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

Apple’s “Mail Privacy Protection” is an Earthquake for the Email Marketing. Brace yourselves & Explore ways to embrace these privacy changes.
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Apple introduced new privacy features at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference last week, and the impact they will have on email marketing is nothing short of an earthquake. The Mail app in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey will now allow users to opt-in what they are dubbing “Mail Privacy Protection,” which will effectively break the “open rate” and all of the data that traditionally comes with it. Apple’s guidance for marketers sums the changes up 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 pretty close to when it hits 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 downloaded the images. Additionally, the actual IP, device, & location will not be passed back to the sender.

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

Certain aspects of every email program are about to change. While the open rate itself has always been a flawed metric, it’s weaved into practically every aspect of email marketing, for better or worse. The fundamentals of email marketing are still the same with or without open rates. We don’t expect Apple to backtrack on any aspect of Mail Privacy Protection, so you should probably start getting ahead of it.

Areas of your Email Program that will be Affected by Mail Privacy Protection

In our experience, emails opened with Mail app on Apple devices in most email programs is at least 30%-40%, and in many cases much much higher. But how many emails are delivered to those clients? They will all show as opened in the future. So we’ve put together a list of considerations you can use to start evaluating, rethinking, and re-engineering to be ready when the new OS launches in the fall:

  • Journeys & Automations – It is common practice for many programs to have email automations and triggers dependent on whether someone has opened an email. You will need to check all your business rules in journeys and automations for decisions based on email opens, as the flood of false positives will dramatically increase the number of users receiving those messages.
  • Subscriber Segmentation – If your classification of ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ includes subscribers who have only opened an email, this will need to change. Fundamentally, clicks & conversions are a much higher quality signal of intent anyway, along with activity in other channels such as your app/website as well as offline behavior. (A CDP will help tremendously in this area.) 
  • Subject Line Testing – This one will be interesting, as many ESP’s have tools that facilitate A/B tests for subject lines, delivering 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 it is still early, some folks have been discussing moving to test subject lines to a non-Apple audience. I don’t see a future for that, as I 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 stop being useful. The email specific reporting tools that show time spent reading, device used, 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. 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 your attribution model to show the true impact of email on your organization. If you have the ability to export all of your legacy data out of your ESP, start those discussions now. By exporting all of your data you will be able to create 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 I sympathize with that argument, the trade-off for privacy is too high. There are plenty of other signals and data points to use, and I would expect to see some innovations from service providers to address these concerns. Suppose you have 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 you run into deliverability problems. You have a few months to get your deliverability house in order; consider doing an audit before the fall.
  • Real-Time Content – It’s still early, but with Apple caching images at some point of time between delivery and open, this will remove the usefulness of real-time image content, as the images will not be requested again after 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 your organization up to speed on the changes that are on the horizon. With the removal of third-party cookies approaching, similar 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 are a great opportunity to showcase how you are performing, but ultimately they should be geared more towards the strategy side of things.  Once you have addressed the implications of the Apple Privacy Protection, you will be able to map out how you are reacting to the new landscape.

Apple released iOS 14 on September 16th, 2020. So you should expect iOS 15 to be in a similar time frame this fall. We are only on the first beta, so the nitty gritty details of how this is all actually working will continue to get clearer with subsequent beta releases. But based on Apple’s guidance for marketers, their intent and focus is clear, so you have the time to plan accordingly and be ready for the fall. 

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’s next?  Brace yourselves marketers, as this is only the beginning of a long line of privacy regulations that we are likely to see take hold in the coming months and years, as consumers become increasingly aware of the data that is being collected and how that data is being used.

If you’re looking for a way around this, don’t!  

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.

Data privacy and protection laws are designed to protect users, not marketers. More focus on the true signals of intent is a good thing for marketing. My hope is that those great ideas that were killed by metrics that didn’t actually prove anything 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.

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Alex Williams
Alex Williams is from Portland, Oregon, United States. He is a senior Vice President, Innovation at Trendline Interactive. He pursued his education in BA from The Ohio University. He is very passionate about any task at hand and puts his best foot forward to exceed client expectations.

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