Constant Contact Spyware?

Nether senders nor receivers can opt out of per-user tracking.

Last month, I switched to Constant Contact for managing my subscriber list for my LawLawLaw newsletter. I did so primarily because I wanted better statistics about bounces than I was getting from Mailman. And I was willing to pay to get these stats.

I read Constant Contact’s privacy policy. And I even monitor it for changes. You are always going to give up some privacy in exchange for user statistics, but I saw nothing hugely objectionable in the privacy policy, so I signed up.

Here’s an email exchange between me and one of my friends about how Constant Contact behaves like spyware. This is my reply to my friend’s email. I’ll summarize below.

Greetings,

Awesome feedback.  Inline responses below.

At 02/24/2007 08:39 PM, you wrote:

>All right - some confessions:
>
>I would make a terrible "Nielsen" viewer.  I never rate my
>Netflix rentals.  I dislike any sort of special "loyalty"
>discount cards (regardless of what they might be called).
>I hate it when Radio Shack asks for my phone number on a
>cash purchase.  I generally have an engineer's disdain for
>marketing (it's a gut reaction - I probably know better, but
>I can't help it).  I dislike the direction RFID use seems to
>be going.  Et cetera.

Ditto.  I always say "no thank you" when stores ask me for my phone 
number or whatever.  I don't use loyalty programs unless they will 
save me a ton of money.  So we belong to the loyalty program at the 
hardware store.  [My wife] belongs to the CVS one, and I think she gets 
some discounts from that.  Two days ago, I was in Radio Shack, and 
they wanted me to join their loyalty program, which would have saved 
me $10 on the spot.  But when I asked if I'd have to carry a card 
with me (something I hate), they said I wouldn't and that they could 
just "look up my account by my social security number" (something I 
hate even more).  So I declined, even though it would have saved me money.

>Perhaps from all this you might guess that I generally dislike
>companies collecting data on what I do or don't like.

I agree.  In fact, your email just reminded me to cancel my Upromise 
account, the biggest joke of all loyalty programs.

By the way, you know the current security breach regarding TJ Maxx 
and stolen credit card numbers?  Do you know why TJ Maxx keeps your 
credit card number on file in the first place?  After your purchase 
is completed, they have no reason whatsoever to keep your credit card 
on file.  The transaction is done, the number is no longer 
needed.  But they keep it so that they can identify you, track you, 
and sell this data to catalog vendors etc.  I'd bet they make as much 
money from selling data as they do from selling products.  I might 
start paying with cash everywhere.

>Well, it turns out that I just upgraded my version of Eudora
>(at least, I assume that's why I'm now seeing what I am).
>When I hover over a URL where the link text does not match
>the actual URL, it pops up a warning.  That makes it pretty
>clear that all of the links in your LawLawLaw newsletter go through
>rs6.net, presumably for tracking purposes.

At least you're using an email reader that alerts you to potentially 
fraudulent email.  I noticed that too and thought it was odd.  I 
didn't even know that Constant Contact did per-user tracking.  More 
on this below.

>So, it turns out that my dislike of being tracked even extends
>to friends.  I did visit a few of the links by cutting/pasting
>the text, but none via click-thru.  I did think it was particularly
>ironic that I noticed this in the issue where you have this story:
>
> > Better Privacy Without Personalized Search (2007-11-18)
> > "If you're not thrilled with the idea of Google associating every 
> search you make with your account, you can permanently disable 
> Personalized Search."
> > < 
> http://lifehacker.com/software/google/permanently-disable-google-personalized-search-229673.php  
>  >

I admit that it is ironic.

>So, can I convince you to not track the links people follow?
>Or can you convince me that my outlook is wrong or outdated or
>misguided, or perhaps even hopeless (as Scott McNealy has said,
>"you have no privacy - get over it")?  That you use the collected
>info to hone LawLawLaw into the most value packed
>Technology/Law/Baseball/Rock'n'Roll newsletter your attractive
>audience has ever seen?
>
>Or at least tell me that the software you use gives
>you no choice in the matter.

I switched to Constant Contact because I wanted better data about how 
many people were reading LawLawLaw and how many email addresses were 
bouncing.  Using Mailman was like sending my data into a black 
hole.  It's hard to have "constant contact" if your address book is 
out of date.  I've learned some very interesting things.  For 
example, the industry averages are as follows:

bounces - 18.3%
opens - 37.0%
clicks - 8.9%
forwards - 3.3%

So I was shocked to find out that only about 25% of LawLawLaw 
subscribers actually open the newsletter.  For my client newsletter, 
only 40% are opened!  This means that I'm going to have to send the 
client newsletter by USPS mail as well as by email (as some of the 
info in my client newsletter is quite critical).  Regarding 
LawLawLaw, the low open rate means that I'm going to work harder to 
improve the newsletter.  I think that's a good outcome.

I have opened a trouble ticket with Constant Contact to specifically 
ask if per-user tracking can be turned off.  As you correctly 
guessed, each individual message (and link within each message) is 
assigned a unique tracking code.  So I can (ostensibly) tell which 
users are bouncing, opening, clicking, and forwarding.  I'd be quite 
happy with general numbers on opens, clicks, and forwards.  For 
obvious reasons, I need specifics for bounces.  But I think it should 
be an option to do per-user tracking on opens, clicks, and forwards, 
an option that both the sender and the receiver can set.

Plain text is one option, but I've just about given up on trying to 
send plain text email.  I think the only people who complain about 
HTML email are those still reading email in Emacs or the like.  To 
answer one of your questions, I think that you are in the minority in 
complaining about these issues.  Of 250 readers, only 2 people 
complained: you and [deleted].  It doesn't mean that the issues are not 
important.  They are.  But I concede to being in the minority when it 
comes to caring about such issues.

You may also appreciate this, somewhat related, article:

Don't Fear The Technology
<http://www.erikjheels.com/2007-01-02-dont-fear-the-technology.html>

Although I've changed my mind since writing that articled and just 
purchased a MacBook.  Now THAT's being open minded!

Regards,
Erik

In case you missed it, here’s my main point:

I’d be quite happy with general numbers on opens, clicks, and forwards. For obvious reasons, I need specifics for bounces. But I think it should be an option to do per-user tracking on opens, clicks, and forwards, an option that both the sender and the receiver can set.

I asked Constant Contact, and they said that there is no way to disable per-user tracking on clicks. I would add that there is a way to disable tracking but that Constant Contact has chosen not to implement this feature. I could send plain text emails, but then I’d not get stats on bounces. Individual users can choose to receive plain text email. I could also include URLs but make them un-clickable, but that would defeat the purpose of having URLs in the first place.

I want to send styled email because the vast majority of readers use and prefer it – and it allows me to communicate in more interesting ways. If only 25% of my subscribers are opening my newsletter, I’m going to have to try a lot harder to improve it. But is just silly not to let either the sender or the receiver disable per-user tracking of URL clicks. If we don’t need to know what URLs are clicked, why does Constant Contact need to know? And if Eudora warns that an email message might be spyware, it doesn’t matter what your privacy policy says. It’s spyware.

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  1. jwriter says...

    I would like to point out that there are many categories of Constant Contact “users”. Some of these terms I have pulled out of CC’s privacy policy and some are speculation on my part.

    - CC website visitors
    - CC website visitors who follow links to affiliates, partners, advertisers, and other third parties.
    - CC paying customers who create mail lists
    - recipients of solicited or unsolicited e-mail from mail list owners
    - e-mail recipients with HTML turned on (or off)
    - e-mail recipients who choose to “update profile/e-mail address”
    - e-mail recipients who click links that are logged by RS6.NET

    My point here is that people tend to be vague about user context when they discuss information gathering and privacy. The CC privacy policy is also vague about this.

    We know that CC uses cookies, web beacons, and click tracking (RS6) but which of the above user scenarios do these apply to? Which user types are having their information shared with “third parties”, “affiliates”, and their ad management partner, DoubleClick?

    This is relevant because people need to make decisions. For example, what does an e-mail recipient do with a message – read it, respond, or just drag it into the trash?

  2. Pingback: Feed-To-Email With FeedBlitz at Erik J. Heels

  3. Boley says...

    Interesting story. With some ISPs implementing all or nothing spam blocking services it is quite possible due to the tracking URL’s many of your newsletters are not reaching your customers. Today I found that when testing an “info” mail link on a web site that AT&T was blocking customers emails becuase they weren’t filling out the body of the message. (They figured if they sent an empty email to info@mycompany.com, with their return address we’d get the point to contact them.) We never get them.

  4. Jim says...

    My best guess is that most people who do email campaigns want to know how effective the campaign is. Tracking the url clicks is a must. Unfortunately you are the minority so until enough people complain that is how it is going to be.

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