During Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference a few weeks ago (WWDC ‘21 6/7-11), the company announced its new “Mail Privacy Protection” (MPP) feature which will be implemented on the Apple Mail app in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey coming this fall. Senders are going to need to adjust tactics to accommodate the initiative, for sure, but those who have dubbed it “pixelgeddon” may be making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill.
MPP, as Apple explained, is centered around a choice mechanism allowing Mail users to allow Apple to obfuscate their individual IP address, email open activity, and other common information about the browser or device. Apple said:
"In iOS 15, we're introducing Mail Privacy Protection. People can choose to have iOS privately load remote message content, hiding their mail activity."
“If you’ve been using remote images to measure the impact of your campaigns, there are a few changes to be aware of. Since Mail content may be loaded automatically after delivery, the time of Mail viewing will no longer be correct. And since that content is loaded without revealing people’s IP addresses and without detailed headers, the location and type of device reading the Mail aren’t revealed. And you’ll see your emails as being opened, regardless of if the user read it or not.”
– Apple’s privacy pillars in focus – WWDC 2021
So, what exactly does this mean for email marketers?
Email marketers commonly rely on email-related pixels (i.e. beacons) to sense whether an email recipient can receive HTML email or only plain text email; to detect whether the email recipient has opened (read) the message; and whether that email message was opened successive times; and, where enabled, to help activate a cookie and integrate web activity with email activity.
By “privately” loading pixels and other remote images, Apple will effectively degrade the accuracy of pixel-based signals, most notably those that indicate the Mail user has actually opened (and hopefully read) the sender’s email.
If the adoption of Apple’s parallel "App Tracking Transparency" framework is any indication, marketers could see MPP opt-in rates reach 14%.
With Mail Privacy Protection as a feature becoming available to all iOS 15 Apple Mail app users, Apple Mail’s adoption growing to 11.5% of the email client market share, and Mail users estimated as comprising up to 30% of some B2C customer lists, it is possible for open rate tracking (ORT) and click-to-open rate tracking (CTOR) to be disrupted at some scale.
As such, marketers who had been relying on opens as a key success metric will need to adjust to focus on other KPIs for known Mail app users, such as email clicks and conversions, as well as signs of engagement from other channels and engagement contexts.
With MPP enabled, dynamic personalization at open will also be impacted. Marketers who serve dynamic content at time of open (like countdown timers, weather reports, etc.) will no longer be able to leverage this tactic using existing technology for audiences on Apple Mail.
Subject line testing can no longer rely on open rate as the key success metric. Many sophisticated marketers rely on "clicks" as the key success metrics when determining winners of subject line tests (or some other down funnel metric), but those who still rely on opens will need to adjust.
By obfuscating the individual’s IP (but not the region-specific initial IP) certain kinds of geo-fencing towards hyper-local audience segmentation may become less accurate.
Further, users pairing MPP with Apple’s new paid Private Relay service, and the Hide My Email feature, will allow Apple users to further obfuscate themselves, their location, and online activity from websites and other online services.
While this announcement does require marketers to make some adjustments to the tactics they’re using, and will certainly impact how they plan for, execute and report on program success, it will not require a tectonic shift in email strategy or toolsets for most (and users of The Customer Engagement Suite are extremely well-positioned to adjust to these changes without missing a beat (as Richard Jones explains in this video)).
As marketers adjust tactics to accommodate Mail Privacy Protection, they should note that:
Sophisticated senders have been trending away from the open rate for years. It has traditionally been an unreliable metric since it relies on images in a message loading, and users have long had control over this.
Open rates are often not directly correlated with business results. Many marketers have realized that leveraging opens as a KPI leads to spurious business decisions (i.e., zany subject lines may drive users to open a message, but not convert). Marketers who optimize on down funnel metrics that are more closely tied to business results are often more successful.
Apple obfuscating user locations and activity information is part of a long growing trend. As the use of private VPN services continues to increase worldwide, and users continue to turn to ad blockers, privacy-focused browsers, and new-gen privacy features like Apple’s, the reliability of certain "soft interest" signals will continue to deteriorate.
Like with marketing opt-in/opt-out counts, adoption rates for MPP and other such features should be viewed as a new strategic KPI (or KRI if you are in risk management), and marketers are encouraged to keep watching the space.
Tenured email marketers have seen many more disruptive forces over the years than Apple’s new initiative, and have continued to steward the highest converting, biggest ROI channel for over two decades. Apple’s news will require some adjustments, but should be viewed as a natural evolution in the tech giant’s consumer-first, privacy-positive posture. Senders who preside over customer-centric programs that offer a true value exchange will continue to flourish in this new privacy-as-a-feature era.
Want more advice? Watch our video podcast on the Apple Mail announcement.
Alex Krylov, Privacy Analyst at Cheetah Digital, also contributed to this article.
Nick is Senior Director of Product Marketing at Cheetah Digital where he evaluates new growth opportunities for the Customer Engagement Suite roadmap, presents thought leadership at industry events, and leads cross-functional teams for product launches and market announcements. Before joining Cheetah Digital, he served for five years as Chief Research Officer and Principal Analyst at The Relevancy Group. Nick earned his BA from Kenyon College, MBA from The University of Washington, and lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters.