How will Apple’s iOS15 update impact email marketing and the customer experience?

By Sam Holding, Head of International at SparkPost. 

In June this year, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection for their Mail app on iOS 15, a software update that can be automatically installed on every compatible Apple device. 

We are still unaware of a set date for the update to come into play, but with iOS15 Public Beta 5 now available for all Apple Beta Programme participants, it could be as early as the beginning of September. It will take some time for people to update their iOS initially, but then the impact will become clearer over the following few months.

Apple has long held the belief that privacy is a fundamental human right. This is something they can do as the owner of the distribution channel, and it’s a trend we’ve seen Apple follow with capping the IDFA tracking on other apps. 

Apple first initiated these types of changes in email last year when they launched the Private Email Relay service which allows users to sign into apps with an anonymous, unique email address. As the demise of third-party cookies has occurred throughout the advertising industry, it was inevitable that Apple would lean into privacy on open tracking too. 

How will this impact the customer experience?

Whilst consumers want privacy, their data to be handled securely and with their best interests in mind, Apple’s move isn’t actually a panacea for privacy. It’s one element of privacy when it comes to email. 

Using personalisation within emails has become an integral part of how brands connect with their customers, by ensuring what they are sending is convenient, relevant and personal to their customers. 

The average consumer probably doesn’t understand that by selecting to ‘protect mail activity’, the experience for them might then get muddled down into something less personal and therefore they get a below-average experience. 

A lot of information is passed through the open pixel. Information like device, IP address, and time of open is going to be lost and thus some of the innovation that hinges on this data will be lost. This means marketers will need to enhance their first-party data now more than ever. Collecting preference and profile data from customers and their actions on other channels and directly with the brand will therefore become very important. 

*An open pixel is a small, invisible pixel that, when loaded, tracks the user as an open in addition to details like IP address for regional location tracking, device type and time of engagement. 

Will users opt-in to the new privacy feature?

With the release of iOS 14.5, when US-based users were prompted to authorise tracking by an app, 96% of the time they opted out of tracking, so the assumption is that this new privacy feature will also have high adoption.

If that is the case, reporting may overinflate the number of opens given - Apple appears to be loading the tracking pixels via relay or proxy for users that have opted into privacy. Testing by SparkPost has confirmed that in some cases Apple is preloading images in an email, even for emails that have not been opened. This means brands will not be able to discern these false opens from real ones.

How could the iOS15 update impact email senders?

The changes this brings for email has a lesser impact than the crushing changes to the advertising ecosystem. Besides, opens are not a perfect metric and come with flaws. It does, however, tell us engagement trends over time. Some call it a vanity metric, which is a myopic view. The technology behind opens powers more than an engagement metric (even if that metric is flawed). It also makes a lot of the innovation in the email space possible, which is now up to question. 

People have come to depend on email opens to gain an understanding of recipient engagement, with things such as the value of the subject line, preheader and brand. But take this out of the equation, and it becomes more challenging to optimise those parts of the email experience. 

It is important to remember that opens aren’t the only way to gauge the viability of list engagement, but they are the highest in the email conversion funnel. This means more recipients are likely to be removed from email lists due to a lack of engagement by way of clicks.  But don't panic because there are things senders can be planning for to reduce the impact. 

1. Flawed subject line testing

Subject line testing that relies upon open tracking will be flawed. This will no longer be an easy thing to test for Apple Mail users. Instead, metrics such as clicks and conversions that are further down the funnel from the subject line will have to be used. Companies that use Natural Language Processing to optimise subject lines will need to rethink their strategy in order to update the algorithms that support the effectiveness of their products when it comes to recipients using the Mail App. However, subject line testing that relies upon data from panel engagement will continue to provide relevant insights and predictions.

Send-time optimisation monitors patterns in how and when emails are opened by a recipient. This helps to determine the right time to send the email based on open and click engagement. Technologies in the space that power this capability will need to ensure they are updating their algorithms to pull out open engagements for iOS 15 users. It is important to check with any vendors you’re working with on how they plan to handle this to ensure the capability will work properly. 

2. You can no longer rely on opens for email list maintenance

Without access to opens, senders will need to rely on deeper behaviours such as clicks and engagement to know if a real human is still there and interested in the content. Opens (and the lack thereof) have long been a key indicator of user disengagement which promoted early removal/retargeting of disengaged users. Some senders might even fall into bad sending practices by not having this metric to use for segmentation. Those who aren’t ready for this may find these new ways challenging. 

Instead, looking closer at each recipient’s engagement across channels will be a way of telling if they are interested in engaging with you. If you don’t see clicks or other channel engagement over a period, it might be time to consider removing them from your sends once you send a final confirmation asking if they want to remain on your email list. 

3. Flaws in send-time optimisation live and open-time personalisation will be affected

There has been much innovation in recent years with features such as weather widgets and store locators based on your location at the time of engagement. Unfortunately, these innovations will be impacted along with others such as device trackers that detect the operating system to tell you to download the app via the App Store or Google Play. Countdown timers will probably not work due to caching by Apple at mail inception. Essentially, anything that relies on context at the time of opening (location, time, device, etc) through open tracking is potentially at risk. 

4. Rethink your data strategies for local privacy laws and service availability

If you use email opens to establish where your recipients are in the world, you will need to  go back to basics and ask subscribers to update their information to ensure this information is still accurate. This will be critical information for local personalisation, such as local store, events, etc.  

5. Getting emails to the inbox will be more important than ever

When the update comes into play, brands will no longer be able to assume emails have landed in the inbox based on open rates.  It will become crucial to have a sufficient deliverability tool, so you have these metrics at your fingertips, and enable you to mitigate the impact of the iOS 15 privacy changes. You’ll need deliverability analytics to give you a sense of inbox placement, to understand the health of your list to ward off deliverability risks.

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