Email Privacy Changes with Apple iOS 15

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Meaghan Peters

Updated October 25, 2021


The times they are a changin’. This has been the unofficial mantra of email marketing since its inception, and last month provided yet another example with Apple’s launch of their Mail Privacy Protection functionality. Here at WDGT, we’ve been closely following this rollout, with our clients and their email programs in mind. So what do these changes mean for marketers?

What’s new with Apple?

Apple introduced new privacy protections for their Mail app for iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8. Included is a feature called Mail Privacy Protection. As Apple describes: “...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 or used to determine their location.”

When was this feature released?

The new functionality was launched September 20, 2021.

Why is this relevant?

Email service providers, or ESPs — think Acoustic, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Emarsys, etc. — insert a transparent 1x1 pixel image into each email. When the subscriber’s email client downloads the pixel, it registers as an open in the ESP and allows the ESP to use their IP address to determine certain subscriber info. Apple’s new Mail Privacy Protection disrupts this process by preloading all images, including the pixel, thus obscuring real opens.

Mail Privacy Protection 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 or used to determine their location.

How does this affect your email program?

This applies to subscribers who have iOS 15 with Mail Privacy enabled and who open their email with their native Apple Mail app on iPhones and iPads (it is not yet available for desktop). This means:

  1. Open info (whether or not they opened and when) is inaccurate.

  2. Open environment info (device or email client) is blocked.

  3. Location info (where the user is) is obscured .

How big is the impact?

Big. According to Litmus, Apple iPhone and Apple Mail make up about 47% and 13% of email client share, respectively. Users have to enable Mail Privacy Protection, but it’s likely many will do so.

What does this impact?

  • Open data: Because Apple screens its users’ emails, this artificially inflates your opens. So open data is less reliable.

  • Engagement: Clients and ESPs typically judge engagement by opens and clicks, but Apple is forcing a change around how engagement is calculated. The good news though is that since Apple can only prefetch images if the Mail app is running, the subscriber is still valid even if the open is inaccurate.

  • Real-Time Personalization: Think features like countdown timers that customize creative based on time of open. The timestamp of the open will be when Apple caches the images, not necessarily when the user actually views the email.

  • Geo-targeted content based on IP address: Any third-party service that uses an IP to determine location and personalize content.

  • Send-Time Optimization: This has always been iffy because the exact time someone opens can be influenced by when the email client decides to deliver the email to them, rather than solely subscriber preference. (In other words, when you send an email is not necessarily when it is delivered to the subscriber.) Apple’s move further complicates understanding open time.

  • Email ads: If third party ads in your emails are priced on a rate that considers opens, that model could require a shift.

What to keep in mind:

  • Apple’s changes affect their Mail app in the iOS 15 release. If the user has iOS 15 with Mail Privacy enabled and opens an email in their native Apple Mail app, then they will be affected. However if a user accesses their email through a non-native app, such a Gmail or Outlook, then they will not be affected.
  • Opens are already a noisy metric. Between email client image caching and users having images turned on or off by default, opens have been an approximate or directional metric for years.

What's WDGT's position on this?

  • Calm acceptance: There’s no magic solution around this, and everyone (every ESP and every company sending email) is affected.
  • Opens are still a valid metric, but should not be the most important success indicator: We already think of opens and open rate as directional and secondary to other email KPIs. After Apple’s new rollout, that’ll be even more so the case.
  • Engagement: Clicks are the most accurate (though not perfect) metric for identifying your most engaged subscribers, but only measuring clicks leaves some engagement data on the table, as opens still have worth. A calculation where clicks are weighted more heavily, but opens are still taken into consideration (even if they’re not completely accurate), will be key.
  • When testing, there are more reasons to not use opens as a determining metric: If the primary goal of your email is to drive a key action — whether it’s clicks to your website, purchases, registrations, or scans — that key action should determine the winner of a given test. Even if you’re subject line testing, the winning subject line should be the one that drove your key action, especially because opens are now less accurate.
  • Gather first-party data when possible: In time, more email clients may introduce privacy protections. And with Google blocking third-party cookies starting in 2023, it’s vital for senders to establish their own first-party data on subscribers.

If you’d like further clarifications on Apple’s new Mail Privacy Protection functionality or want to discuss how these changes will impact your specific marketing efforts, give us a shout at hello@wdgt.co.


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