Email Read Receipts and why they don’t always work

Email Read Receipts sound great but don’t often work these days.  Articles like “How to tell if someone opened and read your email” aren’t telling the whole story.

The idea is to send an email with a ‘Read Receipt’ and get a message back when the email is read.  Nice theory but it’s complicated out here in the real world.

Here’s the reality behind the Outlook ‘Read Receipt’ feature and how it works across the Internet.

Outlook for Windows, and now Mac, have a ‘Read Receipt’ option on the Options tab.

Turn that option on to add a Read Receipt request to your email.

Read Receipt Optional

Read Receipts usually don’t work!  It’s the dirty little secret that you won’t see mentioned when boasting about this feature. The Read Receipt is optional for the receiver, most people and organizations turn the read response OFF.

Read Receipts are considered an intrusion on the readers privacy, so the automatic response is turned off.  We’ll show you how to do that here.

Read Receipts don’t mean the email is really read

Even if you get back a ‘Read Receipt’ that doesn’t mean the receiver actually read and understood your email.

Read Receipt only means the message status change from ‘Unread’ to ‘Read’.  That can happen automatically or simply by clicking on the email.

Response depends on the email software

Some email software, especially web based email clients, don’t have any Read Receipt options.

Outlook.com free account web interface do NOT have an option to request Read Receipts with outgoing messages.  However, you can control how to respond to Read Receipt requests on incoming message from Settings | Mail | Automatic Processing | Message Options.

Gmail free accounts used from a web browser don’t have any Read Receipt options to request or respond.  Gmail paid accounts (GSuite) do have Read Receipt choices.

You can get Read Receipt options for any mail account.  Use Outlook software connected to a Gmail, Outlook.com or any other mail account, then Outlook can send a read receipt if you choose.

What Read Receipt really means

Not a lot.  We occasionally use it for important messages or complaint emails but don’t expect it to matter.

You can send Read Receipts with some messages, or all messages, but don’t expect to get one back.

How a Read Receipt works

The Read Receipt is a line added to the message header like this

Disposition-Notification-To: Name of Sender <sender@email.address>

The receiving email system responds (or not) to that line.

What a Read Receipt looks like

A Read Receipt response is a plain text return email with the original subject prefixed with Read:  

The message body usually has the date, time and time zone settings of the computer where the message was read. But the content can vary.

The subject prefix lets Outlook combine the read receipt with other messages in the same thread/conversation.

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