I recently got sent an invitation to test out inbound marketing company Hubspot's free "Signals" tool. It's a sneaky, but potentially very useful little add-on to your email program (Gmail, Outlook or Apple Mail) which allows you to see - in real time or after the event - who's been opening your emails. It's like those old 'read receipts' in Outlook, but unlike with Outlook, you don't have to request that users provide you with a read receipt; you get them automatically and your unsuspecting email recipients have no idea that, upon opening your email, you will get a real-time notification that the email's been opened (this means the whole excuse of 'oh it must of gone into my spam folder' is no longer a viable one!). Additionally, senders who use Signals also get access to a reporting tool, so that they can get an overview of who's been opening what and when, and if recipients have clicked any links.
A godsend for sales people?
The tool has significantly useful applications for PR or sales people. For example, say you sent a pitch email to a journalist or a potential client and a day later you are considering if / when to do a follow up phone call. A notification flashes up on your screen informing you that the lead has opened (or re-opened) your email (indicating a degree of interest); this allows you to give the poor soul 5 to 10 minutes to digest the information again before you place your 'spontaneously' timed follow up sales call.
We're all in the NSA now...
The online marketeer in me loves this tool; but the citizen or consumer part of me takes issue with it. It all has a whiff of NSA to it - and highlights the fact that private companies and individuals, as much as the state, are now more than equipped to aggressively intrude on privacy - in this case for commercial gain rather than national security related purposes. In some respects Signals represents nothing particularly new - after all, companies have been able to track open and clickthrough rates for ages now and this is simply an incarnation of that kind of reporting. What does feel new about Signals (and similar tools) is the real-time aspect and the fact that it empowers people to get a very clear sense of what is happening at the end of individual communications - so much so that the tool effectively lets you spy, if you wanted to, on your friends and family.
One for early adopters
As ever with the modern web, nothing is private any more. I expect within a relatively short period of time this kind of technology will become the norm for email communications - I could see services like Google Apps, for example, building Signals-style notifications into email (after all, Facebook's Messenger, What's App and Apple's iMessage effectively allow you to see when your messages have been read; and it's just as easy to implement a similar system within email). This leads me to believe that Signals will be useful for early adopters - but as this kind of technology becomes more mainstream, people will assume that their contacts know when they've read a message, meaning those surprisingly well-timed follow-up calls lose something of their potency.