A friend posted an interesting experience he had the other day on Facebook. He had been checking out a company's web site and later on they called him (without him asking) to see if he needed any help or further information. His response, and the response of all his friends in the thread, varied between "I'm never doing business with that company!" to "Creepy!" I think pretty much anyone would respond that way to what appears to be an "unsolicited" phone call.
I followed up with him and it turns out he had clicked through on a link in an email that was in response to a request for info he had sent in to them. Which brings us to our topic of "personalized URLs," or "PURLs" (pronounced "pearls"). PURLs are simply URLs, or web addresses, that, surprise!, have been personalized to uniquely identify you when you click on them. They are a hot thing in marketing right now, because they allow a company that uses them to:
- Customize the "landing page" you arrive at to be specifically tailored to your interests.
- Track which pages you go to and the amount of time you spend on each page.
- Monitor further requests you make for information, helping to determine their marketing campaign's effectiveness.
- Follow up with further emails (or in this extreme example, phone calls!) that are even more specific.
The whole process of using PURLs in conjunction with targeted marketing campaigns is called "lead nurturing," and it's a hot topic in marketing.
Now, before you get all "That's Big Brother!" in reaction, remember, most businesses could care less about invading your privacy. What they are really looking for is (a) finding new customers (b) to provide with exactly what they need (c) in the most efficient mechanism possible (d) for both the company and the customer. And PURLs are a good way to help in that process. It is no more nefarious than the tracking and suggestions that Amazon or Netflix make (both of which can be quite good), except it can happen without any prior relationship with you in place. All it takes is your email address (and hopefully some inkling of what you're interested in).
However, there are still times when you obviously don't feel like being "nurtured." You just want some information so you can mull it over, and if you're interested you'll come back. That's it. So, how to protect against PURLs in those situations?
- Remember, this has nothing to do with tracking based on browser cookies (although it is often used in conjunction with them), so turning off cookies or using your browser's "anonymous" browsing functionality will not help protect you - all the information they need is in the link itself.
- Don't click on links in emails. For security purposes this can be a good idea, anyway. For avoiding PURLs, it is essential. In most mail clients if you hover over a link it will show you the URL, or address, so you can tell where you are going to land if you click on it (this is always a good idea). If the address has a long string of gobbledygook characters in it, it is quite likely a PURL.
- Don't ask for information from a company and give them your email address unless you want them to start tracking you via PURLs when they send you a response.
If you receive an email with links with PURLs in them, you can still go check out the web site without triggering the PURL tracking. Simply open a new tab in your browser window and type in the base part of the address (just the domain name) without the rest in there. For example, if the PURL is:
http://3ff390dfgf3q2g.weknowwhoyouare.com/...then you can simply browse to weknowwhoyouare.com and check it out without them knowing it is related to that email marketing campaign. If you are really paranoid (but still interested) turn on anonymous browsing and obviously don't give any personally identifying information (PII - such as email addresses) unless you decide to do business with them.
You should note that in the extreme example of a company being so tone-deaf as the one who started off this thread, it is quite probable that they will say they are protected from prosecution from the "no-call list" law because it all started with a simple request for information from a potential customer, to which they responded with an email, to which he clicked through on a link and motored around on their site. So there was an "initial request for information," which is probably enough of a "business relationship" to "justify" their being able to do a lukewarm call (not exactly a "cold call").
Hopefully this helps. And again, remember, most companies aren't trying to be evil with PURLs. Just efficient. And there are times when you may want that efficiency. In which case, click away! But you should now know enough to know when you want to be "nurtured," and what to do when you want to be left alone. So don't cast your PURLs before swine (sorry, I couldn't resist! :).