The Death of Email Open tracking? Long live Email Open tracking.

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

So the big news this week in the world of Email Marketing is that Gmail will begin to use an image proxy server for all images in an Email Message.

Gmail blog – images-now-showing

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

What does this mean to the Email Marketer?  Well, the most obvious ramification – and where most of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth is coming from – is that it may become much more difficult to track recipient Open Rates since the tracking image that is typically used will no longer be coming from the Marketers server, at least not in the same way it has historically.  While this will only apply to Gmail, Gmail’s market share continues to increase and accounts for around 3% of opens (

The Good

  • Gmail users will now see images by default in their emails
  • Good for users – an arguably better user experience
  • Good for marketers – more of the marketing message is now visible by default
  • Good for marketers – possibly more accurate unique open rate measurement (what?)

The Bad

  • Marketers may have to change the way they track unique opens
  • Multiple opens will be harder to track – but not impossible (read on)

The Ugly

  • UserAgent data will be suppressed – or worse, invalid.  This means no Geo data, no browser data, no referer data, no time data.
  • This move has the potential to increase Spam and increase the amount of irrelevant marketing messages recipients see

The Bigger Picture – Privacy vs. Responsible Marketing

I am sure if you are interested you can find your fill of articles on the interwebs about the death of open-rate tracking as it relates to this action by Google, and how to work around it.  But I have seen little to no discussion on the arguments for even tracking open-rates at all.  The subject is almost universally viewed as a necessary evil for Email Marketers.  However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and claim that not only is email open tracking essential for marketers, it is essential for consumers!

I have had the opportunity to have this discussion with Google themselves.  I spent some time consulting with them on their own Email Marketing efforts, and a significant amount of that time was spent convincing them that they needed to track opens.  As responsible marketers, it is essential to track opens.  What is the difference between a “spammer” and a responsible marketer?   Both use tracking images – one nefariously, the other to measure engagement.  Where good marketing breaks down and where consumers start to get resentful, is when that marketing isn’t targeted, or becomes irrelevant.  For example, tampon ads during the Superbowl.  Nobody objects when they are thinking “I’m thirsty”, and then notice that their favorite beer is on sale.

Responsible marketers want to know how to target their messages.  Not because of the ethics or the morality of sending Spam, but because of the ROI.  The most profitable and affective Email Campaigns are those that are highly targeted and relevant.  How do they get that way?  With intensive testing and measurement.  The very definition of Spam is messaging that is unwanted, unasked for, or irrelevant.  As responsible marketers, knowing when, how often, and who is opening a message is essential in determining whether or not to send the next one.  Knowing how – or if – any particular recipient interacts with a message is at the very core of making sure that future messages are as closely aligned with that recipients interests as possible.   Responsible Marketers track email opens because Responsible Marketers are not Spammers.

What now?

So what are marketers to do?  Well, I think that in the long-term the move by Google could actually help marketers.  Just the fact that Gmail recipients will see images by default should be a boon for click-thru rates.  Email Marketers will need to make sure that their tracking images are properly configured.  It turns out that tracking images will still work pretty much as it has in the past if ESP’s have their servers configured properly.  Useragent data may also still be possible to retrieve if everything is done properly.

If you are interested in a discussion on how to continue to use tracking images effectively, here is an article that I found interesting.

How Gmail’s image caching affects marketing and email tracking

The relationships that companies have with their customers is based on trust.  What this means for the Email Marketer is that they need to continue to put their best efforts into understanding their customers and delivering the most relevant messages possible.  It is good to understand that modern Spam filters have evolved away from simplistic checks like opt-out language and tracking-images, and now rely heavily on transparency.  Trusted sources, closed-loop DNS records, reliable reply-to addresses, and CAN-SPAM compliance are what get emails delivered.  Circumventing these measure will continue to erode the trust of consumers.   At the end of the day, this move by Google should give consumers more reasons to trust the marketers whose messages they have let in to their inboxes.



October 15, 2013 1 comment

Do not be afraid of change.  Different isn’t always better, but Better is always different.

Companies that cannot embrace change cannot be innovative.  In order to move any product forward, it must change – hopefully for the better.  Customers will resist change, even while asking for it.  Innovative change must move a product forward, and must enable a company to acquire new customers.  This will inevitably mean the loss of some existing customers.  A company that cannot embrace this “two steps forward, one step back” mentality, cannot innovate.

Change.  It does the body good.

Creativity comes from the darndest places

So we just finished our first sprint and the team is really energized.  Our velocity for this first sprint was 20 story points.  We used Fibonacci series planning poker to weigh user stories and decided to limit any user to 8 story points or less if it was to be included in the sprint. Anything greater than 8 had to go back into the backlog until it could be split up into smaller stories.  This left us with 5 stories, and a total of 20 points.  I am confident that our velocity will start to dramatically increase in a very short time.  We delivered all 5 stories, btw!

The grooming of the stories in this manner has revealed some interesting trends.  Since the user stories are fairly general, and only define “what” the software needs to do instead of “how” it does it, the development team has far fewer specifications on which to base their solutions.  At first, some team members where hesitant to move ahead without the details they were accustomed to in their past waterfall projects.  As Product Owner, I made sure the team knew that I trusted – and in fact was counting on – their creativity.  When a team member was not sure how I wanted a particular user story implemented, I would say something like “I don’t care how you do it.  Give me a couple of suggestions of how you would do it.”

It quickly became obvious that the developers were coming up with solutions that were far more clever than I or any Product Manager could have, and they were also taking into consideration far more of the long and short term ramifications of those solutions.  One of the devs said to me, “Man, the backend architecture is really going to require a lot of rework,” and then proceded to outline his solution and how he would implement it.  It was a very elagent solution.  “I hope we get this solved in time, some of the tasks in this sprint are dependent on it” he said.  To which I replied, “Even with your help, if I had gone off fully speced a backend solution myself, it would have taken me weeks.  And then I would have come back with a design for you to implement that probably wasn’t very flexible, and would have delayed the rest of the project.  By telling you what I needed instead of telling you what to do, you just solved the problem far more elegantly, and it’s only the 2nd day of the sprint!”

If  you trust the people who know the problem to solve the problem, the solutions start to flow like water.

Backlog Grooming

April 27, 2012 1 comment

I have been spending a lot of time this week – as you might imagine – grooming the ol’ Backlog.  I have been focusing on both the set of user stories for the upcoming sprint, as well as the longer term release schedule.  It is becoming increasingly important to look down the road and flesh out and prioritize the tasks and features we most need in our next release.  At our current sprint size of 2 weeks, we have a total of 12 sprints until we deliver the next public release.

Angela Druckman on the Scrum Alliance site, talks about backlog grooming:

Sometimes called StoryTime sessions, the purpose of these meetings is to make improvements to the Product Backlog.  That definition is deliberately vague because the meeting is quite versatile.  A Backlog Grooming session can be used to:
• Write user stories (it is possible to build a Product Backlog “from scratch” in a series of one or more StoryTime sessions)
• Break down user stories that are too big (epics)
• Improve user stories that are poorly written
• Estimate backlog items
• Add acceptance criteria
• Look deeper into the backlog to do longer-range technical planning

That last bullet is an important one.  Some people mistakenly believe that doing Scrum means never focusing on anything but what is coming up in the next sprint.  This is not true.  Instead, backlog grooming sessions are a great place for a Product Owner to say “The March release is coming along great, so today I would like to spend time looking at the user stories I hope to get in the July release.”  Doing this gives teams an opportunity to look further into the future of the product, and can alert them to technical challenges and “gotcha’s”.

For the entire article, click below:

How to Hold Effective Backlog Grooming Session

Themes in Scrum

April 18, 2012 1 comment

There is considerable discussion among Scrum practitioners on the subject of themes.  Sprints often have a theme, which is more akin to a goal.  User Stories are also quite often organized into themes to help with managing the overall progress of a project.  Id like to look at User Story themes a little more closely.

One issue that I foresee in our own evolving scrum process is that certain types of projects may not ever bubble their way up into a sprint.  For instance, features and UX may often seem to deliver the highest Business value, while refactoring and documentation may be viewed as important – even essential – yet never quite deliver the business value when compared to other more visible projects.  The situation reminds me of the old sports adage, “Second place is the first loser.”  The point here is, how do we make sure that our sprints address a wide range of topics, and don’t get overly focused on only the highest priority items?

As an example, an epic user story describing a rich product feature that delivers a great deal of tangible business value is decomposed into perhaps a dozen smaller user stories of decreasing business value.  The highest value stories are the ones that deliver the minimal marketable, or minimal usable feature set, and their associated validation processes.  Next in line might be features that are essential to a finished and professional product, followed by “nice to have” features.  Finally, if we are smart enough, we have added stories for documentation and help, sales support, or even training.

So, what happens when we complete a sprint or two and deliver the highest value subset of stories and now start planning the next sprint?  Well, there is a very good chance that other high value features are in the backlog that trump the remaining stories in our first feature set.  Now, our goal may very well be to deliver as may minimally viable features as we can, which is a fine goal.  However, were does this leave the “nice to have’s”?  The documentation and sales support?  It would be nice if we could prioritize these before we forget everything that went into building the higher value stories.

I think the solution is to create themes for the user stories and commit to adding stories from all themes into sprints as appropriate. For example, maybe documentation and help is only 25% as valuable as the major features of the product.  Now, we clearly don’t want to neglect the high value features, after all, customers don’t buy a product because it has good help screens.  However, customers do stay with a product and tell their peers about it when it is polished and the user experience is great – so we don’t want to neglect these features either.

What I propose is that the Product Owner commit to organizing the backlog into Themes that allow some of the lower relative value items to be addressed on a periodic basis.  For instance, in our example above, we determined that documentation and help generally had business values around 25% of that of the highest value feature stories.  Then the team should commit to addressing stories in this “theme” once every four sprints.  In other words, the goal of every 4th sprint should be to focus on documentation and help themed stories.  That way, the highest value items always get the highest amount of attention, but 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place see a little action, too.

Here are some suggested themes that I think might work for our specific sprints:

  • Major user functionality
  • User experience (UX)
  • “Nice to have” features and product polish
  • API’s
  • Documentation and Help
  • Training and Sales support
  • Marketing support
  • Back end architecture and Data Modeling
  • Refactoring

This list is very much off the top of my head, but I am sure it could be fine tuned.

Let’s review the basic tenants of Agile and Scrum

April 9, 2012 Leave a comment

This week our Scrum Masters are at Scrum Master training.  In two weeks, I go to Scrum Product Owner training.  I thought this would be a good time to re-iterate the Agile Manifesto:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others
do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools 
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation 
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left

Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

  1.  Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly

In the following weeks we plan to put these ideas to work.  It wont be easy.  Ill let you know how it goes…

The Power of Small Batches in Software Development

April 3, 2012 Leave a comment

As our company moves forward with implementing Scrum, it’s good I think, to review what it is we are trying to fix, and what it is we are hoping to accomplish. Our legacy processes have been plagued with classic waterfall problems.

  1.  Long release cycles
  2. Massive, often difficult to manage, complexity to the product.  Features are difficult to test and document.
  3. Development resources are “Interruptable”.
  4. Progress is often measured by “Vanity Metrics”
  5. There is little flexibility or creativity once the process has started

Committing to 2 Scrum teams, and (initially) 2 week sprints has forced the team to begin an effort of breaking down the product, and the product features, into smaller and smaller pieces. Maintaining this list will be my primary responsibility as Scrum Product Owner. The advantages of breaking down the product onto digestible pieces is quickly becoming obvious;
The incremental releases will give us more opportunities to put working features in front of customers earlier and more often.

The smaller feature sets will be easier to test.

The team can better manage the amount of time team members spend on “firefighting” tasks such as support and operations.

As the team moves from sprint to sprint we will be able to judge and predict our capacity with considerably more accuracy – thereby cutting back considerably on over promising, or under delivering.

The team will have much flexibility to change coarse in response to feedback from customers and stakeholders.

The teams progress can be measured against real deliverables.

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