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When an open is not a sign of interest

A lot of people, including myself, are using opens as one of the measures of engagement. This, as a general rule, is not a bad measure. However, there are people who will open email not because they’re interested in it, but because they know it is spam.
Take, for instance, the email address I acquired in 1993. Yes, I still have this address. I stopped using it to sign up for lists in 1999 and stopped using it for most of the rest of my mail around 2001. This address, though, is on any number of spam mailing lists. The spam that gets through is usually sent by hard-core spammers. The ISP that hosts that mailbox uses Communigate Pro to filter mail, so much of the casual spam is filtered.
Generally, if I open an email (and load images or click through) on that account it is only in order to track down a spammer. For instance, I’m getting a lot of spam there from affiliates offering me the opportunity to purchase printing services for a very low price. I have actually been opening the mail, and clicking through. But I’m not clicking through because I’m interested in purchasing. I’m clicking through to see if my reports to abuse@ printer are resulting in any action against the spammers. (They’re not).
The thing is, though, I know that by clicking through on ads, I’ve now been promoted by the spammer to the “clicks on emails! it’s a live address!” list. Which only means I’m going to get more spam from them. Lucky me.
Using clicks and opens as a measure of engagement isn’t necessarily bad. But when using them you have to understand the limitations of the measurement and that what you may think it’s telling you isn’t actually what it’s telling you.

8 comments

  1. Maarten Oelering says

    Your behavior is perfectly in line with the latest MAAWG survey:
    “Those who consider themselves experts or very experienced with Internet security – and
    who also tend to be younger – are more likely than those who feel inexperienced to have
    opened spam (52% vs. 38%).”

  2. Who is clicking on spam? says

    […] open spam mails to see where they come from, or why they made it to the inbox. See also this post at Word to the Wise. But why do others open spam, or even act on it? While most users who have […]

  3. Remy Bergsma says

    Nice one Laura, and very true: opens and clicks should definitely not be the only metrics you use to measure the success (or failure for that matter) of email campaigns.

  4. Mike Hillyer says

    I think one of the keys is to look at these as relative metrics. It’s less about what the number is right now as it is about where the number is going. Is it up/down? Are we getting better or worse at engaging our audience? Along the same vein, FBLs are not just about subscribing complainers but getting feedback on our campaigns.

  5. Dave Smith says

    I agree with the overall premise of the article: Using clicks and opens as a measure of engagement isn’t necessarily bad however one must understand the limitations of the measurement. However I think the example you used is an edge case scenario. You are an unique individual (in a good way! 🙂 in that you’re experienced with spam and internet security. I would venture to say that the average person doesn’t open mail because they know it’s spam.
    Perhaps a better example of deceiving engagement would be opening mail from a store or organization that one no longer recognizes based on age list and/or implicit permission.
    Dunno. Just wanted to toss in my $.02

  6. laura says

    My scenario is an edge case, but it’s one of the dangerous ones. This is a spamtrap that is opening and clicking on mail. I’ve heard a number of people give the advice that if you age out a list, and stop mailing addresses that have not opened or clicked in X period of time you will age off the spamtraps. This isn’t always true. (oh, if only it were true then I wouldn’t be getting 15 copies of the same spam to one set of my spamtraps)

  7. James Hoddinott says

    @Dave: actually based on what I see most days, I’d say the average person opens mail that *is* spam but their mind somehow doesn’t quite compute it as being spam. This is particularly true when well known brands are included (free Dell laptop anyone?).
    Interestingly, I got a newsletter from a large UK online retailer overnight. It was only after a few minutes that it occurred to me that the domain it had been sent to was one I had let lapse some 5 years ago and had only recently re-registered (~3 weeks ago). If the 0% open rates from me on all their campaigns wasn’t a clue, you’d think the utter lack of delivery would have been!

  8. Who is clicking on spam? | Postmastery says

    […] open spam mails to see where they come from, or why they made it to the inbox. See also this post at Word to the Wise. But why do others open spam, or even act on it? While most users who have […]

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