Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, took place last week with all of the expected excitement and speculation about announcements, new releases, and product developments.

But one development from the first day of the conference has alarmed many email marketers and newsletter publishers: Mail Privacy Protection, which Apple has billed as one of the “latest innovations in [its] legacy of privacy leadership”. Mail Privacy Protection is designed to block tracking pixels – tiny, invisible images that download along with other images in the email, and record an open – so that users of Apple Mail can interact with emails without the sender tracking whether they have been opened.

Open rate tracking is known to have its flaws as a metric, not least the fact that it requires images to be downloaded for it to work, which means it can’t be used in plain text email campaigns and won’t register an open if image downloading is disabled.

Despite this, the metric is widely used as an indicator of how much engagement an email campaign has received, particularly in judging the effectiveness of subject lines, as well as things like the overall health and quality of an email list.

But with open rate tracking now being blocked by at least one major email client – which, given the precedent set by things like the crackdown on third-party cookies, may prompt others to follow suit – how can marketers adapt? Is it time for a long-overdue rethink of how to approach email marketing? We reached out to the email experts in Econsultancy’s roster of contacts to find out.

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A blow to marketers and consumers both

Melissa Sargeant, CMO at Litmus

This will impact marketers — particularly email marketers — greatly, and they need to get ready now. But, much like when the industry switched from print to digital, marketers will make a quick pivot here.

Marketers will be without a significant portion of the insights they’re used to, creating roadblocks for segmented and personalized touchpoints. According to the Litmus Email Client Market Share, in 2020, Apple iPhone, Apple Mail, and Apple iPad all accounted for nearly half of all email opens.

Ultimately, this hurts email marketers but hurts consumers more. Now, despite opting-in to receive branded experiences — and nearly all consumers being willing to share their data for those enhanced experiences, according to research by Accenture — they’ll be bombarded with generic messaging and content.

A move away from vanity metrics

Kevin Forsyth, AVP, Strategy and Enablement at Wunderkind:

Over the last few years, winning retailers started treating email as a true performance channel. This change will force marketers to stop focusing on vanity metrics and start thinking about how they can drive meaningful performance.

Use this time to adapt and shift your mindset

Hannah Stacey, Brand and Product Marketing Director at Ometria:

A world without opens might seem like a daunting place for many marketers who heavily rely on this metric as a measure of contact engagement and to judge the success of their campaigns. While this is a significant change to the status quo, Apple’s move is closely aligned to a larger trend towards greater consumer control over the ways in which their data is processed and used by brands.

This is a warning shot aimed at a marketing industry that has typically collected large amounts of data on customers with little visible impact on the end experience a customer receives. A collective mindset shift is needed in which brands demonstrably use the data they collect to materially improve the experience that a customer receives; otherwise, their shoppers will simply remove the ability to communicate with them at all.

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee:

Since day one, Phrasee has supported user privacy. We were founded when GDPR was being drafted, and saw increased requirements for privacy coming a mile away, so from day one we fundamentally structured our technology to not require personal information. We support any actions that enhance the privacy of individual consumers, and encourage other companies to follow Phrasee’s lead.

Over a year ago we put the wheels in motion to ensure any impending privacy changes wouldn’t slow down any of our customers. When the issue hit the mainstream media a few months back, we sped up even faster, and I’m pleased to say that, as a result, we already have solutions in place. Adapt or perish, as HG Wells wrote – and better to adapt in advance when you know something will eventually happen.

Open rates are not dead!

Parry Malm:

In the short and medium terms, the practical impact of this change will affect the proportion of your audience suitable for open rate measurement. We do not know the actual amount – best case will be -0%, worst case will be -40%, and the actual number will be somewhere in the middle. According to what is known currently, this will not affect your ability to track other KPIs, such as clicks, conversions and ROI.

This does not mean that “open rates are dead”, as several rather misinformed people have decried. However, it does mean that open rates as a KPI will become noisier than before. Note: this is not to say that they will become useless. Just noisier. Any smart statistician will know exactly how to deal with this.

Diversify your data touchpoints

Hannah Stacey:

Right now it’s difficult to ascertain the full impact of iOS15’s privacy features on retailers – but it’s pretty telling that since iOS14.5 was launched – which gave users the option of opting in or out of app tracking – only 4% of US consumers have opted in to being tracked.

Retailers are going to be forced to move to more sophisticated ways of determining engagement than open rate alone – which is arguably a good thing. Being able to track and optimise for meaningful retail metrics – such as revenue and purchase rate – is arguably preferable in driving better retail marketing performance than more superficial metrics like open rate. This move will bring fresh urgency to the fact that, in this increasingly complex landscape, marketers need to invest in more comprehensive customer profiling that uses multiple data touchpoints to understand customers and create experiences they love, rather than just relying on one single metric.

John Story, VP and Deputy General Counsel at Acoustic:

Contextual analytics will be critical for marketers moving forward if we hope to continue delivering personalized messaging to customers and prospects. With contextual analytics… rather than focusing on a specific marketing channel like email, you’re considering the holistic customer journey and the many channels you can connect with them on.

Move as far down-funnel as you can when measuring

Kevin Forsyth:

If marketers haven’t moved on from top-level metrics like open rate, they need to now. I’d recommend marketers move as down-funnel as they can when measuring impact. That means if you aren’t calculating revenue per send, you should at least be looking at click rate and conversion rate.

By segmenting their list intelligently and focusing on one-to-one triggers, marketers can focus more on the sends that have true business impact, and not just sends that drive nebulous engagement.

Test, test, test!

Melissa Sargeant:

It’s never been more important to test every email, every time — no exceptions. Our recommendation to all email marketers is to gather as much information and insights as you can, while you can. Determine how many subscribers use Apple Mail in the first place. This will give marketers a read of the data pool they’ll be losing.

Also, track click-through rates now so there’s a baseline in place, at least for the near future. Most importantly, ensure all lists are up-to-date and segmented. With the update, marketers may no longer be able to rely on open rates to determine deliverability.

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