What Mail Privacy Protection Means for Email Marketers [UPDATED] – Litmus

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Apple kicked off their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC21) on June 7th, and the email community has been abuzz ever since. Why? Three words: Mail Privacy Protection.

Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection for their Mail app on iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey devices. It’s set to launch this year sometime between September and November. According to Apple, “Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. [It prevents] 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.”

UPDATE
Since we first wrote this article on June 8th, our engineering team has been testing things out in the developer beta—and we now have a much better idea of how Mail Privacy Protection will work. If you’ve been keeping up with us, the most recent updates to this blog post will be highlighted in yellow. In particular, I’m going to get more technical for those interested in the details.

How will it work?

When someone first opens up the Apple Mail app, they’ll get a message prompting them to either “Protect Mail activity” or “Don’t protect Mail activity.”

Source: Ryan Jones

So, this will not be turned on by default. People will have to actively make a choice. But based on the 4% opt-in to ad tracking from Apple’s App Tracking Transparency tool and the language around the Mail Privacy Protection options, it’s highly likely we’ll see similar opt-in rates for email tracking. I mean, who’s going to want to essentially say, “Don’t protect me”?

When someone selects the “Protect Mail activity” option, here’s what’ll happen:

Apple will first route emails through a proxy server to pre-load message content—including tracking pixels—before serving to readers. Even if readers don’t actually open those emails.

UPDATE
Here’s where I’m going to dive a bit more into the technical details, so if you’re not interested, skip ahead. The way this works is:

  1. When the subscriber’s Apple Mail app starts up, it triggers a download of the email to their device from the sender’s web host or email service provider (ESP).
  2. At that time, and generally before the email is read, Apple caches all of the images in the email, creating a copy of the images to a new location on the Apple Privacy Cache with an IP address assigned to the general region of the subscriber instead of their specific geolocation. Our testing showed that subscribers must be connected to a wireless network with the Mail app running in the background for this to happen.
  3. This caching process requires Apple to request the images from the ESP server—including the open tracking pixel—which makes the ESP think the email has been opened.
  4. If the subscriber actually opens the email, it triggers a request to download and display the email’s images, but instead of coming from the sender’s web host or ESP server, they’re coming from the Apple Cache. So, senders are still left in the dark.

This affects any email opened from the Apple Mail app on any device—no matter which email service is used such as Gmail or a work account. However, this shouldn’t affect other email apps used on Apple devices like the Gmail app on an iPhone.

Because of this, you may not be able to tell who opened your emails, when, and where via Apple Mail.

Apple Mail privacy lock

Want to stay up to date on all things MPP?

Check out (and bookmark) our Mail Privacy Protection hub for the latest on how this measure will affect email marketing along with the resources you need to prepare your program.

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What this might mean for email marketers

Privacy has become a big issue in recent years, not just in the email industry.

This brings to mind the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which gives people the right to remove their personal data, therefore anonymizing it to marketers. Then came the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) with its own privacy protections. And most recently, there’s been talk about the loss of third-party cookies.

It was just a matter of time.

Is the open rate dead?

UPDATE
Our annual email client market share data shows Apple iPhone (iOS Mail), Apple Mail (macOS Mail), and Apple iPad (iPadOS Mail) with over 46% of combined email opens in 2020. Their share of email opens has since grown to 49.7% at the end of July this year.

July 2021 Top 10 Email Clients Overall
Source: Email Client Market Share in July 2021

If your audience makeup is also skewed toward Apple Mail users, your open rate will be over-inflated come this Fall (or Spring for those of you down under).

UPDATE
Based on our most recent testing, we predict an inflated Apple Mail open rate of around 75%. We had previously guessed near 100%, but we found there were some instances in which emails were not being cached—and therefore not firing off the open tracking pixel—such as the aforementioned need for subscribers’ devices to be connected to WiFi with the Mail app running in the background.

Apple Mail audience

How many of your subscribers use Apple Mail?

Get your very own personalized Apple Audience Report and see: how much of your audience uses Apple Mail, their OS versions and devices, and Dark Mode usage.

Learn more

Many marketers have already considered the open rate a vanity metric, but we disagree. However, we believe you shouldn’t rely on opens as your sole performance metric.

So, while it might not be time to put the open rate to rest yet, it’s a great reminder to include—and perhaps emphasize—other metrics instead such as clicks and conversions in your reporting.

What about campaigns and content powered by opens?

Beyond a simple metric, the almighty open is also commonly used for:

  • Re-engagement campaigns
  • Automated nurture flows
  • Send time optimization
  • Real-time personalization
  • Monitoring deliverability

So even if you decide to no longer use open rate as a measure of email marketing success, Mail Privacy Protection could still hurt your email program in other ways.

Brian Sisolak put together a great thread on Twitter:

Some of the potential effects for your Apple Mail audience who opts in to Mail Privacy Protection could be that:

  • Any audience cohort, segmentation, or targeting based on the last open date would be rendered useless—especially critical for purging unengaged contacts.
  • Automated flows and journeys that rely on someone opening an email would need to get re-engineered.
  • A/B testing subject lines (or anything else) using opens to determine the winner or to automatically send out the winner won’t work anymore.
  • Send time optimization would become inaccurate.
  • Countdown timers might show outdated times as the cached version was pulled at sent time, not opened time.
  • Other content powered by opens such as local weather or nearest store location also wouldn’t be accurate.
  • Some interactive emails that reference external CSS might not work.

And regarding list hygiene, George Schlossnagle says:

Meaning, this may not be great for subscribers either. While Apple’s intention is to protect subscribers, it may backfire with people ultimately getting even more unwanted emails, as Chad White puts it:

Here are some stats that support people wanting personalization:

  • 83% of consumers are willing to share their data to create a more personalized experience. (Accenture)
  • 76% of buyers expect more personalized attention from marketers to develop an intimate relationship with your brand. (Demand Gen Report 2020 Buyer Behavior Study)
  • 80% of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that provides personalized experiences. (Epsilon)
  • 6 in 10 marketers report that boosting personalization in email is a priority. (Litmus 2020 State of Email, Fall Edition)

What about Litmus Email Analytics?

For a few years now, we knew privacy was becoming more and more important in the market. That’s why we took the steps to anonymize our Litmus Email Analytics offering by blocking personally identifiable information (PII), removing IP addresses, and making geo-tracking optional for our customers.

We’ll continue to provide fully anonymized and aggregated insights.

The Litmus Engineering Team is still currently analyzing the iOS 15 beta and—just like we’ve also done with the Gmail cache, Yahoo! Mail cache, and Previews clients—we’ll evaluate the situation and act accordingly.

What about other email marketing tools?

There are still so many other questions we don’t know the answer to, but we’ll update as we find out.

How will ESPs respond to this and continue to help marketers like you determine email program success? Omnisend is a great example of an ESP suggesting alternatives to their customers and how to use their platform to pivot.

What will real-time personalization tools like Movable Ink and Liveclicker do to make sure they’re still supporting your efforts to deliver the right content to the right people? Zembula has offered tactics, and Movable Ink made a statement so far.

How will this impact artificial intelligence platforms for subject lines and copy like Persado and Phrasee? Phrasee has since spoken up about how Mail Privacy Protection affects their platform.

While the future of email marketing remains unclear, there are some things you can do now to prepare.

What you need to do before the iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey release

Mandi Moshay created a great list of things you should be doing now to get ready, and we couldn’t agree more:

To summarize (and throw in a few of our own suggestions):

  • Size up the potential impact to your program by determining how much of your audience even uses Apple Mail to read your emails. It might not even matter!
  • Start testing creative to understand what’s most compelling to your audience so you can confidently continue sending emails that drive engagement.
  • Start tracking click-through rate over delivered (if you aren’t already) to set a new, additional baseline for campaign success moving forward.
  • Clean up your lead quality, list hygiene, and sender reputation since you may not be able to rely on opens anymore as a sign of a deliverability problem.
  • Create audience segments and cohorts that rely on open data so you can keep on using them, at least in the near future.
The Mail Privacy Protection Guide for Marketers by Litmus

Take action now

Wondering what to do next? Get our handy checklist and a step-by-step action plan (including an open rate impact calculator) in The Mail Privacy Protection Survival Guide for Marketers.

Get your guide

Email marketing will continue to evolve

In a nutshell: Don’t panic. Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection is certainly a blow to marketing and to consumers who desire a personalized experience from the brands they trust (you can’t customize which brands you use privacy protection for—it’s all or nothing). Our hope is that it inspires the email industry to continually innovate so brands can deliver the best experience for their subscribers and customers. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the people receiving our emails.

What do you think about the Mail Privacy Protection?

How will this change your email program?

What other questions do you have?

Originally published on June 8, 2021, by Magan Le. Last updated August 10, 2021.


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