Let’s Talk About Opens: There are better ways to measure engagement

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Meaghan Peters

Ever since Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection in late 2021, the email world has been abuzz with opens.

Essentially, Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) means that Apple is pre-fetching email images and loading them remotely in the background. This basically “opens” every email, whether the subscriber actually did or not — while also masking real open information.

Of course this feels like a seismic shift, but is it really? Opens have always been a bit of a noisy and unreliable metric. In truth, there are other ways to track engagement, and they may actually tell you more about your subscribers and their interests.

Opens have always been problematic

We get it: no one wants to give up on open rates because they offer really compelling data. It’s nice to be able to say X people opened my email, but the fact is that’s always been a bit of a guessing game … even for your email service provider (ESP).

That’s always been the case. From the beginning, subscribers have only interacted with email in their inbox, which is controlled solely by their inbox provider, e.g., Gmail and Outlook. That meant the ESP, like Salesforce Marketing Cloud and Mailchimp, couldn’t see if your subscriber had opened the email or not. ESPs created a workaround by inserting a transparent open pixel (or image) in each email. When the subscriber’s inbox downloads the open pixel, the ESP registers an open and collects information, like their open environment or geographical location.

There were issues of course: a subscriber (or their employer) might have images blocked or their inbox provider might clip the email, both of which could keep the open pixel from loading.

Now, with MPP, open pixels are pre-fetched with all the other images, so ESPs and other analytics services don’t have a reliable way to measure or validate opens. And prefetching also obscures the open environment, so ESPs no longer have access to information about what device your audience is using.

All that said, email marketers knew this was coming: Consumers are really interested in privacy, and it’s getting more attention than ever. So in time, it’s likely that other inbox providers will introduce new privacy protections. In fact, Gmail and Yahoo already pre-fetch images in some scenarios as well.

There are better ways to measure

Here at WDGT, we support consumer privacy: if subscribers or inbox providers don’t want open information tracked, we respect that! So it’s time to pivot and use other metrics that can more accurately reflect email performance. Here’s a short list of our recommendations.

Use other metrics to calculate engagement

For example, clicks are the most accurate metric to identify if subscribers are engaging with your email and what content interests them. Combining clicks with other metrics, like website visits, last purchase, app behaviors, etc., can give you a fuller picture of your subscriber too — and, like an impression, provide an indication that they’re interacting with your brand even if you’re not sure they’re opening.

Another option: Some ESP and third-party services attempt to identify MPP subscribers, which in turn allows them to monitor opens for subscribers who haven’t opted into mail privacy. As mentioned earlier, this is still an imperfect science based on educated guesses, but it can provide a rough baseline.

Acquire and manage subscribers wisely

Many email marketers worry that an inaccurate open signal will damage their sender reputation — i.e., that sending emails to subscribers who may not actually be opening them will cause inbox providers to label them spammy.

Lack of engagement can impact your sender rep; however, you don't want to cull your lists too aggressively and leave potential impressions on the table. You can mitigate this risk in a few ways:

  • Focus on quality acquisitions: Avoid prioritizing list growth at the expense of subscriber quality. And track acquisition sources so that you can see where quality subscribers are coming from and focus your efforts there.
  • Monitor your unsubs and spam complaints by domain/ISP: if you see abnormalities, you can target your response specifically to that domain.
  • Inbox monitor and authenticate: Inboxing issues don't show up in deliverability percentages.Technically, your email was delivered — just to spam! So make sure your DKIM, SPF, and DMARC are authenticated, and check regularly to make sure that your messages are landing in the right place.

Gather zero and first-party data

In time, more email clients may introduce privacy protections. In fact, starting in 2023, Google will be blocking third-party cookies. That makes it critical for email marketers to gather zero- and first-party data on their subscribers to optimize the customer experience, fill in knowledge gaps, and drive engagement with useful and relevant personalization. However, make sure to only ask for what you need — what’s useful for your marketing efforts and, more importantly, will help you maximize the benefits for your audience.

The bottom line: Ultimately, for all of us, it comes down to building a relationship with our subscribers — and being a trustworthy custodian of that relationship and their data.

Want to talk about opens, Apple Mail Privacy Protection, or email strategy with an expert? Drop us a line at hello@wdgt.co — and we’ll start the coffee.