Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 9

Who is reading your newsletter? Don’t expect that just because you have a certain number of email addresses that don’t bounce, that your message is actually reaching the people to whom you’re sending it. If your unsubscribe process is onerous (“click here to change your subscription profile, then three pages later we’ll let you go free”) or if your subscription process appears insincere (“reply to this message with the word “subscribe” in the subject line”) then they may have simply added you to their blocked senders lists, rather than bothering to unsubscribe at all. It doesn’t do you any good to be sending mail if the mail is never opened.

For more information about publishing your own newsletter, check out these other articles from Alexis Gutzman’s ongoing weekly series:

Publishing Your Own Newsletter
Alexis Gutzman gives an in-depth walk-through on how to start your own newsletter. Part one of a multi-part series.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 2
The second part of a multi-part series on how to publish your own newsletter, Alexis Gutzman discusses how to clean up and perfect your email list.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 3
Alexis Gutzman discusses the pros and cons of sending HTML vs. plain-text versions of a newsletter, and how to know which one is right for you.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 4
The fourth part of a multi-part series on how to publish your own newsletter, Alexis Gutzman discusses the ins and outs of designing your newsletter.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 5
Alexis Gutzman reviews four newsletter-mailing solutions and discusses the finer points of creating and sending a professional newsletter.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 6
Alexis Gutzman outlines the features to look for when selecting a newsletter service.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 7
The seventh part of a multi-part series on how to publish your own newsletter, Alexis Gutzman discusses five must-haves for a successful newsletter and how to find content.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 8
Alexis Gutzman discusses how to manage undeliverable email messages, and the importance of keeping your lists clean.

Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 9
Want to know who is reading your newsletter? Alexis Gutzman explains how to track your newsletter, determine who opens it, how many times it gets opened and how often it gets forwarded on to other recipients.

It is relatively easy to tell how many people have opened your newsletter. With a little bit of server-side programming, you can even tell exactly who opened your newsletter — but only if the recipients are receiving the rich-text version. If you’re sending a plain-text version, then it is impossible to know whether any are opened, unless you can coax the readers into clicking on a link.

If you are planning to sell sponsorships down the road, you are going to have to report an open rate, unless your newsletter is entirely in plain text.

What to Track
There are three different things you can track with respect to opens. In order from easiest to most difficult they are:

  • How many unique recipients opened the original newsletter
  • How many times the newsletter was opened either by the original recipient or as a result of forwarding
  • Who is opening your newsletter

Tracking the first two are easiest. I would suggest you track them both so you have some idea of what the potential for pass-along is. The difference between the first and the second measurement is not necessarily the number of times the message was forwarded, as some people will see the message, then open again later when they have time to read it. However, it will at least give you some idea of how many times the newsletter is opened. Tracking who is opening your newsletter requires some basic server-side programming.

How to Track
You can only track messages that are received as rich text. The easiest way to track is simply to set your Web log-analysis software (WebTrends, for example, or whatever solution you use) to count the number of times an image that is unique to that newsletter is requested. I suggest you create a one-by-one pixel gif with a name like “track-20011221.gif” to include in your newsletter near the top. The mail client of the recipient will load it automatically, and you can watch your Web log-analysis software to see how many times it is requested. This will tell you how many times the original message is opened by the intended recipient.

If you want to know how many times the newsletter is opened period, either by the original recipient or as a forwarded message, then use a tag like the following to request an image that isn’t there:

Make sure the image notthere.gif is not on the server. By putting a link to a non-existent image, the mail client will request the image every time the recipient opens the message, and every time the person receiving the forwarded message opens it. Put this link near the bottom of your newsletter. In a mail client that uses Internet Explorer, the image won’t appear because you’ve set the height and width to zero, but in any mail software set to use Netscape to render rich text, the recipient will probably get a small broken image symbol. Netscape apparently ignores the height and width parameters.

Tracking by Recipient
Finally, if you would like to track who opened your newsletter, then you need to add some server-side scripting. This is often referred to derisively as a Web bug.

In order to track opens by recipient, you need three things:

  • The ability to do server side processing. I use ColdFusion. You could just as easily use perl, php, or ASP. As long as you can write data to a file or a database, then you can do this.
  • The file or database to which you’re going to write the data. I use SQL Server, but you can use a simple flat text file, if you want.
  • A way to include the email address or the ID number of the recipient in the link to the image.

Here is an example of a link that will let you capture open information by recipient:

Notice that the value of the src parameter is not an image, as you would expect it to be. Instead, you can call a script with an image tag. The browser expects you to return an image, but if you don’t, then the next time the newsletter is opened, it will call the script again. Notice that I’m passing two parameters to the script: the email address of the recipient, and the date of the newsletter.

Server-Side Processing with ColdFusion
On the server, my ColdFusion script, trackopen.cfm, is adding an entry to the database for this recipient with a time stamp. I can then go back and see who opened my newsletter, how many times, and when. In one case, I noticed that one recipient was in my database 18 times for the same issue. Clearly, he had forwarded it to others.

This is the ColdFusion for the insertion:
Insert Into ReaderData (email, issue, UA, click_date, click_time) Values (’#email#’, ’#issue#’, ’#cgi.http_user_agent#’, #CreateODBCDate(Now())#, #CreateODBCTime(Now())#)

You might notice that I also collect the user agent of the recipient. I could also collect the IP address of each recipient. These two fields would give me additional evidence that the newsletter was forwarded.

Still to Come
In the last three installments of this series on publishing your own newsletter, I’ll cover testing your newsletter, personalization, and selling subscriptions.

Alexis D. Gutzman is an author, speaker, and consultant on e-business and e-commerce topics. She’s the producer of The Online Marketing Report. Her most recent book, The E-commerce Arsenal: 12 Technologies You Need to Prevail in the Digital Arena, was named one of the 30 best business books of this year. For up-to-date information about her research and speaking engagements, visit The Alexis Gutzman Group’s Web site.

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