Phantom Clicks: Non-Human Intervention Distorts Email Marketing Metrics, Study Finds

It seems simple: You send a marketing email, and the recipient opens and clicks on it or doesn’t. Right?

Not quite. Received email is increasingly being handled via Non-Human Interaction (NHI) — through software programs that can throw off marketers' metrics and hurt their sender reputation.

“What started as a statistical anomaly has become a major issue affecting email campaign metrics in a massive way,” says Exploring The Impact Of Non-Human Interactions On Email Send Metrics, a study by the Messaging Malware Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (M3AAWG). 

How does this happen?

NHI usually takes place during security scans: The system follows the links in an email, then visits the target website and analyzes the content to determine its legitimacy. This is all automated, of course.

The trouble is that this results in a click or open being recorded, throwing marketers' metrics off. And it’s not just one little click.



“This can appear in statistics as anything from clicks on a subset of links in one email, to having every single link in every email sent to that domain clicked in quick succession,” the study states. 

NHI is more of a problem in B2B than B2C. The overall B2B impact was found to be from 20% to 80%. These high rates are due to the fact that B2B brands “are more likely to have enterprise level anti-spam software which is more strict when checking inbound,” the study states. 

In contrast, NHI impact rates totaled less than 10% for B2C firms, and less for the most reputable brands. Still, 10% sounds high enough --  and those are not the only effects. 

Ecommerce firms face reduced ROI and return on advertising spend due to this accurate data. Media companies can no longer sell based on guaranteed clicks, opens or article views.

Moreover, NHI can lead to a reduction in sender reputation In addition, “engagement-based segmentation and recipient sunsetting can become increasingly difficult and reduce list quality over time,” the study notes.

For their part, ESPs that host click tracking links on their own domains can also be thrown off.

Here’s another issue — that “NHI may trigger actions which the intended recipient or subscriber was not aware of and did not consent to,” the study argues.  

These may include “double or confirmed opt-in, confirming details, adding to a new mailing list, removal from a current mailing list, or triggering interest in items recipients are not interested in,” the study says.

What can you to avoid harm from NHI? M3AAWG offers these four best practices:

  • Use HTTPS exclusively for all links.
  • Distinguish between and maintain separate campaigns for confirmed engaged and non-engaged recipients.
  • Monitor content, and avoid emoticons in subject lines — these can lead to higher NHI impact. 
  • Watch out for your sender reputation — senders with highly engaged recipients tend to suffer less from NHI.

M3AAWG analyzed senders across industries, in some cases examining several years of send, click and open data. 


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