The tech giant Apple has made changes in the ability of advertisers and publishers to see whether consumers open emails — and it could mean big changes for the way email marketing looks going forward.

In June, Apple announced several new features for mobile and desktop operating systems that will have major impacts for email.

The company will give its users the option to do away with tracking pixels, or small images that email marketers use to tell if you actually opened an email. There’s also a feature called “Private Relay” for subscribers to Apple’s iCloud storage service iCloud+ that would hide IP addresses. Finally, a feature called “Hide My Email” will let users share “unique, random” email addresses that can forward to their personal inbox, which they’re able to delete to control who contacts them.

Of course, not every email user uses Apple email products. But they do account for a large proportion: An analysis of 3 billion email opens in January through March from email marketing company Litmus found Apple on iPhone held the biggest share of email opens, at 38.9%. Google’s Gmail came next at 27.2%, and Apple Mail (on desktop) at 11.5%. IPad email opens also accounted for a little more than a percent. 

That means a significant portion of marketing emails that get sent out every day may be tougher for senders to get data on.

The changes, expected to arrive with software updates in the fall, are forcing marketers and publishers who use email to reach their subscriber base to rethink some of the ways they’ve measured, monetized or used email.

As a result, consumers might eventually notice a difference in the marketing emails they’re getting — and may see brands reaching them in other ways outside the inbox, like texting. 

The great open rate rethink 

The way a burrito chain or credit app emails consumers has often gone something like this: Marketers can use tracking pixels inside emails to give them an idea when someone actually opens that message. Under the new changes, users will be prompted to select whether they’d like to opt in to “protect” their mail activity by hiding IP addresses and privately loading remote content.

Open email rates have not been a perfect metric. In the email industry, the “open” of an email has been seen as a signal of interest or engagement. But if you’re someone who indiscriminately clicks to open emails just to mark them as read, that doesn’t mean much.

Going forward, emails to consumers who use Apple mail products and opt into “Mail Privacy Protection” will appear like they were read as soon as it was sent, meaning that information won’t be very useful for marketers. 

For a company like Domino’s, email is of huge importance: The company uses email to communicate with tens of millions of customers, to update customers on where their order is, updating them about deals and offers, and more.

Domino’s VP of Digital Marketing Christopher Thomas-Moore said timing, for instance, in terms of when people are opening dinnertime emails has been helpful to send the right message when people actually want it. 

“We potentially lose that data,” he said. “So we maybe are going to be a little less relevant now when we’re sending you information. Because we’re not hitting those times that are most important for you.” 

Thomas-Moore said there may be an evolution for the company in figuring out how to do those types of functions without all the data it may have had before. He said there are still questions across the entire industry about what the real impacts will be, and he expects it will take some time to know. 

Erik Fialho, chief operating officer at LeftLane Sports, said the change makes it more difficult to do things like A/B testing subject lines to figure out which one is most successful in getting people to open. LeftLane is a parent company of outdoor-focused adventure travel and e-commerce sub-brands.

Fialho said his company already looks at other metrics outside email opens, like how many consumers click through the email, or how many are buying. 

Some marketers use email open data to do “retargeting” of sorts that relies on whether someone opened an email and didn’t end up trying to make a purchase.  

What email marketers are curious about is how email service providers will tweak how they do “deliverability,” or how they decide which emails make it through to your inbox, or which are doomed to the spam filter. Blasting emails at customers who continually don’t read them can hurt deliverability.

“You ultimately need your email to actually get delivered to somebody’s inbox and not to their spam for them to even react,” Fialho said. “And if the email service providers don’t take into account that suddenly a lot of these email marketers aren’t going to have one of their key rates to look at, of whether or not they should send an email to a customer and whether that customer is engaged or not, can be a challenge.” 

It’ll also pose challenges for newsletter-based businesses. Myles Kleeger, president of customer engagement platform Braze, said companies that monetize audiences based directly in the content from emails are ones that are probably most affected by Apple’s changes, since they often charge based on open rates. 

“A lot of them charge based on some of that granular detail that maybe you won’t be able to get any more,” he said. 

But those companies will likely seek out other ways to drive readers to click and prove they were reading, whether it’s a survey or some “thumbs up” button to show they’re engaging somehow. 

Future Plc, which has more than 180 media brands including Marie Claire and Golf Monthly, already uses metrics that rely on more first-party data, said Allison Markert, VP of B2B Advertising & Sales Operations. That’s especially important as increasingly more privacy-focused initiatives are happening in the industry.

One result of all this is that marketers will likely make a bigger push to ask consumers their permission to send them emails and to continue sending them emails, and relying on explicit permission rather than implying based on open rate data. 

Inundating consumers with unwanted messages could not only get consumers to unsubscribe, but if consumers are turned off enough, they could turn to Apple’s “hide my email” feature when signing up, said Nirish Parsad, marketing technologist at Tinuiti.

Marketers are also grappling with a number of other privacy changes in the industry, including previous changing that gave users more transparency and control over apps that want to track them for advertising.

“My first reaction [to the email announcements] was ‘Here we go again,’” said Domino’s Thomas-Moore. “There are some assumptions that are kind of floating as to what the impacts are going to be. But we’re still so early in discovery and understanding that I expect that we’ll find ourselves moving to the center point as we continue to move forward.”


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