Data Privacy and Security
9 Smart Ways Email Marketers Can Respond to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection Feature
If you work in an email-adjacent role, you’ve probably heard about Apple’s new privacy updates and their potential impacts on email marketing. To summarize, Apple is planning on modifying how the open tracking pixels in emails are viewed in their native mail client. The open tracking pixel is a 1x1 invisible image placed at the bottom of an email that, when loaded, is used to signify to both the ESP and sender that the message was opened by the recipient. Based on what Apple has said so far, it sounds like they will pre-fetch images in the background before the user opens a given message and then use a proxy to hide the recipient's details. This potentially means that instead of a reduction in opens, senders will see an increase as opens are automatically recorded by Apple mail users.
Marketers are understandably concerned about what this will mean for email metrics and whether there is any potential for negative deliverability repercussions, but there are several considerations to make before panicking.
1. First up, open rates aren't a fully reliable method of measuring subscriber engagement
It is entirely possible to open an email without downloading the open tracking pixel—that can happen when Gmail clips a message based on size, images are turned off by default, or the message is viewed in the spam folder. The inverse is also true: An email open may be reported despite the subscriber not truly being engaged. If a recipient browses their inbox by viewing a message, deleting it, and automatically viewing the next, for example, they will have opened the message, but not out of any specific desire to do so. Some mail clients have also been known to pre-fetch images, resulting in an open despite the subscriber taking no action.
A registered open is just one potential sign of subscriber engagement, but certainly not the most emphatic one. It may also be of some comfort to know that the open tracking pixel is only used by the sender and their ESP—it does not influence inbox placement because the mailbox provider is able to determine engagement based on myriad other factors.
2. You have better ways of tracking subscriber engagement already at your fingertips
Clicks and conversions will still be available, and those metrics provide a much stronger indication that a subscriber is interested. This is the time to re-establish your email marketing goals and work towards those, without being distracted by what has been referred to as a "vanity metric.”. It's unlikely that opening your email was ever the true measure of an email program's success, so this is a great opportunity to focus on what actually matters and how to achieve those outcomes. If you want people to click through to your website, then build clear, enticing calls-to-action. If you want people to make purchases, it's time to get personal and make highly-relevant recommendations based on behavior beyond just "has opened an email". In addition to positive metrics like clicks, be sure to pay attention to spam reports. A recipient who reports mail as being spam provides an extremely strong sign that something is amiss, and it's a signal which mailbox providers lean on particularly heavily.
3. Use your subscription process to collect subscriber information voluntarily
Nothing is more valuable than information a potential customer wants you to have and provides willingly! So, at the time of sign-up, go beyond asking for just someone's email address. Have people select what topics they're interested in, how often they want to receive mail, and how you'll know when they're no longer interested.
Transparency is more important than ever with these new Apple updates, and true transparency has to go both ways. If subscribers value their privacy, then they will provide the information needed in order to receive relevant communications from the brands they love, or suffer the consequences of irrelevant mail jamming up their inbox. This is also an essential opportunity to instruct subscribers on how to help you facilitate your relationship with them, so if opens are still your most valuable metric, consider asking subscribers to view your messages outside of Apple mail, or to turn their privacy protections off.
4. Be creative to encourage more conversions
Deliverability success depends on sending engaging and relevant content to people who truly want it. Identifying the people who are no longer interested in your emails and periodically removing them has long been the primary way to keep your list healthy and avoid the spam folder. In the past, the recommendation has been to segment users by email opens and sunset subscribers who have not opened messages in some period of time. Similarly, identifying and targeting the most-engaged amongst the audience has also provided positive results and continued inbox placement.
However, with the open rate becoming less reliable, clicks will be the more trustworthy indication of subscriber engagement. For senders who use email campaigns to sell products, a click through to a product page is an obvious substitute for an open, but what about for senders who use email merely to disseminate information? In those cases, a link to "view more" on your website (or hosted elsewhere) can help entice subscribers to take an action that shows positive engagement, without needing to make a purchase or provide more information. Segmenting the audience by clicks—as opposed to opens—provides a clearer picture of engagement, and will still facilitate segmentation that supports healthy deliverability outcomes.
5. Provide in-message feedback options
From a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating system to a series of frowning and smiling faces, allowing subscribers a one-click option to voice their opinion can not only help track engagement, but help inform future content decisions. The clicks associated with these responses will be revealing, but they can also support the creation of messaging streams designed to both enhance satisfied subscribers' existing relationship with your brand, or provide additional value to compensate subscribers who have expressed disappointment.
6. Use discretion when substituting app or site engagement for email-specific metrics, especially if your opt-in process is ambiguous
In an effort to determine subscriber engagement, it can be tempting to take outside behaviors into account, such as website visits, purchases, or app usage. These actions are significant, but they don't necessarily indicate an interest in receiving email—and it's entirely possible that someone could love your brand but isn’t interested in getting your marketing emails.
Senders who collect explicit permission to send marketing emails tend to experience better results than those who bundle subscriptions as part of another process, like accepting a website’s terms and conditions or registering for an account on an app. If subscribers have been opted into the mailing list automatically as part of registration, and are active within the app but never click through campaigns, they should still be considered an unengaged email subscriber regardless of their engagement elsewhere. Email isn't the right channel for every customer, and sending to people who prefer messaging through other channels (or not at all) can have a negative impact on your reputation.
7. Give subscribers ultimate control with a robust preference center
Without open rates as a reliable metric, it will take more effort to gauge the interest of your subscribers, especially if you're not always using the emails you send to make a sale or capture a click. To better retain subscribers who might be at risk of opting out emails entirely, consider providing them with access to a preference center that offers granular management of the types and frequency of mail they receive. While it's common to provide a link to the preference center in the email footer near the "unsubscribe" link, consider going one step further and periodically sending an email reminding subscribers about the menu of email subscription options that you offer.
8. Leverage the power of email while there's still time!
These Apple updates aren’t expected until the fall, so there are still a few months remaining for you to take action. While we can't say for sure what the full impact will be, this is a perfect time to use your existing relationship with subscribers to inform them about changes like these that may affect your ability to email them effectively.
Sending a campaign, or message through another channel (for instance, in-app messages or push notifications) to let your customers know about your plans to deal with Apple's changes could potentially strengthen users' trust in your brand, as well as their understanding of the situation. Privacy is becoming a larger concern for all consumers, so providing peace of mind about customer data is being used, and how voluntarily providing information about their preferences can help you effectively respect their privacy while curating their brand experience to provide more value.
9. Incentivize participation with points, discounts, or early access
Subscribers may be reluctant to provide data that hasn't historically been requested, so encourage them to complete an emailed survey or click an extra link by making it worth their while. Not only does the data collected help inform future outreach, the email engagement will also help your brand maintain a positive sending reputation with mailbox providers.
While it’s true that Apple's privacy updates will likely add some new complications to the email marketing landscape (and customer engagement strategies as a whole), it’s important to remember that the email best practices that you currently use will remain just as important. At the end of the day, deliverability will still rely on sending mail people want, and only sending that email to the people who want it. This is a chance to improve the precision with which we determine who those people are. And ultimately, that benefits senders as well. The ability to hone your audience to a granular degree means fewer wasted resources and a better ROI—a win for everyone!