Goodbye Email Open Rates: Prepare for Apple’s Privacy Update

By Aneta

Earlier this month, Apple announced new features to help users control and monitor their data—huge news as the company continues to expand its commitment to privacy.

One of the updates is a new feature called Mail Privacy Protection. Apple will soon prevent senders from using tracking pixels embedded in emails to gather data on whether people open an email. The new feature will mask their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or location data.

The new Mail Privacy Protection will launch on the Mail app on iOS 15 and macOS Monterey devices sometime between September and November.

What will change?

When someone opens the Apple Mail app, they’ll be prompted to select “protect mail activity” or “don’t protect mail activity.” It’s unclear if Apple will pre-select one of these options for users.

This change will affect any email opened from the Mail app regardless of email service; this means that people who use the Mail app to check their Gmail or Yahoo inboxes are also included in this new feature. It won’t affect other apps—for instance, if someone uses the Gmail app to read their emails—but the market share for Apple Mail is substantial. Estimates show that this will impact roughly half of all users; possibly less or more depending on your specific audience.

This is a big deal. If any portion of your email list has open rate data obscured, then the entire metric could be useless.

How will this impact your email strategy?

Many email strategists and teams track open rates on each email blast for insights into what content is resonating with their audiences. The new feature will likely make this metric obsolete.

What does this actually mean? It means no more A/B subject line testing. It means it will become harder to monitor email deliverability health. It means rethinking how you suppress inactives on your list. Some organizations make income from sponsored emails to specific segments—now it may become more difficult.

Privacy is good…right?

The new privacy feature will likely have unintended consequences for those of us who use open rate data to get critical information about our movements, campaigns, and issues in front of more people. One of the most important ways that open rates are used is list hygiene. Many teams use suppression segments based on 6- or 12-month inactives (depending on how conservative you want to be, every email program and every audience is different) to ensure that only people who want to receive emails are getting them by suppressing the email blast from people who haven’t opened at least one email from your organization within that time frame.

The privacy change will block this potentially useful indicator of whether someone is actually reading your emails—and stop sending them when they’re not. This could negatively impact not just email strategists but also subscribers. At the same time, everyone should have the right to deny data collection. Even though people are opting in to join your email list, they may not know that you are tracking exactly which emails they are opening and how many times. Now folks will have the option to say no.

Are open rates dead?

We can’t say for sure just yet, but it’s looking like open rates may soon be a relic of the past.

Open rate data had its fair share of flaws as a metric; it requires image downloads for the tracking pixels to work and some email strategists already considered open rates a vanity metric—similar to list size if that list isn’t engaging with your content. In spite of these flaws, open rate data is frequently used as an indicator of performance for email campaigns. It serves a powerful purpose for re-engagement campaigns, automated flows, and monitoring deliverability. But it should never have been the only metric used to evaluate email performance.

How can your team prepare?

1. Test before the privacy change rolls out.
If you had any email testing planned, you only have a few more months to use open rates as a metric. This can help you understand what is compelling to the people on your list and use the learnings when you no longer have the option of subject line testing or using opens as a data point.

2. Clean up your list.
This may be your last chance to use open rates to convert inactive customers with reactivation or re-engagement strategies. Protect your sender reputation by being judicious with who you keep or remove from your list.

3. Adjust your audience segments and dynamic filters to not use email open data.
If you have any segment or targeting set up in your CRM based on the last email open date, it will soon be useless. Audit your segmentation and talk with your team about how you want to define “inactives” moving forward.

4. Review your automated email user journeys.
If you have an automated user flow based on someone opening an email, you should adjust the triggers to use a different metric—such as a set number of days elapsing, a conversion, or a click.

5. Prepare your team.
Don’t plan on any subject line testing or send time optimization. The data will be inaccurate.

Email isn’t dead. But this is certainly a pivotal moment that is, in part, leading us to a long-overdo conversation about how we can most effectively—and ethically—approach email strategy (within a history of consultants and campaigners sometimes using deceptive tactics). We can and we need to adopt. This can be an opportunity to think about how to engage the people on our lists more deeply rather than just talking at them.