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What is a Tracking Pixel?

Find out what a tracking pixel is, plus what kind of tracking pixel service providers are out there to help you understand the data behind your business.

Green rope linked together symbolizing meaning of tracking pixel
Tracking pixels link data points together to make improvements in your website(s), app(s), and advertising

Organizations are constantly looking for an edge to increase profits, reduce expenditures, and drive business forward. In the 1970s and 80s, it began with how to trim production costs - kaizen, or continual improvement, came from Japan and eventually dominated all aspects of manufacturing. The next phase of performance improvements came internally in the form of digitization. Electronic forms, online customer portals, even automated telephone support all reduced the costs of operation and increased profits.

Maybe you're asking why are we talking about this when you came to this page looking for more understanding of what a tracking pixel is, and I can understand that! A tracking pixel is a tool, just like other tools in the past, to help improve business performance. However, this is a tool that helps evaluate your website, app, and other external platforms with unbiased data.

The Old Days (of marketing and things like store performance)

Old radio sitting on counter
Ahh, the days when you just had to make a catchy jingle and watch profits skyrocket!

It wasn't so long ago when one of the best methods of advertising was to take out an ad in the local newspaper, or a catchy jingle on the radio. Agencies had it easy then to come up with a marketing/advertising campaign - there were only a handful of proven methods to get your message out. The toughest part for an agency was to make sure your message worked before it went live. The Internet blew everything up!

Even though the first HTTP cookie came out in 1994, the idea of what most people think of as tracking pixels didn't really become a thing until the late 2000s. The cookie was a way for a website to know certain things about a return user. Cookies allow all kinds of things to happen - signing an account, getting recommendations of products to buy, pre-loaded content for faster browsing, and so on. This made navigation on the Internet much simpler and people happier overall. However, behind the scenes, businesses quickly realized that the power of all of the data being gathered and stored by cookies could be harnessed for other areas of operations: advertising, namely, as well as other items such as user experience.

Ad networks began building databases on consumers to create highly personalized advertising messages. Take a look at a specific shoe, and in your Hotmail (how many still have a Hotmail account?) you'd see an ad for that very shoe! Or, maybe you searched for certain kinds of symptoms on one of the many popular medical websites. Chances are shortly thereafter you will see an ad for some kind of prescription drug or local organization that can meet the needs of those symptoms. Many find this type of advertising creepy, and there are lots of examples of how personalization can fail.

Now there are many types of tracking pixels, each with their own use. From the simple - website, email, and ad measurement - to the creepy - tracking the actual mouse-track usage of real customers and phone call recordings - businesses have the availability to track nearly every aspect of their online interactions with customers. Let's highlight one such usage that many small businesses can benefit from.

Pixels Can Be Used In UX/Website Performance Measurements

Image of Figma web design tool
Figma is just one program that UX Designers use to create optimized online experiences. Before revamping your website, you should consult an expert in this area. Credit:

Pixels give data like how much time someone spent on a page, whether they clicked on certain buttons over others, and more. Together, they compose what most people know of as website analytics, with some of the most popular forms of analytics coming from GoogleAnalytics, MonsterInsights, and HotJar to name a few. Interestingly, HotJar and similar competitors have ability to provide a heatmap of your site and digital ads to show where people are clicking or hovering - allowing you to diagnose conversion problems.

Which brings us to the next point - you should be using data to inform your web design and user experience!!

Leading with Data, Not Hunches

See if this is you:

  • Have you wondered if changing your site's color for a specific holiday - like pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October - would increase the number of phone calls your business receives? Analytics can provide that answer.

  • Have you pondered why it seems like there are lots of people in a specific demographic going to your site, but your customers are much different? There's probably an opportunity to expand your business to a new audience you're currently not capturing.

  • Do you wonder how many people are currently needing a product/service like yours? SEMRush, SpyFu, and others can help you determine that.

  • You ask what's the best time to publish a Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest post, but unsure how to find that out. A Google Analytics report of user behavior could clue you in to the answer.

Using tracking pixels, you can move away from hunches about what your audience likes to creating products/services that are meaningful to them.

What kind of tracking pixel services/providers are there?

Now that you understand some of the functions of a tracking pixel, let's see what kind of service providers there are out there:

A limited list of Website Analytics providers:

  • Google Analytics (GA) - mentioned, earlier, this is the king of gathering data for your site. With GA, you can understand your website traffic better and answer crucial questions to help improve conversions. However, there is a steep learning curve with Google Analytics - both in setup and understanding the data - that many find intimidating.

  • Monster Insights - a competitor of Google Analytics, and is used in many Wordpress websites

  • Built-in Analytics from page builders - Weebly, Wix, SquareSpace, and the many other website builders out there tend to have their own internal statistics provided automatically for clients. The range of data is typically pretty limited, but many also provide for custom installs of Google Analytics.

  • Chartbeat - typically used for large volume content producers like newspapers and other online entities to help determine which articles are trending in real-time, which ones retain customers, etc. This is a paid subscription.

  • Adobe Analytics - best for enterprise-level businesses working with large volumes of data analysis. Further, this tool is not free.

Ad/UX optimization tools:

  • Facebook Pixel - get a better understanding of what your Facebook advertising is doing for the business with Facebook's pixel, as well as retargeting ads on Facebook. Measuring online, cross-device, and even offline transactions are possible by properly setting up your pixel.

  • Google's retargeting tag - set up retargeting display ads in Google to further convert audiences.

  • Hotjar - get a hotmap of your webpage to see where people hover over the most, figure out if changes to your creatives can increase ROI on advertising spend, track the mouse movements of real users to see how they interact with the website. They have a free version for 'personal use.'

  • Mousestats - a competitor of Hotjar, but with a limited free plan.

  • Woopra - a tool that focuses on conversion paths and where weaknesses in those journeys lie. A robust free version available.

  • SEMRush - find out what your competitors are doing in Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) campaigns. You can get a few free samples, but then it is a paid service.

  • SpyFu - a competitor of SEMRush, but cheaper.

Endless Possibilities, Limited Time

The possibilities are endless when it comes to tracking pixels and what they are capable of doing. The biggest limitation, however, is the amount of time that a business has. Many of these tools require a deep knowledge to use well, as well as a background in understanding consumer behavior to interpret the data once you capture it. This is where agencies like Tracking Pixel have become more data analysts than pure creatives in order to drive value to businesses. If you feel a little overwhelmed by this article, feel free to drop us a line and let's see how we can help!

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