Apple announced a few new security-focused features coming to its various products while highlighting the steps they're taking to protect its users' privacy. One prominent feature that will be added to Mail is the ability to block tracking pixels, hide IP addresses, and cache images in emails that could reveal your subscriber's email activity.
This development divided the marketing industry into two camps. Some folks believe that marketers will lose all insight into customer behavior. Others argue that we should break our addiction to the open rate anyway and that doing so will force us to use more comprehensive metrics.
This is a developing topic, and we'll keep learning more about how it works and affects your email marketing performance.
What Does Apple's Change Mean?
Apple has announced the rollout of several new iOS 15 privacy features at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Among other features, Apple Mail will now allow users to enable mail privacy features that hide IP addresses and prevent third parties from tracking email opens or other data.
- iCloud+ (Subscription): An iCloud subscription comes with extra privacy features, such as a VPN-like Private Relay feature that prevents sites from tracking Safari users and lets users see which websites they're sending information to.
- Hide My Email (within iCloud+): An email address cloaking feature allows users to provide "fake" email addresses to websites. While promotional emails sent to the fake address will still reach the intended recipient and should have no effect on important communications, brands will not be able to see the contact's real address unless the contact shares it.
While the paid features would probably have a moderate impact on marketers because they require users to purchase a service first, the free Apple Mail privacy feature has already caused a stir.
According to the announcement, Apple will start caching all images in emails sent to Apple devices. The approach effectively nullifies the tracking pixel technique and impacts real-time images because the image will not be "re-pulled" across devices once it has been cached for the user. This way Apple is trying to stay ahead of privacy regulations worldwide, especially in the US and Europe.
Pixels are image units that are typically embedded in emails as a tiny invisible rectangle.
Currently, when you open an email, the tracking pixel will load and thus alert the server, so the sender is aware of your activity and gets your IP address, device type, and location. Many email marketers use this opportunity responsibly to track user engagement, analyze effective headlines, and improve their future success rates.
How Does It Work?
When you open Apple's Mail app on iOS 15, you'll see an opt-in Mail Privacy Protection popup, similar to the one shown above. The dialog asks if you want to keep your email activity private. If you choose "Protect Your Mail Activity," Apple will disable image tracking pixels and hide your IP address from senders. So with one feature, Apple may have just killed email tracking.
Even the least tech-savvy user is unlikely to click the "Don't protect Mail activity" button. Not only does this signal the end of email read receipts, but it also makes it more difficult for email marketers to track recipients.
Why This Is Important
Apple's policy change affects customers who use the native Mail app on their iPhones or iPads and the desktop email application. That's a huge crowd: according to Litmus.com, the iPhone has a 47.1% share of the email client market, but Apple Mail has a 13% share, which is lower than Gmail (18.6 percent ).
However, this change only affects people who receive email through the Apple Mail application. A consumer who reads email on an iPhone using Gmail is still unaffected.
What Impact Will This Has on Marketers?
Some marketers have been obsessed with the open rate metric, believing that an open is a gateway to intent. While that may be true, we've been placing far too much emphasis on this single metric. Apple's announcement only partially ends this obsession. Google could (and most likely will) announce something similar in the near future. Looking at the big picture, many email and marketing analysts believe that the evolution of privacy legislation will follow the path of spam legislation of the early 2000s, culminating in the creation of a national standard (CAN-SPAM).
What Areas of Your Email Program Are Affected by Mail Privacy Protection?
Emails opened with the Mail app on Apple devices in most email programs are at least 30%-40% of the total amount sent, and in many cases, the figure is much higher. We've compiled a list of things to think about as you begin evaluating, rethinking, and re-engineering for the latest OS's release on September 20, 2021.
Journeys & Automations
Many programs have email automation and triggers that are based on whether or not someone has opened an email. The flood of false assessments will dramatically increase the number of users receiving those messages, so you'll need to double-check all of your business rules in customer journeys and automation for decisions based on email opens.
You'll need to change your 'active' or 'engaged' classification if it includes subscribers who have only opened an email. Clicks and conversions, along with activity in other channels like your app/website and offline behavior, are fundamentally a much higher quality signal of intent.
Subject Line Testing
Many email service providers (ESPs) allow for A/B testing of subject lines, with the winner being sent to the rest of the audience based on open rates. It'll be interesting to see how they handle that feature in the future. Testing with opens will need to transition to clicks. While it's still early, some people consider testing subject lines with people who aren't Apple customers.
All metrics that include Opens (such as Clicks to Opens, Unique Clicks to Opens, and so on) will become obsolete. Email-specific reporting tools that show time spent reading, device used, forwarding/printing, and so on will no longer be useful. The removal of opens does not change the fact that clicks and conversions have always been the most important indicators of a successful email program. The simplicity of the open rate metric meant that email has always been under-appreciated (customers don't even read the email sometimes.) Now is a great time to rethink your attribution model to demonstrate the true impact of email in your company. Start those discussions now if you can export all of your legacy data from your ESP. You can create reference points for future analysis by exporting all of your data.
According to some of the most outspoken critics of Apple's changes, open rates are critical for maintaining a healthy list. But there are other signals and data points to consider, and we expect service providers to develop new ways to address these concerns. Assume you have random acquisition practices, a quick cadence, obnoxious call-to-actions, and irrelevant content. The lack of open rates will not be the cause of your deliverability issues in that case. You still have a few months to get your deliverability house in order; consider conducting an audit before the end of the year.
How to Navigate Apple's Open Privacy Changes for Email Marketers
1. Keep Monitoring Apple's Updates
Even though Apple's iOS 15 features are starting to roll out, we still don't know much about how they'll affect the way we use email.
As the feature becomes more widely available, our email product team will investigate the change and consider solutions if it significantly impacts open rates.
We'll keep updating this post with more information and links to helpful resources as we learn more about these new features and how they might affect your email analytics.
2. Remember That This Change Doesn't Affect All Email Subscribers
Even though Apple Mail and Apple mobile devices account for more than 35% of the global email provider market share, Google, Outlook, and other email providers have yet to make similar privacy announcements. This means that their open rates and IP data could still provide valuable tracking information for email marketers.
3. Adjust Your Open-rate Targets
Although open rates are unlikely to decline anytime soon, a sizable portion of email audiences may become untrackable. As a result, you may need to lower or pivot your open rate goals to determine your new open rates.
You'll have to audit and communicate how many opens you typically get from iOS users so that your team can forecast how things will change after the rollout. You might also want to keep track of your email open rates for a month after the launch to see what new averages emerge from hard data.
4. Use Data From Other Email Marketing Campaigns
While open rate is a popular email marketing KPI for many businesses, it's far from being the only metric you can use to determine how effective your email content is. Here are a few more ones I'm going to keep an eye on, even if open rates are affected:
- Clicks and click-through rates: If you send emails with links to content like blogs, product pages, and offers, the number of clicks and click-through rates will tell you how many or how often your email subscribers engaged with and clicked on your content.
- Your website's traffic: You can determine how much traffic came to your website from a single email via tracking URLs.
- Click maps: Many email providers allow you to see which parts of the email received the most or least clicks. This can help you figure out which parts of your email were the most and least clickable.
- Unsubscribe rates: While these rarely change, a high unsubscribe rate could indicate that a part of your email strategy (such as the content or frequency) caused you to lose more subscribers than usual. In the meantime, a consistently low unsubscribe rate indicates that you're keeping or even gaining subscribers.
- Persona research via survey or email: You can use other strategies, such as surveys or polls, to learn more about your subscribers' interests, in addition to the metrics you can get from your email marketing platform.
You can also use email tools or benchmark reports to see how your email open rates compare to those of other brands in your industry.
Apple's announcement isn't the first time that the company has made a privacy pivot, and it won't even be the last in 2021. Even if the world is changing in ways that present challenges for digital and email marketers, that doesn't mean you can't keep innovating your strategy to meet prospects and audiences where they are.
While open rates are important, there are many other ways to get to know your email subscribers, learn from KPIs, and continue to provide them with valuable content.