* Constant Contact Spyware?

Nether senders nor receivers can opt out of per-user tracking.

Last month, I switched to Constant Contact for managing my subscriber list for my LawLawLaw newsletter. I did so primarily because I wanted better statistics about bounces than I was getting from Mailman. And I was willing to pay to get these stats.

I read Constant Contact’s privacy policy. And I even monitor it for changes. You are always going to give up some privacy in exchange for user statistics, but I saw nothing hugely objectionable in the privacy policy, so I signed up.

Here’s an email exchange between me and one of my friends about how Constant Contact behaves like spyware. This is my reply to my friend’s email. I’ll summarize below.


Awesome feedback.  Inline responses below.

At 02/24/2007 08:39 PM, you wrote:

>All right - some confessions:
>I would make a terrible "Nielsen" viewer.  I never rate my
>Netflix rentals.  I dislike any sort of special "loyalty"
>discount cards (regardless of what they might be called).
>I hate it when Radio Shack asks for my phone number on a
>cash purchase.  I generally have an engineer's disdain for
>marketing (it's a gut reaction - I probably know better, but
>I can't help it).  I dislike the direction RFID use seems to
>be going.  Et cetera.

Ditto.  I always say "no thank you" when stores ask me for my phone 
number or whatever.  I don't use loyalty programs unless they will 
save me a ton of money.  So we belong to the loyalty program at the 
hardware store.  [My wife] belongs to the CVS one, and I think she gets 
some discounts from that.  Two days ago, I was in Radio Shack, and 
they wanted me to join their loyalty program, which would have saved 
me $10 on the spot.  But when I asked if I'd have to carry a card 
with me (something I hate), they said I wouldn't and that they could 
just "look up my account by my social security number" (something I 
hate even more).  So I declined, even though it would have saved me money.

>Perhaps from all this you might guess that I generally dislike
>companies collecting data on what I do or don't like.

I agree.  In fact, your email just reminded me to cancel my Upromise 
account, the biggest joke of all loyalty programs.

By the way, you know the current security breach regarding TJ Maxx 
and stolen credit card numbers?  Do you know why TJ Maxx keeps your 
credit card number on file in the first place?  After your purchase 
is completed, they have no reason whatsoever to keep your credit card 
on file.  The transaction is done, the number is no longer 
needed.  But they keep it so that they can identify you, track you, 
and sell this data to catalog vendors etc.  I'd bet they make as much 
money from selling data as they do from selling products.  I might 
start paying with cash everywhere.

>Well, it turns out that I just upgraded my version of Eudora
>(at least, I assume that's why I'm now seeing what I am).
>When I hover over a URL where the link text does not match
>the actual URL, it pops up a warning.  That makes it pretty
>clear that all of the links in your LawLawLaw newsletter go through
>rs6.net, presumably for tracking purposes.

At least you're using an email reader that alerts you to potentially 
fraudulent email.  I noticed that too and thought it was odd.  I 
didn't even know that Constant Contact did per-user tracking.  More 
on this below.

>So, it turns out that my dislike of being tracked even extends
>to friends.  I did visit a few of the links by cutting/pasting
>the text, but none via click-thru.  I did think it was particularly
>ironic that I noticed this in the issue where you have this story:
> > Better Privacy Without Personalized Search (2007-11-18)
> > "If you're not thrilled with the idea of Google associating every 
> search you make with your account, you can permanently disable 
> Personalized Search."
> > < 
> http://lifehacker.com/software/google/permanently-disable-google-personalized-search-229673.php  
>  >

I admit that it is ironic.

>So, can I convince you to not track the links people follow?
>Or can you convince me that my outlook is wrong or outdated or
>misguided, or perhaps even hopeless (as Scott McNealy has said,
>"you have no privacy - get over it")?  That you use the collected
>info to hone LawLawLaw into the most value packed
>Technology/Law/Baseball/Rock'n'Roll newsletter your attractive
>audience has ever seen?
>Or at least tell me that the software you use gives
>you no choice in the matter.

I switched to Constant Contact because I wanted better data about how 
many people were reading LawLawLaw and how many email addresses were 
bouncing.  Using Mailman was like sending my data into a black 
hole.  It's hard to have "constant contact" if your address book is 
out of date.  I've learned some very interesting things.  For 
example, the industry averages are as follows:

bounces - 18.3%
opens - 37.0%
clicks - 8.9%
forwards - 3.3%

So I was shocked to find out that only about 25% of LawLawLaw 
subscribers actually open the newsletter.  For my client newsletter, 
only 40% are opened!  This means that I'm going to have to send the 
client newsletter by USPS mail as well as by email (as some of the 
info in my client newsletter is quite critical).  Regarding 
LawLawLaw, the low open rate means that I'm going to work harder to 
improve the newsletter.  I think that's a good outcome.

I have opened a trouble ticket with Constant Contact to specifically 
ask if per-user tracking can be turned off.  As you correctly 
guessed, each individual message (and link within each message) is 
assigned a unique tracking code.  So I can (ostensibly) tell which 
users are bouncing, opening, clicking, and forwarding.  I'd be quite 
happy with general numbers on opens, clicks, and forwards.  For 
obvious reasons, I need specifics for bounces.  But I think it should 
be an option to do per-user tracking on opens, clicks, and forwards, 
an option that both the sender and the receiver can set.

Plain text is one option, but I've just about given up on trying to 
send plain text email.  I think the only people who complain about 
HTML email are those still reading email in Emacs or the like.  To 
answer one of your questions, I think that you are in the minority in 
complaining about these issues.  Of 250 readers, only 2 people 
complained: you and [deleted].  It doesn't mean that the issues are not 
important.  They are.  But I concede to being in the minority when it 
comes to caring about such issues.

You may also appreciate this, somewhat related, article:

Don't Fear The Technology

Although I've changed my mind since writing that articled and just 
purchased a MacBook.  Now THAT's being open minded!


In case you missed it, here’s my main point:

I’d be quite happy with general numbers on opens, clicks, and forwards. For obvious reasons, I need specifics for bounces. But I think it should be an option to do per-user tracking on opens, clicks, and forwards, an option that both the sender and the receiver can set.

I asked Constant Contact, and they said that there is no way to disable per-user tracking on clicks. I would add that there is a way to disable tracking but that Constant Contact has chosen not to implement this feature. I could send plain text emails, but then I’d not get stats on bounces. Individual users can choose to receive plain text email. I could also include URLs but make them un-clickable, but that would defeat the purpose of having URLs in the first place.

I want to send styled email because the vast majority of readers use and prefer it – and it allows me to communicate in more interesting ways. If only 25% of my subscribers are opening my newsletter, I’m going to have to try a lot harder to improve it. But is just silly not to let either the sender or the receiver disable per-user tracking of URL clicks. If we don’t need to know what URLs are clicked, why does Constant Contact need to know? And if Eudora warns that an email message might be spyware, it doesn’t matter what your privacy policy says. It’s spyware.

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18 Replies to “* Constant Contact Spyware?”

  1. Just wanted to let you know that I was completely frustrated by Constant Contact and iContact for numerous reasons, so I started Mailboto to encompass all their features and a fraction of the price. I know your post says you were using Constant Contact for your LawLawLaw newsletter and if you and any of the people who posted on this board, you think would be interested in hearing more about it, I’d be happy to give a demo or free trial to test it out without any risk or credit card information. Just a thought and I wish you the best of the luck with your newsletter and subscribers!

  2. Interesting, I found your blog researching Constant Contact because our Phishing Virus filters on our mail server are blocking it and our customers who asked us to whitelist the CC servers are upset because we can not (will not) lessen the Phishing filters. CC emails used to get through but the spam scores from our system have increased 10fold recently so our users must be identifying cc mail as spam or thier stuff is getting junkier.

  3. It was refreshing to read the comments on this blog regarding CC and their horrible customer service. I’ve had the unfortunate “pleasure” of experiencing it also.

    It should be noted that CC doesn’t even handle their own customer service, they contract it out to a 3rd party…which is part of the problem. This 3rd party, rightnowtech.com, can’t seem to read a support ticket, much less know *anything* about the CC product they are paid to support.

    That’s one problem. The other is the HTML/XHTML code (if you can even call it that) is soooo very BAD, I’m truly amazed their newsletters even make it past most spam/phishing filters, since bad code is one of the tip-offs to spam.

    I happen to be both a designer/developer and the owner of a small web hosting company…so I manage “both ends.” A design client asked what I thought about CC, and I suggested she give them a try. Sadly, there are NOT a lot of email marketing/newsletter producers who can manage to send RFC-compliant, properly formatted email. It’s a pathetic commentary on their industry, since it truly is NOT that difficult, and involves skills they should be employing in their business. It’s like…a chef, not knowing how to boil water.

    Since my client has been using CC, I have been appalled at the horrible code their “templates” generate. I emailed their customer service, and got back nothing but moronic, “we don’t know, we don’t care” type responses.

    But back to the original topic of this post: I agree, and I don’t. I agree, newsletter recipients (as well as any website user) have the right to know where they are being redirected to. The “rs6.net” tracking referrals are what brought me to Google what they are to begin with. For me personally, it bugs me to see a link to somewhere I don’t know where it leads to, but then I have a computer security background, as do most of my peers, and they simply wouldn’t follow the links (which defeats the purpose of them).

    OTOH…it’s a website/network admin’s job to read the logs. Every move anyone makes on a website, sending an email, clicking a link…is IN the logs. All the information those tracking links contain, are also found in server logs. In this case CC is just presenting them in a format that can be easily read by someone who doesn’t understand how to read server logs.

    It’s all the same information, just that CC is putting it in a pretty package for the newsletter sender.

    I would think a reasonable compromise would be to *inform* the readers of the newsletter, what the links are, where they go to, and why they are being used.

    As for Constant Contact….not only will I *NEVER* recommend them to another client again, I will ANTI-recommend them….basically to anyone who will listen. My experience with both their product and their customer support (if you can even call it that), is the WORST I’ve ever experienced in my 8 years in business.

    As far as “Email Marketing Journal” ‘s positive comments towards Constant Contact…I don’t want to turn this into a flame war, but I did notice that every single post on his site / blog (make that every one of his, I’ve found 5 or 6 blog/sites so far) carries an advertisement for Constant Contact. My guess is an affiliate with one heck of a kick-back.

  4. Hello,

    I have used Constant Contact for over 6 years and have been very happy with their product, technology, anti-spam and spyware standards and their customer service. For every few negative posts, there are great ones too!

  5. Constant Contact has the worst customer service ever. Where is corporate responsibility when it comes to customer service?

    The only way you can get your grievances heard is to post it on a public forum like this one!

  6. Constant Contact has NOT provided our company with good service. Everytime I place a call to their support line I can expect to be on the phone for a solid 30 – 60 minutes depending how long I am put on hold for.

    We have NOT gotten the service we had hoped for, and although they are a low cost provider it is not worth it for the complications we have encountered. We are currently terminating our services.


  7. Thanks for this discussion. It helped a lot in making a decision about newsletter options, specifically, not to use CC. We are looking at Campaign Monitor instead.

    But the main reason I’m commenting is to say you have a wonderful variety of interesting and useful materials in your blog(s). I followed my curiosity to explore lots of side paths around your sites.

    best wishes!

  8. I would like to point out that there are many categories of Constant Contact “users”. Some of these terms I have pulled out of CC’s privacy policy and some are speculation on my part.

    – CC website visitors
    – CC website visitors who follow links to affiliates, partners, advertisers, and other third parties.
    – CC paying customers who create mail lists
    – recipients of solicited or unsolicited e-mail from mail list owners
    – e-mail recipients with HTML turned on (or off)
    – e-mail recipients who choose to “update profile/e-mail address”
    – e-mail recipients who click links that are logged by RS6.NET

    My point here is that people tend to be vague about user context when they discuss information gathering and privacy. The CC privacy policy is also vague about this.

    We know that CC uses cookies, web beacons, and click tracking (RS6) but which of the above user scenarios do these apply to? Which user types are having their information shared with “third parties”, “affiliates”, and their ad management partner, DoubleClick?

    This is relevant because people need to make decisions. For example, what does an e-mail recipient do with a message – read it, respond, or just drag it into the trash?

  9. Interesting story. With some ISPs implementing all or nothing spam blocking services it is quite possible due to the tracking URL’s many of your newsletters are not reaching your customers. Today I found that when testing an “info” mail link on a web site that AT&T was blocking customers emails becuase they weren’t filling out the body of the message. (They figured if they sent an empty email to info@mycompany.com, with their return address we’d get the point to contact them.) We never get them.

  10. My best guess is that most people who do email campaigns want to know how effective the campaign is. Tracking the url clicks is a must. Unfortunately you are the minority so until enough people complain that is how it is going to be.

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