Iain Moss
Iain Moss
Posted 14 June 2021

What does Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection mean for retailers?

Hot on the tail of its recent move regarding app-tracking in iOS 14.5, Apple has announced changes for iOS 15 that have an impact on how email marketing metrics are tracked. 

The short version is that measuring email open rates is going to be significantly affected. Retailers need to continue to provide great experiences that keep customers engaged, and willing to give you their personal data in exchange for a valuable experience. 

Let’s take a look at what’s happened, why it’s happening and what it means for retailers going forward.

What is happening?

Apple has announced that as part of its latest operating system updates across their devices (including the iPhone, iPad, and desktop) that they are including Mail Privacy Protection for their Mail app. 

In Apple’s words “Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. 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.”

This change means users are presented with a choice to opt-in to Protect Mail activity, so it is possible that not everyone will choose this. However, it has been reported that when Apple did something similar with App Tracking, only 4% of users chose to opt in. 

This has provoked a flurry of interest in the email marketing world, as these changes will have an impact on open rates. If you’re a retailer who relies on open rates as a key metric in your strategy, you’ll need to be on top of this. Some are already talking about the end of the newsletter boom, though that is premature. 

Why is Apple doing this?

Once again, Apple is doing this in the name of privacy, and giving users the option to block activity tracking that has been prevalent online. This follows on from blocking 3rd-party cookies in Safari (and Google have followed suit in Chrome), and the aforementioned App Tracking Transparency changes. 

This move is also part of a wider industry change, which is responding to growing desire from consumers for greater privacy and also frustration at poor online experiences, so it is going with the tide.

What metrics is this going to impact?

Open rate will be affected. Clicks and other engagement metrics will not be affected. It will also affect email providers who rely heavily on IP addresses for identification. 

At the moment this will just affect users who have iOS 15 (or one of Apple’s other operating systems) installed and check emails on the native Apple Mail app. But as 45% of the world’s emails use Apple iPhone, and a further 12% use Apple Mail, this is likely to impact a majority of your users. 

It’s hard to say what the impact will be exactly. Some initial tests run by Sparkpost suggest that these pixels are being loaded by Apple even for emails that haven’t been opened and so are showing false opens. There may be some updates which end up showing very few opens. Either way, it’s going to throw your open rate out of whack. 

What is going to be the impact on email marketing for retail?

Open rate is considered by some to be a “vanity” metric – one that doesn’t really tell us much. It can be unreliable because some email clients don’t always trigger the pixel automatically, and so it doesn’t give a “true” value. But more than this, retailers should be looking to optimize their performance for metrics further down the customer journey, such as revenue and customer lifetime value, which open rate is just a small contributing factor towards. 

By that measure, you could argue that this change doesn’t mean a lot. But opens and open rate are useful things to measure as part of checking on the health of your email sending. An unusually low open rate can be the first sign of a problem. 

But more than that, it is a good way to keep an eye out for disengaged users. If a user never opens your emails, you may want to remove them from the list, or to check they still want to be opted in. 

It can also affect some more advanced email features such as localizing content based on where the recipient is. For instance, a dynamic piece of content that shows the nearest store, or adapts to local weather won’t work if it relies on IP tracking. 

What does this mean for retailers?

This change is part of a wider industry shift to give customers greater control over how their data is used. Consumers are generally more aware of their own data privacy, and the rise of ad blockers is a symptom of this trend. But when we ran a survey of consumers, one of their biggest frustrations was being sent communications about products they weren’t interested in or worse, had already bought. 

Clearly there is a balance to be struck with regards to data, and the retailers that will succeed will be those that provide experiences that make customers want to share their data in exchange. 

More than that, retailers should not be relying just on open rate to measure their overall engagement with customers. Using metrics throughout the customer journey and across different channels is essential to understanding your customers and how to serve them. To support this, retailers need technology that pieces together this customer journey, rather than stopping the minute a recipient leaves the email. 

We have seen that the drip effect of regular email communications results in higher engagement overall, even if users have not opened any of your emails. By sending good (and relevant) newsletters in a consistent manner, you build trust with your audience as they appreciate the value they’re getting from you.

This also points to the need for a more sophisticated measurement of engagement. Engagement is key to understanding when to send relevant and timely content, and having an understanding of what content in what form will have the greatest impact is crucial for retailers to succeed. Marketers who use traditional ESPs may struggle to do this as many of these platforms rely on engagement metrics such as open rates.  

The situation is still evolving. This new system isn’t likely to be rolled out until September, but in the meantime if you are relying on open rates to make decisions, you may want to look into how other metrics can help you make those decisions. For example, if you count someone as “disengaged” if they don’t open X emails in a row, you may want to think about how many clicks that would correspond to. 

What is Ometria’s position on these changes?

This move is closely aligned with the general trend towards greater customer control, and is a challenge to a marketing industry which has collected data on customers without thinking about how that data is going to improve the experience for customers. Retailers who work to get consent from customers in exchange for relevant experiences will continue to succeed. 

Despite this, here at Ometria we understand that this sort of major change is worrying for retail marketers, and will be continually investigating the impact of this change, and updating our platform to ensure the optimal accuracy of open rate reporting. 

Further reading on this topic:

Apple’s announcement

Sparkpost: Impact of iOS 15 Update on Open Tracking

The Drum: Understanding Apple iOS 15’s ‘Private Relay,’ ‘Hide My Email’ & other privacy updates

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