The Freelance Creative

Is Gmail Streak a Blessing, or an Anxiety-Inducing Curse For Freelancers?

Updated 5/15/18

For many freelancers, the hardest part of the pitching process isn’t coming up with an idea; it’s waiting for someone to respond. Has the editor received my pitch? Has she read it? Why isn’t she answering me? Should I follow up? If so, how long should I wait before reaching out again?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever panicked through that series of questions.

Never having closure with unanswered pitches is arguably the worst hurdle freelancers have to deal with. Sure, rejection is tough, but most freelancers agree: Not hearing from an editor is worse.

Increasing your response rate

Since 2008, freelancer Lola Akinmade-Akerstrom has published an end-of-year pie chart that reveals ratios for how many of her pitches get responses or ignored. In 2008, 67 percent of her pitches went unanswered, and her experience isn’t uncommon. Last year, that number dropped to 18 percent. Over the course of their careers, many freelancers learn tricks for increasing response rates by understanding the importance of subject lines and knowing the best time to send emails, but there’s only so much one can do when the ball is in another person’s court.

So when the Google Chrome extension Streak came onto the market, freelancers jumped at the chance to install the productivity tool that promised, among other things, to give them more information after they sent a message to a client. Streak’s email tracking functions are twofold: Users get notified when their emails were read, and they are able to access data that reflects “if, when and how many times your email was opened.”

The pros

Some freelancers love Streak, claiming it helps them cope with the anxiety of no-response pitches. In an online writers’ forum, I’ve seen freelancers rave about the way Streak has helped them learn a bit about editors’ patterns and tendencies, which in turn allowed the writers to see where to focus their time and energy the most.

Streak also offers other project management tools, and those who install the plug-in have to use the email tracking function. Science journalist Kat Friedrich, for example, is a Streak user who doesn’t track email opens, instead relying on the program for managing her reporting queue.

The cons

However, despite the possible benefits, especially the ones that seem to offer insight into editors’ email habits, plenty of freelancers have found that Streak actually increases their anxiety. Antonia Malchik, a freelance writer and editor, said the process of pitching is “angst-ridden enough without seeing when an editor opens my email.” Since the plug-in doesn’t have the power of forcing editors to actually reply to an email, Malchik said, “It just seems pointless and ups my anxiety.”

From the editor’s perspective, the plug-in makes her even more uneasy. “As an incredibly private, anxiety-prone introvert, I really don’t like the idea of people being able to see when I open their emails but don’t respond right away. I mean, 95 percent of the time I’m glancing at my inbox and skimming email while I’m with my kids. I can’t respond to anything until I’ve had time to think about it and nobody’s smearing blueberry muffin on me,” she explained. Because she didn’t want writers reading into her tendency of opening emails and not responding right away, Malchik set up a block for Streak and similar email tracking services.

It’s true that Streak isn’t the only program that offers email tracking capabilities; more than a dozen exist. But the burden placed on editors who don’t want to be tracked might be unfair, especially if they’re not even aware that such programs exist.

How editors really feel

Nick Rowlands, guides editor for AFAR, had not heard of Streak before I reached out to him for an opinion. “There are just so many ways to open an email without actually intending to read it,” he said. “I suppose the more times an email is read or opened might correlate with an editor’s interest—it would with me, if I really were reading it—but inferring the likelihood of a commission from that seems a stretch, and there are many types of interest.”

Though Rowlands wouldn’t go as far to say Streak felt like a violation of privacy, he did admit that email-tracking programs make him feel uncomfortable.

Allison Zurfluh, the Zurich-based editor of Swiss Style Magazine, feels similarly, and her strong opinion on freelancers who use a tracking program like Streak may be of particular interest to writers: “Knowing someone was using a tool like Streak would deter me from working with them, or at the very least encourage me to not open the email until I had time to read it and respond fully,” she said. “Instead of tracking me, why not just send a follow-up?”

Alternative methods

Lola Akinmade-Akerstrom, the freelancer who produces the annual pitch and response pie charts, agreed that a good old-fashioned follow-up email is probably the best way to boost editor response rates. After installing Yesware, a program that, like Streak, monitors email opens, she realized the benefits of email tracking weren’t quite what they seemed. “I later uninstalled, because knowing that someone has read the pitches but still isn’t responding to emails can start breeding unnecessary resentment,” she said.

The resentment—an unexpected consequence of the program—bothered Akinmade-Akerstrom. Now, in addition to sending more follow-up emails, she focuses on pitching less and nurturing long-term relationships with editors and clients who have proven to be responsive and value her work.

While Streak may take away some of the mystery of what happens once a freelancer hits “Send” on a pitch, it doesn’t do anything at all to promote a response, which is, after all, the ultimate end game. Streak or no Streak, the green-lighting of an assignment ultimately rests in the editor’s hands. And clarity may be important, but if it also comes along with resentment and extra anxiety, then the plug-in can actually create more problems than it solves. In this case, it seems ignorance may be bliss.

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