What Apple’s privacy update will do to your email stats

Consumer privacy is a hot topic right now – and our leading tech giants have been listening. Apple is leading the charge, with the iOS 15 update coming to our phones in September. The key change (for email) is the new Mail Privacy Protection option.

What does it do?

iPhone users can now turn pixel tracking off, in their settings. Note; this is not the default and there are some questions about how many people will opt-in. You only have to look at past debates in the UK over pension auto-enrolment or getting people on the organ donation register to see how many of us settle for the status quo, even when it’s a life-defining issue.

Most Email Service Providers (ESP) place a small, invisible pixel in the heading of the email. This allows marketers to track when and where the email is opened. If you can no longer trust the accuracy of your open rate, you cannot use it as a metric. Off the top of my head that hurts;

  • Reporting
  • Any form of list cleaning
  • Any segmentation or list automation that relies on open rates
  • Any A/B testing that requires an open rate.
  • Any geo-location targeting based on IP address (this last applies to ad retargeting too).

Apple will also offer their users a “Hide My Email” feature, allowing subscribers to use a spoof address to sign up for online promotions. The user will still get the email re-routed to their true address, but ESP’S will have the headache of separating out the real subscribers from the fake. I suspect Apple may adjust this feature as soon as it gets used on a mass scale by spammers, or else iPhone subscribers complain they are getting blocked. In the meantime, everyone’s deliverability will take a hit. 

This is a big deal. The iphone has a 45% market share as an email client (Litmus) and Apple’s update is forcing Google to do the same for Android. It will have the same impact as the GDPR legislation did on email lists and force us to look afresh at the way we use the channel.   

The good news? 

Email is not dead – in fact, given the carnage, this will cause for online advertising – it may even help the industry.

What the updates will do is kill off the last remnants of the “blast and pray” mentality. In the past, you could point to the open rates as a way to show your subscribers were paying attention. Given the average open rate is 20% and the average click-through rate is 2%, that’s not surprising. However, if you take away the opening rates, you are looking at the same stats as the direct response industry used to enjoy, back in ’90s. When every letter costs you money, you become very precise with your customer targeting and information. I think that the same will happen here. Email marketing has been neglected because it was cheap and easy. However, if you have to work for your metrics – a click, response or website visit – you will pay close attention to the content you are producing and its value to your readers. 

Where does that leave me?

Take a fresh look at your transactional emails (welcome emails, receipts, aftersales). They already enjoy the highest click rates and I expect them to become even more valuable as they follow a positive, concrete reaction from the reader. The same applies to your automation funnels – review any of them where the opening rate is used as a trigger.

Segmentation will go back to what we know about our subscribers, just as much as what they do. Surveys, quizzes and one-click questions will feature even more strongly. Your list cleaning efforts will also need adjustment – instead of siphoning off the inactive 20% of your list, look at a periodic date trigger to ask your readers if they still want to hear from you. 

Finally, I expect to see more gamified emails which encourage clicks (like this superhero one from Stripo) or a rewards scheme for members who check in regularly. Interactive emails are slowly taking off and 

I also expect the value of email to go up, especially if ad targeting is thrown into confusion. Apple already allows people to opt-out of app tracking on mobile with the 14.5 update and web tracking on Safari. It’s no longer enough to throw money at a channel and hope for the best. 

You need a relationship with your audience to be worthy of their attention. 

Rabbit-hole Reading: 

Stripo’s experiments in email gamification

Apple’s Press Release on the iOS15


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