Verizon quietly introduced a new email marketing feature yesterday that it ominously calls “View Time Optimization,” which is a fancy euphemism for a tracking tool that alerts advertisers to the moment you’re looking at your email inbox. Why? So they can send you an ad, of course.
The service is part of Verizon’s suite of email and web advertising properties, which includes AOL and Yahoo, and well-known programmer David Heinemeier Hansson (the inventor of the Ruby on Rails web application framework) called out Verizon on Twitter today for what Hansson calls an “Orwellian” ad placement tool.
(It should be noted Hansson is helping develop a privacy-focused email client called Hey through his company Basecamp, of which he is the co-founder and chief technology officer alongside chief exec Jason Fried.)
View Time Optimization is a play on the popular email marketing tool Send Time Optimization. That tool is not exclusively used by Verizon but by Mailchimp and countless other email marketing firms as well. It uses existing data gathered about an email user through their interactions with tracking pixels and other invasive yet near-universally used ad tech to know the best time to target you with an ad, which comes in the form of a new email that shows right up at the top of your inbox. Send Time Optimization basically knows when you’re most likely to check your email, and it helps marketers time their ads appropriately.
Verizon’s version of this, however, goes one step further and tracks people in their AOL or Yahoo email client to send the ad out “when users are actively engaging with their inbox.” If it shows up right then, apparently, the data shows someone is more likely to open the message.
“It ensures emails appear close to the top of the inbox and thus it’s improving the sender’s open rates, click-through rates, and overall ROI of their email marketing campaign,” writes Verizon product director Marcel Becker. “Email senders who have used VTO with their email campaigns saw increases in opens by 4x and clicks by 2x.”
Of course, Becker wouldn’t be a good marketer, or a model Verizon employee, if he didn’t spin this product as a benefit both to advertisers and consumers. This is where Hansson’s Orwellian descriptor is most apt.
“We genuinely believe that our mutual customers deserve a unique experience which connects them to their passions,” Becker writes in the announcement. “We want to enable them to discover the things which matter to them. We want to enable them to get the most out of their inbox.” He goes to say that “we believe that tracking our customers is wrong,” and then follows that sentence up with, “But we also believe in the idea that they should be able to discover what is the most relevant to them.”
It’s shocking because Becker is acknowledging that tracking is wrong while at the same time admitting Verizon simply does not care because the value it provides to the advertisers that pay it to use these tools is greater than the potential privacy implications.
Of course, virtually every email client on the market, including Gmail and other popular services, aggressively tracks its users, collects and stores their data, and then sells access to the inbox and the contents of people’s messages to advertisers. That’s because these products are, by and large, free, and the companies that make them earn money by amassing large user bases of largely apathetic consumers and then monetizing that user base via ads. There are paid services out there for people who want more privacy, including ProtonMail and the recently released OnMail. But companies like Verizon accurately assume most people don’t care enough and will put up with invasive advertising in exchange for a free product.
Still, View Time Optimization seems like an all-new level of tracking, and there are a lot of critical, unanswered questions about how this ad tech works — most importantly whether Verizon email users can opt out. Other pertinent issues include whether this tool provides marketers with instantaneous knowledge of when someone is sitting at their computer and whether location data is included; how much of this tool is automated or how much manual intervention a human being can take; and what kind of database of info is collected and kept on email users’ habits.
Verizon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.