Apple’s Email Privacy Protection Will Disrupt Marketing Trends

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On June 7th, 2021, at the annual WWDC conference, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection.

This has sent shivers down the spines of email marketers, with some proclaiming open rates are dead and that Apple is changing the landscape of email marketing.

What is Mail Privacy Protection?

Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect the recipient’s data. By nullifying invisible pixels, the new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.

Apple’s MPP is currently available for the Mail app on iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and watchOS 8. It will also be available on the soon-to-be-released macOS Monterey.

When opening their Apple Mail app for the first time, users will be prompted to choose between “Protect Mail activity” or “Don’t protect Mail activity.” The former will activate MPP.

It is important to note that MPP affects any emails opened through the Apple Mail app, regardless of the email service, but does not affect people using other email apps, such as Gmail or Outlook.

How does it work?

When a user opens an email, the data from that email gets loaded. Most people automatically download images in their emails. This lets marketers include an invisible “tracking pixel” to collect data. When you open the email, you automatically download that pixel and the image request to the host’s server to retrieve the image lets the server know that you’ve opened it. Additionally, it allows the sender to see your device, and sometimes your IP address.

Apple gets around this by routing emails through their own server first, where the email content is pre-loaded, including invisible pixels. This happens regardless of whether readers opened an email and makes the data from these tracking pixels unreliable, as it is now impossible to tell whether an email has been opened by the recipient or not.

After loading the entire email content Apple saves a copy of the images on the Apple Privacy Cache. When a recipient does open their email, the image will be pulled from Apple’s cache instead of the original server, so no data can be tracked.

Since Apple’s proxy servers tend to be in the same region as the recipient, you can still get a rough idea of the region your recipient is in for region-based segmentation.

The Impact

How many users are affected?

To gauge the impact of this privacy measure, we can first look at how many people this affects. According to market data, Apple Mail accounts for about 50% of combined email opens.

MPP is only available on the latest operating systems but based on previous adoption rates, we estimate most users to have upgraded within months of release. As macOS Monterey hasn’t been released yet, the full effects of Apple’s MPP won’t be felt in the upcoming months, but we expect within a year, a large majority of Apple users across all platforms will have access to Mail Protection.

While it is an opt-in feature that requires users to explicitly opt for protection, keep in mind 96% of Apple users in the U.S. refused ad tracking. Similar numbers are expected to opt-in for MPP. Apple as a company puts a strong emphasis on privacy as it is, and few users would explicitly say, “No, don’t protect my activity.”

Every email list is different. If you have any historical data regarding device & client usage of your own previous email marketing campaigns, you can use this to estimate how much of your list will be affected. 

How do we track engagement?

If you’d like to continue using open rates as a benchmark for A/B testing and campaign performance, you can. Simply make a segment of your email list exclusively containing contacts whom you know don’t use Apple Mail. Assuming your segment is large enough, it should be representative of your email list as a whole.

Some critics say open rates are a shallow metric to use in the first place and suggest focusing on more meaningful metrics, such as click-through and conversion rates.

Your primary business goal most likely is not to get people to merely open your emails, so it makes sense to use something such as a click-through rate to measure your campaign’s performance.

What should companies do right now?

Assess the impact MPP will have on your email list. Particularly for U.S. businesses, Apple users likely make up a large proportion of your list. It’s always good to check the situation for your individual company, however.

Remove open-based triggers from your automation. Since open metrics have become less reliable and inflated, it is best to remove them from marketing automation altogether. Avoid contacts rapidly proceeding through your email flows without opening a single mail. Another automation that typically uses opens, is a sunset policy. If yours is also using open rates and you forget to modify it, disengaged Apple Mail users will no longer be automatically removed from your list, which can have increasingly negative effects down the line.

Use the opportunity to optimize your open rates while you still can; delve into open rate best practices or take advantage of recent data. Once your data becomes more limited, it’ll be time to switch to alternative ways of A/B testing. Even for subject lines, open rates aren’t necessarily the most important metric, as a misleading subject line can cause high open rates, but low conversions.

Anticipate more changes. Apple is a frontrunner in consumer privacy, and it is likely other tech companies will follow their lead. Embrace MPP as a chance to focus on deeper email metrics.

Conclusion

No, Mail Privacy Protection isn’t killing email marketing. While this update disrupts some current popular practices, there is no need to panic. Marketers will need to change their strategies to adapt to the ongoing series of privacy changes, but with a proactive stance that focuses on deeper metrics, consent-based marketing, and delivering high-value content, you’ll come out on top.

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