Apple’s “Mail Privacy Protection” is an Earthquake for Email Marketers

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Apple introduced new privacy features at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference in June, and they will have an earthquake-like impact on email marketing. It’s time for email marketers to shift from opens to more impactful engagement metrics.

The Mail app in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey will now allow users to opt-in to “Mail Privacy Protection.” This effectively breaks the “open rate” and all of the data that traditionally comes with it. Apple’s guidance for marketers sums up the changes quite succinctly:

“If you’ve been using remote images to measure the impact of your campaigns, there are a few changes to be aware of. Since Mail content may be loaded automatically after delivery, the time of Mail viewing will no longer be correct. And since that content is loaded without revealing people’s IP addresses and without detailed headers, the location and type of device reading the Mail aren’t revealed. And you’ll see your emails as being opened, regardless of if the user read it or not.” – Apple’s privacy pillars in focus – WWDC 2021

So, once a user enables Mail Privacy Protection (and we expect close to 100% adoption), Apple will effectively download all images in every email almost as soon as the emails hit their servers. This will make the ‘open rate’ and the ‘time of open’ useless, as every message sent to an Apple user will show as opened when they download the images. Additionally, the actual IP, device, and location will not be passed back to the sender.

It was only a matter of time until the privacy movement reached email marketing. We have to hand it to Apple; it’s an elegant approach. Instead of blocking the tracking pixels themselves, they made them useless by flooding them with inaccurate data.

This movement will impact certain aspects of every email program. While the open rate itself has always been a flawed metric, it still weaved into practically every aspect of email marketing, for better or worse. The fundamentals of email marketing will remain, with or without open rates. We don’t expect Apple to backtrack on any aspect of the Mail Privacy Protection, so we should all start planning for it.

Shift These Areas of Email Programs to Accommodate Mail Privacy Protection 

In our experience, people opened at least 30%-40% of emails in the Mail app on Apple devices in most email programs, and the percentages have been much higher in many cases. But how many emails are delivered to those clients? They will all show as having been opened in the future. So we’ve put together a list of considerations to start evaluating, rethinking, and re-engineering to help with the new OS (which launched on September 20, 2021).

  • Journeys & Automations – Many programs have email automations and triggers dependent on whether someone has opened an email. Check all business rules in the journeys and automations for decisions based on email opens, as the flood of false positives dramatically increases the number of users receiving those messages.
  • Subscriber Segmentation – If the classification of ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ subscribers includes those who have only opened an email, this needs to change. Fundamentally, clicks and conversions signify a much higher quality of intent anyway, along with activity in other channels, such as the app/website, as well as offline behavior. (A CDP will help tremendously in this area.) 
  • Subject Line Testing – Many ESP’s have tools for facilitating A/B tests for subject lines. Typically, these have delivered the winner to the rest of the audience based on open rates. It will be interesting to see how they address that functionality in the future. As with many other areas, testing using opens will need to shift to clicks. While still early into this privacy protection transition, some folks have been discussing testing subject lines to a non-Apple audience. We don’t see a future for that, as we believe Google and the other email services will probably buddy up on Apple’s approach pretty soon. 
  • Reporting – All of the metrics that include opens (clicks to opens, unique clicks to opens, etc.) will become obsolete. The email-specific reporting tools showing time spent reading, device used, and forwarding/printing will also stop being useful. Clicks and conversions have always been the critical signal to a thriving email program anyway, and the removal of opens doesn’t change that fact. If anything, email has always been under-attributed because of the simplicity of the open rate (which has never meant they actually read the email anyway.) Now will be a great time to reconsider attribution models to show the true impact of email on organizations. If the ability exists to export all legacy data out of the ESP, start those discussions now. Exporting all data will allow the creation of reference points for future analysis.
  • Deliverability – Some of the most vocal critics of Apple’s changes have argued that open rates are critical for maintaining a healthy list. While we sympathize with that argument, the trade-off for privacy is too high. Plenty of other signals and data points provide better feedback, and we expect to see some innovations from service providers to address these concerns. Suppose a marketing company has loose acquisition practices, an aggressive cadence, heavy-handed call-to-actions, and irrelevant content. In that case, the lack of open rates will not be the reason they run into deliverability problems. We suggest conducting an audit to ensure the whole email marketing program is in tip-top shape.
  • Real-Time Content – Apple caching images at some point of time between delivery and open will remove the usefulness of real-time image content, as the images will not need to be downloaded again after the initial download. More broadly, any business model based on open rate CPM will be disrupted. We are keeping an eye on this space and will share more once we know how those businesses will respond.
  • Stakeholder Education – Take the time to get everyone in the organization up-to-speed on the changes. With the removal of third-party cookies, conversations should already be happening. If open rates have been a critical component of your reporting to management, start having those discussions now. Quarterly (and annual) business reviews will need an official reset button, as the data reference points so often used will need a giant asterisk to explain to your stakeholders what exactly has impacted your metrics in the preceding months. QBRs and ABRs provide a great opportunity to showcase performance, but they should ultimately be geared more towards the strategy side of things. Map out a reaction to the new landscape after addressing the implications of the Apple Privacy Protection.

Long-term implications of evolving privacy protection

With the upcoming death of the third-party cookie, and now the loss of IP and pixel tracking, what should we prepare for next?  This is only the beginning of a long line of privacy regulations we are likely to see take hold in the coming months and years, as consumers become increasingly aware of the collected  data and how that data is being used.

Don’t look for a way around this!

Instead of being fearful of changes to privacy rules and regulations or looking for tricky ways to manipulate the system, redirect that energy into embracing the changes. Marketing will benefit from more focus on the true signals of intent. We hope this change will unleash a new era of creativity. This earthquake will pass, and we will build a new more sustainable future based on the true fundamentals of great marketing.

We will continue to share information as we learn more. In the meantime, we all have a lot of work to do, so we better get started.

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Apple’s “Mail Privacy Protection” is an Earthquake for Email Marketers

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