Whether you know it or not, chances are you interact with thousands or even millions of pixels every day. However, savvy marketers know that pixels can be used for much more than just watching cat videos. Pixels are the smallest units that make up a digital screen – that means the computer, laptop, or smartphone you're reading this on right now. If we think of a computer screen like a brick wall, each brick represents one pixel of a screen. Pixels are incredibly small and cannot generally be seen by the naked eye, but these little boxes can store bits of code that provide crucial data for retargeting campaigns, conversions, ad tracking, and much more.
How do tracking pixels work?
Tracking pixels are small bits of code that are embedded into a transparent 1x1 pixel graphic within the code of a webpage. By placing a small text file onto a visitor’s browser, they can report a variety of data points about a visitor. Think of a tracking pixel as a window marketers can use to look through to see what their website visitors are doing. One main benefit pixels have over cookies is that cookies store information in a user’s browser, while pixels send the information directly to servers.
Everything from the operating system the visitor used to the time they clicked or visited, and even their activities on a website during a session, can be tracked using pixels – making them very highly flexible and versatile for marketers. Finally, because pixels are essentially invisible to users looking at a screen, they provide a unique platform for marketers to gather information without disturbing the user experience.
Here are a few of the many uses for tracking pixels:
- Email Marketing: In this case, a pixel would be delivered and shown as part of the email. Once opened, the pixel can track activity such as open and click-through rates which is valuable in determining the success of an email campaign.
- Retargeting: This occurs when a visitor visits your website but leaves without buying or converting. Tracking pixels can be used to show targeted paid search ads to these people that are more likely to bring them back to your website and ultimately convert. Pixels can be placed on individual product pages, which, when viewed by a visitor that leaves your site, you can serve them a tailored ad specific to the product they viewed.
- Conversion Tracking: Tracking pixels can be placed on certain pages of a website, such as an order confirmation or thank you page, and thus will only record the visitors that reach that stage. This provides marketers key insights into where their conversions are coming from and which campaigns are working to bring in the most revenue.
So far, all of these benefits seem to make a pretty good case for using tracking pixels on everything you can. After all, knowledge is power, right? But before you jump into the deep end with tracking pixels, there are a few things you should probably consider first:
- Legality: As we’ve covered in other articles, there has been a wave of legislation in recent years, such as CCPA and GDPR, that have focused on giving privacy back to consumers and made it much more difficult to deploy tracking pixels effectively. While these laws do not apply to every single company out there, they do indicate a general trend toward individual privacy and could be an indication that there are more restrictions on the horizon.
- Technological Barriers: Even though tracking pixels are not at the mercy of an internet browser like cookies are, this does not mean they are not under threat. There are a wide variety of technologies out there that are designed to prevent pixel tracking and even alert the user when a website or email is attempting to track their actions. Google Chrome extensions like Pixelblock prevent tracking of email opens using pixels.
- Visitor Privacy: This is a matter of subjective moral and ethical obligations more than anything, but it’s still worth mentioning. All the information you can gather by using tracking pixels is great, but it is often collected without a visitor’s knowledge, which can lead to somewhat of a moral grey area when it comes to respecting individual privacy.
As the owner of a website, you have to ask yourself what level of privacy you’re comfortable offering your visitors and make your decision from there. If you do decide to implement tracking pixels on your website, it is a good idea to offer your visitors the ability to “opt-out” of having their activities tracked.
Don't let their tiny size fool you. Tracking pixels are an incredibly powerful aspect of any digital marketer’s toolkit. However, they are not without their drawbacks. The murky waters of individual privacy concerns, new legislation, as well as technological barriers are all conspiring to make it more difficult for digital marketers to use pixels or any other personal tracking technologies in the future. Fortunately, B2B marketers have other options than pixels if they want to get all these benefits while maintaining their ethical obligations to their website visitors. If you’d like to learn more about some of these options, check out our article: The B2B Marketer’s Guide to the Third-Party Cookie Apocalypse.