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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 15 Issue 9
September 2021
I Sent an Email - Did They Receive It? Did They Read It? Part 2

The problem
Clients often ask me if they can find out whether someone has received, opened, and read an email that they have sent. This question typically has two forms:
  • Can I find this out for emails that I’ve sent in the past?
  • Can I find this out for emails that I send in the future?
The simple answers are:
  • For past emails: There is very little that you can do after you’ve clicked Send.
  • For future emails: Some of the time, but not reliably.
There is no perfect, 100% reliable way to find this out for every message, unless your recipients either proactively tell you, or you conclude that they did, based on their actions elsewhere. Regular email is just not designed for this.
For more information on why this generally isn’t possible, and to learn about a few special circumstances where you can find this out, read on for my explanation and advice.
Common reasons why email doesn’t arrive or get opened
When you send an email over the internet to someone else, in general there is no built-in mechanism to tell you when (or even if) it arrives in their Inbox, much less when (or whether) they open it and read it. Your message may not be delivered to their Inbox for a variety of reasons, including:
  • You may have mistyped the other person’s email address, or accidentally sent your message to someone else (perhaps with a similar name), or to yourself.
  • Your message may have ended up in their Spam or Junk or Bulk folder (which they might be able to find and correct), or in a higher-level ISP- or corporate-level spam folder (to which they won’t have access).
  • Their email account may be full to capacity and not accepting new messages.
  • Their email account may be suspended or no longer exist.
  • There might be a problem with their email server.
  • Your email may be delayed in transit.
  • They might have a Rule or Filter that (intentionally or not) moved your message to a different folder or deleted it.
  • They may have (intentionally or not) blocked your address.
Many email servers will notify you about delivery errors like “mailbox full” or “nonexistent account,” but some don’t.
And even if your email did arrive in their Inbox, it’s possible that:
  • They might not notice it.
  • They might (intentionally or accidentally) delete it without reading it.
  • Their computer or smartphone might be offline due to hardware problems, power failure, or an internet service outage.
  • They may no longer be using that email account, or be unable to access it.
  • A malicious person may have broken into their email account and caused any number of problems.
Unreliable email tracking technique #1: Delivery Receipts and Read Receipts
Some email programs (most notably Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, and the paid version of Gmail called Google Workspace) have options that you can activate when writing an email called “Request a Delivery (or Return) Receipt” and “Request a Read Receipt.” These are short, mechanically-generated messages that get sent back to you when your message arrives in the other person’s Inbox or when they open your message, respectively. Many people mistakenly think that these are perfect and reliable ways to find out whether the recipient has actually received or read a message.
However, these options rarely ever work because:
  • Your email program must have the ability to insert your request for such receipts into the “headers” (metadata) of the message you’re sending. Many do not.
  • You have to set those options for the given message (or for all messages, which is not a good idea) before you click Send.
  • The other person’s email program (or server) must be programmed to recognize receipt requests in incoming messages. Most don’t, especially given modern security and privacy concerns.
  • And even if it understands such requests, the other person’s email program (or server) may either ignore them by default, or (if this feature is enabled) will likely ask for permission before sending a delivery or read receipt back to you for the given message. Most people will probably click “No,” and many may also find it disturbing and a little irritating.
Semi-reliable email tracking technique #2: Inserting a reference to a tiny online picture to detect when an email is opened
This is a much more subtle and sophisticated technique, often used by email newsletter services and email marketing platforms. It works like this:
  • A tiny picture (typically a single white or transparent pixel) is inserted into the email you’re sending, not as an attachment, but as a link to a web-based server that also contains a code that is unique to each recipient and message. This feature is not available in most regular email programs.
  • When the recipient opens that email, if their email program is set to load “remote” pictures, a request (with that unique code) is sent to that server to load that picture.
  • The server then logs the date, time, and unique code of that request.
  • You can later look at that log and (in theory) find out which of your recipients has opened which of your emails.
This technique requires some infrastructure and setup in advance, typically including:
  • A (usually paid) service that hosts this technology on their server and provides the open-tracking information.
  • A website where you will compose and send your messages, or a plug-in (extension) you can add to your email program or web browser that will assign those unique numbers and insert the tracking picture into your messages to try to make this mechanism work.
However, this technique has various issues:
  • In many email programs the option to load remote pictures can be controlled by the user and is often off by default, which means that they may open your email without triggering the request to that server, which in turn defeats the method that this technique relies upon.
  • Even if your recipient’s email program does load remote pictures, if they click on your email by accident, or only because they’re deleting it, this tracking method will correctly log that they received it, but incorrectly log that they’ve read it.
  • Some corporate firewalls block tracking links like these because they consider them security threats.
Full disclosure: My email newsletter service (Constant Contact) uses this technique. The tracking for my most popular recent issues report that about 30% of my (free) subscribers open my newsletters, which is probably far fewer than the actual number because of the issues above.
Semi-reliable email tracking technique #3: Sending an email where you can later observe that the other person did something that you asked of them
This approach won’t tell you exactly when they received or opened or read your email, but it will tell you when they acted on the information in your message, which would imply the former. For example:
  • If they reply to your email, you can know that they received it and read it. Writing “Please send me a reply so I’ll know that you received this message” in your email (or something that is compelling or tantalizing, such as only giving them some information in the hope that they’ll ask you for more, etc.) might make it more likely that they’ll reply.
  • If your email contains instructions, like a request to call you, send you payment, attend a meeting, etc. (and you didn’t send those instructions in any other way), if the other person complies with your request, then you can infer that they received and read your email.
100% reliable email tracking technique #4: Sending a link to a website where they can read your message and/or get your attachment
Here are some methods that use links which give you a very reliable way to track when the other person acted on your email:
  • You could use a secure email service where, instead of using your regular email program, you would write your message on their website, and then have it send an email to your recipient containing a link to that message. When the other person clicks the link in that email and then reads that message online, most services will tell you when that occurred.
  • Similarly, you could use an online service that enables you to send a large or confidential file. Instead of attaching it to a regular email, you would upload your file to the service, and then have it send an email to your recipient containing your message and a link to download that file. You will be able to find out the date and time when they followed that link.
There are a number of services like these that give you a limited number of messages (or megabytes) per month for free, and more if you upgrade to a paid account.
100% reliable email tracking technique #5: Sending email to someone else in the same organization if that email system includes tracking
If you are part of a corporate, educational, or government organization, many of them internally use email systems that, for emails sent from one member or employee to another, let you track when the other person received and opened your messages. However, such systems can’t track emails that you send over the internet to people who are outside of the organization.
Bottom line
Some email-tracking services combine techniques #1 and #2 above in an attempt to get better tracking results, but regular email sent over the internet just isn’t designed to be tracked. In my experience only techniques #4 and #5 work reliably, but #4 takes more work and #5 is not a general-purpose approach.
For any emails that you’ve already sent before you realized that you wanted to track them, it’s probably too late to use one of these techniques, so it’s likely that your only option is to ask your recipients whether they received them.
If tracking future messages is important to you, I suggest you start by asking yourself the following before picking an approach:
  • How often do you need to track your emails? How many per week or month?
  • Why do you need this information? Curiosity? Piece of mind? Improve your marketing? Better understand your audience? Billing-related? Legal proof of delivery?
  • How much effort or complexity or cost are you willing to spend to try to get the tracking that you need?
  • If you find that the method you chose doesn’t work very well, or it’s too difficult or expensive, what’s your Plan B?
Be skeptical of any service that claims they can track whether your emails are delivered and opened 100% of the time.
Where to go from here
Try these searches, replacing “XYZ” with the name of your email program or service (e.g., Gmail or Outlook), or omit it for more general search results.
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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