The end of open rates: What Apple’s coming changes mean for email marketers

August 31, 2021 • 4 minute read

What is happening?

The release of Apple’s next iteration of iOS (iOS 15) is expected in September. One of this release’s more talked-about changes is a new feature known as “Mail Privacy Protection”. Many industry observers have drawn parallels between the impact that Mail Privacy Protection promises to have on email marketing and the impact App Tracking Transparency (ATT) has already had on the digital advertising market. While there are meaningful differences between these two initiatives, at a high level the comparison is a fair one. Mail Privacy Protection promises to make significant changes to email marketing and in particular, the usefulness of open rate as a KPI and mechanism for engagement tactics.

So what is Mail Privacy Protection? 

Once iOS 15 rolls out, Apple will start pre-fetching all images and pixels for users that have opted-in to Mail Privacy Protection. This means that all images and pixels will automatically be loaded once the email is delivered to a user’s inbox. How does this affect the open rates we talked about earlier? There is a pixel within emails that is currently used to track open rates, and this pre-fetching will render the pixel relatively useless as it will fire for any email that goes through this process — regardless of whether or not a user actually opens that message.

Who will this change affect? 

Any user with the default Apple Mail application on their iPhone will be presented with the option to turn on Mail Privacy Protection as soon as they upgrade to iOS 15. Given that opt-in rates for ATT have been estimated at 96%, the expectation is that the vast majority of iPhone users will also opt-in to Mail Privacy Protection. 

With an estimated 52% of US smartphone users using iOS devices, this is going to have a huge impact on your list. As users begin to update to iOS 15, email marketers can expect to see their open rates skyrocket without actually being able to tell who is engaging with their content and who is simply having their email “opened” by Apple.

What does this mean for email marketing?

This change is something that will impact every single business and organization that relies on email as a means of communicating with their customers or their supporters. If we assume that 52% of a typical email list are iPhone users — and many will have an even higher proportion — and 96% of those users also opt-in to Mail Privacy Protection, then our default open rate will be 50% before anyone has even had the chance to look at our emails. 

This presents a significant challenge for all email programs. For years, best practices have been built on using open rates as a means of assessing the effectiveness of subject lines, maintaining list health, and evaluating A/B tests. Additionally, new features such as send time optimization (where an email platform sends based on when each individual user is most likely to open an email) will be made obsolete.

What tactics should be stopped once these changes are rolled out?

Some of the most immediate changes will be tactics that we either stop using entirely or tactics that we continue to use with the expectation that they will be far less effective than before. A list of these tactics includes:

  • A/B subject line or preview text tests 
  • Non-opener resends (in the short-term NORs may be relevant for the ~40-50% of users who are not impacted by this change, but over time there is a good chance that Google, Microsoft, and other email providers to follow Apple’s lead, making NORs obsolete as well)
  • Send time optimization 
  • Active list definitions based on time since last open
  • Automated series based on email opens

What should we start doing more of?

In the absence of open rate as a meaningful metric, our attention must shift to the next best signs of engagement: clicks and conversions. This will not be a perfect proxy. The average email open rate for nonprofits in 2020 was 18% while the average click through rate was just 0.7%. This means each individual email will offer a much narrower perspective on which users are actually reading our content and which users are tuning us out. At the same time, while clicks are a narrower metric than opens, they do offer a much better indication of real engagement and interest.

From a testing perspective, we should shift our focus to tests that are going to drive meaningful differences in clicks or conversions. Some examples may include: 

  • Button color, placement, and language
  • Number of links in an email
  • Graphic heavy vs. all text emails

Perhaps the biggest change will be on deliverability monitoring and list health. Ironically, one of the biggest unintended consequences of this change may be users actually receiving MORE spam email as organizations are unable to remove users who rarely engage with their content. Once these changes take effect, our recommendation is that most organizations transition to an active list definition of anyone who has clicked on an email in the last 12 months and monitor delivery rates from there. Over time you may want to shrink this window depending on the type of engagement rates you see in practice. 

Additionally, we recommend sending more emails that are specifically engineered to drive a click. Examples of this include one-click surveys, polls, and engagement content that offers something to a supporter without expecting anything in return.

While none of these changes will be a perfect substitute for open rates, they are the best options in the face of this change. 

One positive of the changes that will be wrought by Mail Privacy Protection is that organizations of all shapes and sizes will be encouraged to focus more on the content in their emails as opposed to the buzzy subject line on top of  it. While the disruption caused by these changes will be significant in the short-term, there is a chance it leads to better, more creative email programs over time.

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