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Will Apple’s new email privacy change email marketing?

Today is the day that Apple is rolling out iOS 15 and along with it the new Mail Privacy Protection. Email marketing is one of the most effective tools in the toolbox of a marketer. Depending on the source, the average return on investment (ROI) is anywhere between 3600% and 4400%.

This new privacy feature is sending shockwaves through the industry. It’s expected to create some major roadblocks for accurately tracking IP addresses and email opens of recipients. And then there is the question of when (and not if) others will follow suit.

What to expect

Until now, when you opened an email, only then the content along with any images are downloaded. This includes a pixel, often called tracking pixel, that allowed your email provider to see that the email was opened, what device and browser were used, the IP address, and sometimes also the location. In short, up until email marketing relied heavily on tracking pixels to detect when someone opens an email among other things.

The Mail Privacy Protection is a feature of the mail client on iOS 15, iPad OS 15, and macOS Monterey. It allows users to block email senders from detecting when they open an email and other things.

In practice, Apple won’t block the tracking pixels. Instead, it sets all the email content to be automatically preloaded a user sees the email. This will make it appear that a subscriber has opened every email even if they don’t.

What does it mean?

Historically, the open rate has been the de facto standard for measuring email campaign success. But I think it’s a lazy KPI. Who hasn’t opened an email and then ignored it? Open rates don’t really relay what actually matters: engagement.

It really means did you get a subscriber to not only open your mail but to take an action, to click-through to your site: Redeem a coupon, schedule a call, or whatever action you’ve planned.

With this new feature, the open rates are going to be inflated so that you need to question their reliability as a success metric. But not all is bad news: This feature will not impact your total clicks. So, even if the click-through rate is also going to decrease since it’s based on the email opens, it remains a reliable metric.

Knowing this, you can compare total clicks across your campaigns with a similar number of recipients to gauge their performance.

What about campaigns and triggers relying on opens?

Even if email opens were often a shorthand to measure success or worse considered to be a vanity metric, opens are used as triggers for

  • Re-engagement campaigns
  • Classic automation
  • Real-time personalisation

Opens are also used in other ways:

  • Segmentation or targeting based on last open date
  • Segmentation or targeting based on location
  • A/B testing subject lines
  • Countdown timers
  • Dynamic content
  • Send time optimised mails

In short, the data of your subscribers is going to become less dependable over time. Take for example classic automation for any customer journey: If a trigger is based on opens, the email will be sent to a larger audience.

Mail privacy protection isn’t new

What Apple does in its mail client isn’t so new. In fact, it’s quite similar to what Gmail is already doing. In 2013, Gmail has an image policy where it preloads attached images.

What about personalisation?

It’s not going away. It’s just changing a little. Personalisation such as including the recipients’ name in the subject line will remain as is. Other ways of personalisation by creating segments that don’t depend on email opens will also not be impacted.

Why is privacy important?

Privacy is a fundamental right. It allows subscribers to create barriers and guard who can access their information and communication. The mail privacy protection gives subscribers a way to have more control.

Although Apple’s intention is to give control and protect subscribers, it might backfire and they get even more unwanted emails. Think of it like this: if email opens are inaccurate, you don’t know if your subscriber list is healthy. And email list health depends on open and deliverability rates. The higher the better.

The bigger picture

Regulations and technology changes will always raise the bar on privacy. With the latest, mail opens are no longer an indicator that shows you the health of your subscriber list. But you can still use it to figure out if the email addresses in your lists are valid since Apple can only preload the content of an email if the mail client of a subscriber is active.

The mail privacy protection is about giving control back to the subscribers, it means that you as a marketer are invited, nay you have the responsibility to cultivate a more two-way and personal relationship with your audience.

Just like GDPR before it, mail privacy protection is another wake-up call to start thinking about how to develop campaigns that give your audience what it wants to receive while at the same time serve your goals.

At first glance, Apple’s newest policy may bring send shockwaves up and down in our industry: The open rate is not the KPI it used to be and has gotten unreliable. But it’s actually a good thing in that it’s going to force publishers and marketers to make changes to their campaigns. Changes that probably should have been made long ago. Email will continue to be a key marketing channel and people want personalised emails.

If you want to get more from your campaigns and explore ways to set up a customer journey, feel free to reach out.

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