Apple’s iOS15 changes: What it means for email marketing and the impact on the customer experience

Back in June, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection for their Mail app on iOS15, iPadOS15, and macOS Monterey devices

While no date has been set, it is expected to launch as early as September, and whilst it will take some time for people to update their iOS, this change will kick in when the deprecation begins and will occur over several 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.

What will these updates mean for customer experience?

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

Personalisation within the email channel has become an integral part of how brands use the channel to connect with their customers and personalise their experiences so that what they are sending is convenient and relevant 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, location at the time of open (IP, not actual address), and time of open is going to be lost and thus some of the innovation that hinges on this data will also be lost. Marketers, therefore, 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 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.

Is it a given that users will opt-in to this change?

With the release of iOS14.5, when US-based users were prompted to authorize tracking by an app, 96% of the time they opted out, so we can only assume that the adoption of this new privacy feature will be extremely high.

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.

The predicted impact of iOS15 changes for email senders

What’s happening with this change for email has a lesser impact than the crushing changes to the advertising ecosystem. 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 gauge upper email funnel engagement such as the value of the subject line, preheader and brand. Without this, it will be challenging to optimise those parts of the email experience.

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 people will be culled from email lists due to a lack of engagement by way of clicks, but there are things senders can be planning for to reduce the impact.

Flawed subject line testing

Subject line testing that relies upon open tracking will no longer be an easy thing to test for Apple Mail users. Metrics like 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 optimize subject lines will need to rethink their strategy 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.

Opens no longer reliable for list hygiene

Without access to opens, senders will need to rely on clicks and deeper behaviours to know if a real human is still there and interested in the content. Opens (and the lack thereof) have long been an important leading 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 news ways challenging.

It may be that looking 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.

Send-time optimization will be flawed

Send-time optimisation often takes opens into account as part of its algorithm 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 iOS15 users. Check with any vendors you’re working with on how they plan to handle this to ensure the capability will work properly.

Open-time personalisation will be broken

We’ve seen innovation in recent years with weather widgets and store locators based on your location at the time of engagement. Other innovations that will be impacted will be 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. Anything that draws from context at the time of open (location, time, device, etc) through open tracking is potentially at risk.

Data strategies for privacy laws (like GDPR) or service availability will need to be rethought

If you use email opens to establish recipient residency, you will need to confirm the location of your subscribers if you want this information for personalisation. Going back to basics – asking your customers to update their profile – will be important.

Monitoring inbox placement will become an even more crucial metric to track

Getting emails to the inbox will be more important than ever, assuming your emails have landed in the inbox based on opens will no longer be reliable. Having a sufficient deliverability tool so you have these metrics at your fingertips will be crucial in mitigating the impact of the iOS15 privacy changes. You’ll need deliverability analytics to give you a sense of inbox placement, to understand the health of your list to ward of deliverability risks.

About the Author

Sam Holding is Head of International at SparkPost. SparkPost is the industry’s most trusted email optimization platform. SparkPost helps senders reliably reach the inbox with powerful solutions to help them plan, execute and optimize their email programs.