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In Brief: Apple Updates & Email Metrics

In Technical by Georgene Nunn

Key Takeaways:

  1. Open rate metrics are officially unreliable for a large portion of marketers & that scale is going to increase as privacy feature rollouts continue
  2. It’s still possible to do successful email marketing without this metric

Back in June 2021, Apple announced they would be increasing privacy control with the release of iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8. Mail Privacy Protection became available as of September 20, 2021 for the Mail app on iOS15 and iPadOS 15.

Some privacy feature updates already in place or coming soon:

  • Create unique email addresses to use with mailing lists to hide real address, this will be built into Safari, iCloud, and Apple Mail
  • Apple Mail app sends a false open statement to email tracking pixels in email, preventing email open tracking (more on this below)
  • IP address masking to avoid location tracking and cross-site tracking
  • App permissions privacy report showing users what permissions they’ve allocated to apps (pictures, phone, web history, etc)
  • Changing how Siri processes requests so it doesn’t always have to contact the internet/record and send audio to perform the requested action
  • Encrypting traffic data with Private Relay to prevent it from being read by anyone but the user and the site being accessed

Two of these are of interest to marketing efforts – elimination of cross-site tracking and elimination of open tracking on emails. Cross-site tracking is a fairly deep subject, and doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, so for now let’s focus on the thing on a lot of marketers’ minds …

Email tracking armageddon?

According to Litmus, Apple devices account for over 46% of email opens as of 2020.

Things to keep in mind:

  • MPP is optional and users must choose if they want to obfuscate their activity and hide their IP address.
    • Unless – if a user does not have Apple Mail as their default/primary email tool, this setting will be active without their specific choice if they decide to open Mail or switch to using it. So anyone switching to Apple Mail will automatically have this privacy setting on.
  • It only impacts iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 Mail app users right now, but will eventually encompass all Apple devices.
  • When a user chooses a privacy setting, it’s automatically synced to all devices sharing the same Apple ID.
  • When MPP is active, a user’s email is routed through a proxy server that “pre-opens” email, to fetch the contents on behalf of the Apple device.
    • The sender will see only the proxy server’s address when it sends images, not the user’s specific IP.
    • This includes tracking pixels, so if the user never opens the email, the sender will show it as opened, because the proxy server already fetched the invisible image used to track opens.
    • If/when the user opens the email, if gets all the content from the proxy server, not the sender, so at no point does the sender get a direct connection to the user.
    • These proxy servers are in the same general area as the user, but less specific. i.e. it may be the same county but not the same city, and definitely not the same exact location
    • The proxy server downloads the images in the background at staggered times, to further obfuscate the activity by separating it from actions the user takes, like opening Mail.

What this means for your email efforts

So with all these false opens coming in, this means open rate tracking and related campaigns are dead, right?

Honestly? Not totally, but the sooner you pivot to other measurements, the better.

If you have run email campaigns to corporate addresses before, you may have encountered this problem already. Private and professional emails have been running emails through proxies for security purposes for quite a while now. If you’ve ever sent a campaign and gotten every single person at a single business logged as having opened and clicked all your links? They’re using a proxy. Email Service Providers (ESPs) simply can’t tell, but in the past it was possible to tease out these proxy users from other email metrics to get more honest views on how your mail is doing if you could spot the patterns and had the time to filter your reports. The pool of false data is about to get very large.

It’s certainly possible to filter out anyone with an obvious iCloud type email address, and some ESPs will likely start auto-filtering these out. That said, it would be smart to pivot away from using opens and open rate as key metrics, because other email tools like Outlook and Gmail are likely to follow suit to stay competitive in a more privacy-savvy consumer market.

ESP guides to these privacy changes:

  • MailChimp – isn’t taking steps to attempt to filter open data except for the “Resend to non-openers” feature, but instead provides guides on ways to adjust your campaigns and approach to email data
  • Constant Contact – won’t be attempting to filter data for their users but provides tips for how to change your approach
  • Pardot (1) (2) – may filter open metrics, but makes a vague claim related to filtering out security scanners rather than iOS proxies, so be prepared for open stats to become unreliable and refer to guides like this one from The Spot for Pardot instead
  • SalesForce Marketing Cloud – discusses changes and how to change email marketing habits
  • Litmus – has started segmenting open data based on Apple vs everyone else to help
  • ActiveCampaign – has tips for how to prepare for changes

And finally, top five things you should be looking at instead:

  • Click engagement – add interactive elements to your emails, and shorten longer emails to summary or teaser content that goes to your website
  • Replies and calls – encourage people to reach out to redeem offers or get in touch for details
  • Unsubscribes and bounces – is your list stale? are your emails even wanted? these numbers help you determine if your strategy is too light-touch or if your content isn’t giving people what they asked for when they signed up
  • Sales or sign ups – emails that drive traffic back to the website are great, but how effective are they at closing the deal?
  • Detailed or Smart metrics – many ESPs provide location & time of day data (partly impacted by this privacy update!), and some even have predictive or profile data like industry, age, gender, and other personal markers which could help you build a profile of who’s most – or least – engaged with your campaigns

Remember that opens are not only just a small part of email data, but truly only a small part of effective email marketing as a whole!