from malicious links. However, in doing so, bots often skew or inflate metrics because their “clicks” mimic genuine user activity, and your ESP doesn’t know the difference straight away.

What is the process?

You sent out your newsletter, or email marketing campaign. Before reaching the recipient, the links within are often first routed through your Email Service Provider's (ESP) server.

These bots, in their mission to vet the safety of links, click on them. This activity then gets logged by the ESP as a “click,” even if a human subscriber hasn't interacted with the link.

A parallel with Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP)

Think of it as the Apple MPP scenario but for clicks.

Just as Apple MPP marks every email as "opened", these bots mark links as "clicked", making it challenging to discern genuine engagement.

What do email bot clicks mean for Click Rate?

Inflated metrics.

Bots click links to see where the links go, and therefore get logged by the ESP as “clicked”. Even if you didn’t click any links.

Since email bot clicks often are deployed from security programs to scan and click every link in an email to double check it’s secure, and if it finds anything suspicious, it may flag the email or mark it as spam to prevent the recipient from opening it.

As you can see, this process can rack up false bot clicks that people often confuse for real audience engagement, leading to inflated figures.

➕ Bonus observation

It's also important to understand the landscape of your audience.

For instance, B2B emails often witness heightened bot clicks, given the oftentimes stricter security protocols in corporate settings. Similarly, emails directed to ".edu" or ".gov" domains might experience increased bot traffic due to industry-specific security measures.

This doesn’t mean if you’re not working in a B2B industry that you’re all set. Remember, updates like Apple MPP impacted users across industries, enterprise or consumer. Sometimes, just a lot of humans don’t want to have their mail activity logged and it didn’t matter what their email address ended in (.edu, etc.) or what industry.

🛠 Strategies to handle email bot, or non-human generated, activity

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Addressing bot activity in emails is like conducting an email Turing test.

You're constantly on the lookout, trying to distinguish human engagement from bot behavior. Here's a systematic approach to help:

Assess the situation

Begin by analyzing your metrics and gathering answers to these questions:

  • How many subscribers consistently open all delivered emails?
  • Which subscribers click every link in your emails?
  • Are there patterns in the timing of these clicks, like immediate engagement post-delivery or simultaneous clicks on all links?

Once your initial observations are jotted down, proceed with these advanced strategies:

Advanced strategies for identifying bot activity:

  • Identify known bot or machine-opens. When it comes to Apple Mail and Google, and depending on your ESPs functionality, you may be able to identify via User Agent. The most common one we’ve seen is:
  • Apple Mail User Agent = Mozilla/5.0.
  • Google User Agent = Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/42.0.2311.135 Safari/537.36 Edge/12.246 Mozilla/5.0.
  • IP analysis: Your ESP might offer insights into IP addresses that engage with your emails. Recognize known IP addresses or ranges associated with high bot activity. The IP addresses might become more apparent once you analyze some of the data, and your ESP might already be doing some of this on their end.

Key takeaways

It can be difficult to determine if engagement in your emails is coming from a human or a machine.

However, the journey to cleaner, more accurate metrics can be smoother with the following pointers:

  • Email list health: Regularly update and maintain your list, focusing on active, opted-in subscribers.
  • Use email segmenting tools: Create dynamic groups in your ESP, like a "potential bots" group based on some of the discoveries you found in your analysis. This aids in discerning genuine engagement from bot activity, and remove them from campaign analysis for a better idea of engagement metrics.
  • List verification: Think about using third-party services periodically to ensure the authenticity of your email addresses.
  • Routine clean up: Be it via sunset policies or engagement campaigns, periodically clear out dormant or non-engaging subscribers.
  • Double check your workflows and automations: Especially those triggered by Opens or Clicks, as bot activity can skew their outcomes.
  • Stay updated: As bots and technologies evolve, so should your strategies. Regularly revisit and tweak your detection techniques.

All in all, you want to be proactive. Look out for patterns such as clicking all links or opening all delivered mail. And once identified, pivot your campaign analyses to focus on genuine human activity, ensuring the most accurate metrics.

🎁 Wrapping up

Navigating the ever-evolving landscape of email and digital marketing often feels like walking a tightrope.

On one side, we see commendable advancements like Apple MPP and robust bot security measures, driven by the intention to protect user privacy and ensure their digital safety. These measures are essential in today's world, where data breaches and cyber threats are rampant.

On the flip side, these very advancements can cloud the clarity of metrics and pose challenges for marketers who rely on accurate data to inform their strategies.

Yes, it's a balance. The scales tilt between ensuring users feel safe and protected in their digital interactions and providing businesses with the transparent metrics they need to operate effectively.

What's essential for marketers today is to recognize and respect this balance.

Instead of viewing these measures solely as obstacles, it's beneficial to see them as markers of an evolving, more conscientious digital space. By understanding the nature and extent of non-human interactions in our metrics, we can analyze more discerningly, make decisions more wisely, and, ultimately, respect the user's digital experience.

The challenges posed by non-human interactions, though significant, also present a chance to innovate, adapt and grow. Embracing them means championing both user privacy and marketing excellence — a balance that will define the future of digital engagement.

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