Email Bots: What They Are, Why They Matter, and How to Stop Them


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Congratulations: your last email campaign generated a really high click-through rate.  Or did it?

It’s an issue that B2B marketers are experiencing with increasing frequency: open rates and click-through rates that don’t quite match up, typically in the form of an abnormally high “click to open” (CTO) rate.  The culprit? Email bots.

Acting as a spam filter, email bots prevent malicious emails from infiltrating mail servers by auto-clicking the links in incoming emails. The result is that marketers may see a “click” on an email that was never even opened. Great for security. Bad for marketers.

As email bots become more and more common, especially in large, enterprise companies that B2B marketers love to target, the effects on email marketing and email campaigns become more pronounced.  We’re fast approaching a situation where virtually all email performance metrics, at least at the click level, are suspect.  Example: a recent audit we conducted of a client’s database determined that the vast majority of “clicks” they were seeing were from bots, not people.  Scary stuff.

And it’s not just click-through rates that suffer. Email bots make it increasingly difficult to gauge overall campaign performance and, on another front, can play havoc with triggered actions such as lead scoring or lead distribution.  Let’s say you’ve set up a system that sends a lead to sales after they’ve clicked on five emails.  If an email bot is falsifying a click before the email is even delivered to the recipient’s inbox, that click is no longer a measure of a prospect’s interest or engagement.  Worst case, you could be sending a lead to sales who’s never once engaged with your marketing campaigns.

So, how can you eliminate the effects of email bots and get your performance metrics on a track to credibility?  Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. While it’s expected that all major marketing automation platforms are working on fixes to address the issue, those solutions could be months away, at minimum.  In the meantime, here are three strategies that we’ve found most effective for our clients:

Embed a 1×1 pixel link on all emails.

Invisible to the human eye, but easily spotted by bots, the link leads to an unlisted, so-called “honey pot” web page.  Once embedded on all emails, you can then exclude anyone who clicked on that link from your campaign metrics.  This method works for two simple reasons.  First, it’s easy to implement. Second, no human will ever see the 1×1 pixel in the email, so any clicks have to be from bots.

The downsides?  One, there’s no set way that spam filters click links – some click the first they see, or the last, or some random combination.  So, it’s possible to generate “false negatives” if the bot clicks a different link and not the embedded one.  Two, some spam filters may see a hidden link as suspicious and mark your email as spam.

Add “Visited Web Page” as part of the trigger.

This is the easiest solutions in terms of set up, because there isn’t any. Instead, it’s a different way of looking at triggers and campaign metrics, namely abandoning a focus on what happens in the email itself (i.e. clicks), and instead looking at visits to the landing page.

This solution works in theory because email bots click on emails but don’t actually access the landing page.  The downside?  There are now advanced bots that actually visit the web pages they click on.  And this method makes reporting more complex – you can’t view web page visits directly in the standard campaign reports available from most marketing automation platforms, meaning you’ll have to pull separate reports or lean heavily on manual reporting.

Set up a smart campaign to filter out suspected bots.

If someone clicks on your email, but there’s no “open” recorded, or if the email is clicked immediately upon send, you can add those recipients to a suspected “bot” list and then manually review the list and filter performance reports accordingly.

In theory, this approach delivers more accurate metrics and a better list, but it involves the most manual work.  It’s also imperfect: a bot may click a link first, but then the intended recipient could click it later, leading you to potentially filter out “real” clicks.

Ultimately, the issue of email bots will need to be solved at a product level by the marketing automation vendors.  (We encourage customers of those platforms to advocate for solutions on their respective user communities.)  Until those fixes become available, however, no matter what interim solution email marketers employ to mitigate the effect of bots, the best advice may be to simply de-emphasize or even ignore clicks as a performance metric and campaign trigger, and focus on more downstream measures such as lead rate (response rate) and even ROI.

A big thank you to Spear copywriter Hannah Scott and Technology Director Anne Angele for their work on this article.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Howard Sewell
Howard has worked in marketing for 25+ years, and is president of Spear Marketing Group, a full-service B2B marketing agency. Howard is a frequent speaker and contributor to marketing publications on topics that include demand generation, digital marketing, ABM, and marketing technology.


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