Email Tracking Pixels 101: How Do They Work and Why Are They Used?

According to SmarterHQ, 72% of consumers say they won’t engage with emails that don’t have personalized content. Email tracking pixels are a safe and secure tool that you can use to supercharge your email marketing campaigns while giving your recipients exactly what they want.

Although privacy-minded critics sometimes refer to them as “spy pixels,” the truth behind what email tracking pixels do and how they work may surprise you.

Here is everything you need to know about how email tracking pixels benefit marketing teams and their subscribers, with plenty of real-world takeaways. 

What is an email tracking pixel, and what does it do?

An email tracking pixel is a 1px by 1px square image created by a line of code inserted into an email message. It’s not evident to the recipient that email tracking pixels are present because they are often transparent and placed somewhere discreet in the header or footer of the email.

These days, nearly every sophisticated business (any small business that uses email automation software such as Constant Contact or Mailchimp has access to them) to help marketers measure their open and click rates, discover traffic sources, track conversions, and collect other valuable data points, uses tracking pixels. Some email tracking pixels have more advanced, strategic functions, such as remarketing pixels, which deliver the user personalized advertising around the Internet.

What are the benefits of tracking pixels for sales and marketing teams?

The benefits of tracking pixels for sales and marketing teams include gaining access to helpful analytics such as:

  • How many people open your emails, how many people click through links, and what is the general success rate of each campaign?
  • Which headlines, preview text, and even sent times/days will generate more opens and clicks?
  • What percentage of your audience reads email on their phones, desktop computers, or tablets? 
  • Which email providers do recipients use? 
  • Where is your audience located? 

With this information, sales and marketing teams can focus on narrowing down their audience (through filters that identify engaged subscribers, predicted demographics, and general location information), making their content more relevant, and providing a better overall experience for their recipients. 

Additionally, email tracking pixels help ensure your ads promote click-through rates and sales. These two numbers work together to paint a picture of your audience’s expectations and whether or not your emails fulfill them. 

For example, if the content was enticing enough for them to click through but didn’t result in a sale, you may need to adjust the ad to frame the product better so you don’t waste their time with an irrelevant offer. Or, if the ad has a low click-through rate but a high percentage of direct sales, then you can adjust the ad to promote the product in a way that helps the recipient better understand its benefits. 

This is also why email tracking pixels are essential for finding which headlines, offers, and CTAs work best for your audience.

What do the experts say?

According to Liz Willitz, Expert Email Strategist and Content Marketing Manager at AWeber:

“One of the best ways to optimize future campaigns is by using email tracking pixels to measure results of A/B tests (or split tests). 

“A/B testing is a method by which you can scientifically test the effectiveness of your email marketing. When A/B testing, you create two versions (called variants) of an email to determine which email statistically performs better. Once you find which email variant performs best, you can update your email strategy to include the winning email.

“The key: Only test one difference or variant at a time.

“For example, let’s say you create two identical emails with one difference — one contains a blue call-to-action button while the other contains an orange call-to-action button. You send each email to 50% of your email list. You discover that the email with the blue button earned 26% more clicks than the orange button. From here on out, you decide to use blue buttons in your emails.

“Without email tracking pixels, A/B testing isn’t possible.”


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How does a tracking pixel work? 

A tracking pixel works when triggered by a web page visitor or email view. The browser will process that information and follow the code’s link to the data analytics software connected to the invisible pixel.

How does email open tracking work? 

Email open tracking works the same way that website analytics or paid social media ads do. All these digital marketing tactics depend on pixels to register and monitor behavior.

An email tracking pixel will fire when someone views the page it lives on. Marketing and sales teams can either manually insert a line of code to add an email tracking pixel into the message. Alternatively, they can use third-party software to create and insert pixels into individual messages or entire campaigns and then analyze the results. 

Email tracking pixel metrics from a Nutshell newsletter
(Constant Contact stats from a recent Nutshell newsletter.)

What data do tracking pixels collect, and what not? 

Tracking pixels collect information on the following:

  • What type of device you used to open the email
  • When you opened the email
  • How long you opened the message for
  • How many times you reopened the message
  • Whether or not you clicked any links within the message

Tracking pixels don’t collect sensitive information such as the recipient’s exact location, bank details, or private browsing history. To do that, the code would have to access the recipient’s cookies (text files that save to your computer when you visit a particular website and collect information on your online behavior). Tracking pixels do not save to your computer and don’t collect any information outside of your engagement with the email they were embedded in.

To be fair, tracking pixels of any kind can theoretically gain access to this information through advanced hacking methods. However, mainstream email providers (including Gmail) automatically run incoming communications through an image proxy server that blocks email tracking pixel-related trojans that go beyond the limits of what regular marketing or sales tracking pixels do. 

So, if your newsletter or drip campaign recipient has a secure email host to begin with, your email tracking pixel will not put their information in jeopardy. 

In summary, while tracking pixels don’t collect personal information, they do offer valuable insights into email engagement patterns, aiding companies in refining their marketing strategies without compromising individual privacy.

How do I know if my email has a tracking pixel?

You will know if your email has a tracking pixel if you use a tool such as Boxy Suite or Ugly Email. You can also assume that pretty much any communication you get from a brand will have a tracking pixel that ties to their website for when you choose to click through. If your email provider shows a pop-up message about external images inside an email, you can simply decline the request to block the email tracking pixel. 

How do I add a tracking pixel to my email?

You can add a tracking pixel to your email in one of two ways. Either use a sales and marketing email tool that allows you to view open rates, replies, and link clicks. Or, manually add one yourself by pasting a tracking pixel code just before the </body> tag in the email’s code. Otherwise, you can create a transparent 1px by 1px square and embed that into the email message. 

What benefits do tracking pixels offer for email recipients?

Tracking pixels support creating a more personal experience for leads and customers. Companies can use the data collected from email tracking pixels to get a clear picture of what recipients value and the offers that they’re most interested in. From there, they can make each campaign more and more personalized to suit the preferences of their audience.

The consumer-driven popularity of AI in marketing largely revolves around a mass desire for more personalized experiences with brands. That is why it’s one of the top three marketing priorities for brands worldwide.

How to maximize the audience benefits of email tracking pixels

Enhance the audience experience with these helpful tips.

Use a new tracking pixel for every campaign

Use this information to laser-focus your strategy and come up with even more great email content for them in the future. 

Experiment with a different tracking pixel for each buyer persona

Utilize distinct tracking pixels for various buyer personas to craft personalized messages aligned with their interests and behaviors. You can also separate your email list into relevant segments to better understand the needs of individual demographics within your greater customer ecosystem.

When you get very specific about your customer segmentation through email tracking pixel data, you end up with a relevant campaign that adds real value to their lives.

Take a look at whether your recipients prefer to open emails on their phones or computers

If the former, make sure you tailor your future messages for small screens. Things like shorter sentences, moving special offers above the scroll line, and limiting subject lines to 41 characters or less all make a big difference in smartphone email user experience. 

Build trust with your audience

Consumers can decline cookies when they visit a website, but we don’t yet have the opportunity to ask for permission to include tracking pixels in their emails. However, you can include these parameters in your newsletter terms and conditions when visitors sign up to receive emails. Plenty of brands ignore or don’t acknowledge their usage of this tool. Doing so will go a long way toward winning your audience over. 

Help make partner or third-party ads more relevant

Email tracking pixels also help ensure your advertisers align with your consumers’ wants and needs. If the click-through rates on these are low, reconsider the offers and try polling your list to see what kind of products or services they’d like to see in future correspondence. 

How to set an email tracking pixel in Nutshell

Nutshell has built-in email tracking that you can turn on and off with one click and uses email tracking pixels to let you know who opens your emails and how often they view your emails, templates, and sequences. You can enable this capability on your Email settings page in Nutshell.

Setting an email tracking pixel in Nutshell

Email tracking pixel best practices

  • Be transparent: Communicate your email tracking policies to your team and include this information in your company’s privacy policy for transparency and informed decision-making by users.
  • Ensure compliance: Follow legal rules and regulations for email tracking to make sure you’re doing it right.
  • Use a custom tracking domain: Protect your sender reputation by utilizing a custom tracking domain, thereby avoiding potential issues associated with shared domains.
  • Collect useful data: Ensure that email tracking captures essential data points to improve email performance.
  • Regular monitoring: Monitor email tracking data regularly to identify anomalies and promptly take corrective action to minimize negative impacts on your business.
  • Take corrective measures: Derive insights from email tracking data and take swift corrective measures to optimize email performance.

How to prevent actual security issues for your email recipients

  • Conduct bi-yearly audits of all data and security programs that store consumer information.
  • Use traditional cybersecurity tools such as password protection, identity theft protection, firewalls, and encryption on any website or landing pages linked within your emails. 
  • Do your research before partnering with any third-party vendor who can, in any way, access data collected from your email tracking pixels. Make sure they do not have any known vulnerabilities and are as dedicated to email recipient safety as you are. 

Improve the quality and impact of your email marketing through tracking pixels

Now that you know what an email tracking pixel is, what data it collects, and why it’s safe to use, it’s time to start taking advantage of all the audience benefits this tool has to offer. We’ve given you five concrete ways to engage and delight readers through email tracking pixels. We’ve also covered some of the more practical aspects of setting them up.

And as Email Marketing Expert and Content Strategist Liz Willits says, “Without email tracking pixels, you can’t optimize or improve your email marketing strategy. You’ll have no idea how your emails are performing. They’re an essential part of an effective email marketing strategy. 

And it’s easy to use email tracking pixels. So there’s no reason not to.”


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