Tracking Email Conversions: More than Pixels and Cookies

If you’re a marketer, tracking email conversions is critical to understanding if your email programs are effective. No surprise there. So, how do you go about tracking conversions?

If you search Google, the entire first page is articles that recommend using Google Analytics or other analytics based on cookies and conversion pixels. So it seems that’s the answer, use Google Analytics and be done with it. The problem is this doesn’t work. Cookies and pixels don’t accurately track email conversions anymore, and if you use them, the numbers in your reports will be off — often by a lot.

What changed that caused cookies and pixels to break?

Mobile devices. Or really that a lot of people use multiple devices. In 2014, Facebook research found that “more than 60% of online adults in the US use at least two devices every day and almost one quarter use three devices.” That research also found that 40% of online adults start an activity on one device and finish it on another device. When it comes to checking email, Litmus found email opens are just about evenly split between mobile and desktop. People interact with emails on all sorts of devices, which probably isn’t surprising.

Why is this a problem for cookies and pixels? Because a different set of cookies is stored on every device, when someone switches devices, tracking breaks. While people read emails on mobile and desktop, they don’t convert as often on mobile. A 2015 eMarketer survey found mobile accounted for only 23% of ecommerce sales. So there’s a large segment of customers who read email and browse websites on mobile, but switch to desktops to make actual purchases. And those customers and purchases won’t be tracked correctly.

An example of how cookies and pixels fail

To make it concrete, I set up an experiment.

I created an ecommerce store and mailing list and added myself as the only subscriber. Then, I sent a newsletter campaign to myself. I opened and clicked through the email from my phone. Then I get decided I didn’t want to buy from my phone and put it back in my pocket. A few hours later on my desktop, I went straight to the website and finished checking out.

The question is does my purchase show up in Google Analytics? Does the email campaign get any credit for the sale? Here’s what Google Analytics reported:

Google Analytics screen

Google tracks the conversion, but it’s attributed to my direct, desktop visit with no reference to my email campaign. This is exactly the scenario we’re concerned about. Google Analytics can’t track conversions across devices and will underreport conversions because it’s using cookies and pixels.

A better way to track email conversions

In a multi-device world, cookies and pixels won’t cut it. The good news is there’s a different tracking technique that doesn’t have this problem.

For email opens and clicks, it’s easy to track who opened or clicked through. For most important conversions, such as purchases, the person who did converted can be identified by their email. If all of those actions are reported back to a central place, we can combine them into a chronological timeline of activity and decide whether the email deserves credit based on how long after an open or click someone converted.

Here’s what that looks like:

Server-side activity timeline

If we do this for every subscriber, we end up with a more accurate view of email conversions and how effective our email is.

Server-side email conversions

Conclusion

Digital marketing’s advantage has always been that’s easier to measure. But, as consumer behavior changes, the technologies and techniques used to measure it have to evolve. Cookies and pixels aren’t enough when people use multiple devices. It’s time to change the way email conversions are tracked.

 

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