Do people read your emails?

Like a lot of teams working in government departments, we send round regular update emails to a large group. Often, we don't hear anything back. Is this because people aren't interested, or because we're giving them all the information they need? We decided to find out whether anyone was actually reading our emails.

Email saying 'Is anybody there?'
A weekly update email message

Are our email updates useful?

As part of our agile way of working at GDS, some teams write a weekly update to share what we've done in the past week, what we're working on next, and any issues we're facing. This follows the same format as our daily stand-up meetings, with an emphasis on what we've achieved or delivered and why.

These 'week notes' are a variation on more formal project status reports - they're simpler, clearer and written in plain English, so that they're easier to read and easier to write. They're open to the whole organisation rather than aimed at senior stakeholders, with details of how our work might affect or depend on other teams.

We wanted to know whether people were reading what we sent, so as an internal experiment, we added some tracking code to one of our Product Analytics team updates.

We were pleased to find that in the first hour after we sent the email, 55 people opened the message and 13 links were clicked. In total, it's now been opened 105 times, and links have been clicked 24 times.

Knowing that a substantial number of our colleagues are reading our updates (or at least opening them), we're reassured that it's a worthwhile use of our time and we should carry on sharing them.

Chart showing daily figures for our email
Chart showing daily figures for our email

How to track emails

There are lots of tools available to track whether an email is opened. They're commonly used in marketing but can also be used in personal emails, either with a browser extension to insert code automatically or with manual methods.

Most of these tools work by embedding a tiny invisible image in the message and then tracking when that image is loaded from the server. The image will remain in that email message indefinitely, but only tracks that specific message. Bear in mind that some email services don't display images by default, so the tracking image might not always be loaded and counted.

Link tracking is often an optional setting. To monitor which links people have clicked, usually the URLs are altered to redirect through the tracking service. This is similar to the way that URL shortening services like Bitly count clicks.

If you're sending emails to colleagues who share the same IP address (on the same computer network), make sure your tool is set up to count these and doesn't just assume they're being opened by the sender.