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Stupid Media Watch: NY Times Turns Into the Onion

1/6/15
 
By Ken Magill
 
Please tell me a piece the New York Times ran on email open-rate tracking in December was parody. It was parody, right?
 
On Dec. 24, the Times ran a piece by reporter Kate Murphy headlined “Ways to Avoid Email Tracking.” The article positioned the common email practice of tracking opens and various related metrics as nefarious and possibly threatening behavior.
 
“Merely clicking or tapping to open a message can transmit to the sender not only that you opened it, but also where you were when you did so and on what device, among other things,” the piece said.
 
Fair enough. But of course, this being the New York Times, we can’t have a simple, pedestrian marketing-reporting tool that allows senders to interact with receivers more effectively to the benefit of both. We must have eeevil marketing: Muwahahahahahahahahahaha. Oh, and at least one wildly implausible scenario. Make that two.
 
“The technology has been used by email marketers and Nigerian fraudsters for more than a decade. But more recently, it has become a tool used by employers, sales people, bill collectors, lawyers, political candidates, nonprofit fund-raisers and maybe also that guy you met at a bar and regrettably gave your contact information to.”
 
Maybe also that guy you met at a bar? Yeah. That makes sense. Joe the Stalker is collecting women’s email addresses at bars, loading them into his Constant Contact account and monitoring open rates.
 
“Wow. That message with the picture of a doll’s head with a knife stuck in it got a ton of opens, but the click-throughs were low,” thinks Joe the Stalker. “Maybe I should try segmenting out the Doll-Knife-Head openers and sending them an A/B split test of the ‘I-Can-Make-You-Love-Me’ and the ‘If-I-Can’t-Have-You-No-One-Can’ offers.”
 
And notice Murphy’s lead up to the ridiculous guy-at-a-bar scenario. It apparently doesn’t occur to her that sales people, bill collectors, lawyers, political candidates and nonprofit fund-raisers using commercial email are marketers, the very people she conflated with Nigerian fraudsters in the previous sentence.
 
And employers? Why would they track open rates? Either employees respond to emails timely and appropriately or they don’t. And you don’t need to track open rates to discern it. And if there is an employer tracking employee email open rates, so what? What’s the boss going to do? Tell his direct reports to enable graphics?
 
Murphy then offers a primer on how email-open tracking occurs, leading into the obligatory fear quote by a so-called expert:
 
“Here’s how it works: The sender of the email embeds a so-called web bug or pixel tracker into the content of the message or possibly inside an attached PDF, Word or PowerPoint. These bugs are 1-by-1 pixel images (tinier than tiny), which are invisible to the recipient. When the email or document is opened, the bug triggers your device to contact the sender’s server and convey all sorts of information,” the piece said.
 
“’What it does is lure you into an online environment and the collection that goes on there without alerting you that it’s happening,’ said Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington Law School in Seattle who specializes in privacy issues.”
 
No one is luring anyone anywhere, for crying out loud. They’re simply trying to figure out which of their messages resonate so they can craft better pitches. And in any case, Calo’s marketing experience would be? Wild guess: zero.
 
Then, maybe he was a retail stock boy in college and determined early on that end caps are a bourgeoisie attempt to use marketing research and sales techniques to exert unfair influence over consumers and expand the ruling class’s capital.
 
To get an idea of how Calo thinks, check out the following excerpt from an abstract of one of his papers:
 
“Today’s firms fastidiously study consumers and, increasingly, personalize every aspect of their experience. They can also reach consumers anytime and anywhere, rather than waiting for the consumer to approach the marketplace. These and related trends mean that firms can not only take advantage of a general understanding of cognitive limitations, but can uncover and even trigger consumer frailty at an individual level.”
 
It is garbage like this that has me seriously questioning whether it will be worth the money to send our son to college. The moment he came back spouting phrases like “cognitive limitations” and “consumer frailty at the individual level” I wouldn’t be able to help myself from exposing his physical frailty at the individual level by smacking him in the head.
 
Is the concept of voluntary, value-for-value transactions completely lost on these people?
 
Murphy then offers tips to avoid email tracking, including going offline before opening messages:
 
“And don’t click on any attachment while connected, nor a link within the message, even if it’s the unsubscribe button. ‘The unsubscribe link is the most clicked item in emails so it’s often what they use to track you,’ said H.D. Moore, a senior researcher with the Internet security consultant Rapid7. ‘As soon as you click on it, they know everything about you.’”
 
Everything? Um, no “they” don’t. And just who the hell is “they” anyway? Pornographers? Nigerian scammers? Pharmaceuticals spammers? Walmart? It’s difficult to believe Moore’s quote was delivered in full context.
 
Spammers have been said to monitor unsubscribes to verify addresses are real, but law-abiding marketers by definition simply must remove the email addresses of unsubscribers from their files, not collect “everything about them.”
 
Murphy then illustrates how utterly removed she is from any sense of reality:
 
“Sales people who track emails through services like Yesware and Tout-App say the practice allows them to call customers soon after they have opened messages, while the pitch is still fresh. Or perhaps they can conveniently bump into customers at Starbucks or drop by their office, where the sales person knows the customer just opened an email.”
 
Conveniently bump into customers at Starbucks or drop by their office? Who the hell even thinks like this? Does Murphy imagine people checking email on their smartphones while in line and a sales rep magically appearing before them in a puff of smoke? Are marketers in Murphy land building email lists of only people within a 1,000-foot radius?
 
Fortunately for marketers, anyone stupid enough to take Murphy’s reporting seriously on this issue is also too stupid to be anything other than a troublesome, resource-sucking customer. They aren’t worth the effort to get and keep their business. Murphy may have just helped weed some of them out.
 
Hat tip: Dela Quist.
 
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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Stephanie Miller (@stephanieSAM)
Date: 2015-01-07 10:24:09
Subject: The trouble is...

That your column doesn't run next to the original NYTimes article, and so people actually TRUST what the NYTimes says. Thanks for calling it out. Maybe we need every reader of the Magill Report to send this article to the editors at NYTimes. Think we can crowdsource a correction?! I'll do it now. Join me! (I'm serious!)

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