Why Your Open Rates Just Changed

After September 20th, almost every business running email campaigns noticed a very similar change – a vast increase in open rates for their emails, without any growth at all for click rates, conversions or similar. If you dig in closer, you’ll see an even stranger stat: your open rate has shot up for iOS users, while remaining more or less static across all other devices. 

This change was caused by Apple’s latest software update for iOS, and it’s something that absolutely every digital marketer needs to understand, and, in most cases, work around.

In this week’s blog, we’re taking a look at exactly what Apple has changed, what it means for the industry – and what you can do to keep your email results accurate.

How Apple Changed Mail Tracking

As soon as users update to the latest version of iOS and open the Mail app for the first time, they’ll see a popup titled ‘Mail Privacy Protection’, asking them if they want to ‘Protect Mail Activity’ or not. 

If the user opts out, everything continues as previously, letting you fully track their opens and interactions. If they choose to enable protection, however, everything changes. 

Once a protected user receives an email, Apple downloads all the content to a proxy server, triggering any tracking pixels while hiding the user’s geographic location. If the user actually opens the email, they’re opening the cached version, preventing mail clients from reading information about any actual opens.

In other words, open rates for iOS devices are now completely unreliable. At the time of writing, there’s no exact information about how many users have updated to iOS 15, or how many of those people have opted into Mail Privacy Protection. However, based on past releases, the situation is definitely not a positive one for marketers:

Typically, around a quarter of iPhone users update to the latest OS version within a week, increasing to 66-75% within the next few months – more than enough to skew your email tracking to an unusable level. 

You can also expect around 80-90% of users to opt into mail protection. While 96% of iOS users chose to disable user tracking, the high uptake was at least partially motivated by in-depth media coverage about the issues with user tracking. With far less media attention devoted to email tracking, you can expect at least a slight decrease in opt-ins, though again, more than enough to make open rate tracking fundamentally unreliable for iOS users.

Restoring Accurate Email Tracking

Fortunately, it’s not all negative for marketers. Your click tracking and conversion attribution shouldn’t be affected in any way by the update (though you may want to consider adding some additional UTM tagging to your campaigns for your analytics platforms).

As with Google’s last major change for tracking, this update doesn’t completely remove marketers’ ability to track user behaviour, and can actually motivate a more accurate kind of tracking. Focus on the clicks and conversions you’re receiving, rather than open rates, and you’ll end up with a better understanding of your real-world email performance.

That said, there are some steps that you should consider taking as soon as possible.

Firstly, segment your audience. Currently, Mail Privacy Protection isn’t a standard feature for every mail platform – just for iOS users. While you can’t trust your open rate on iOS any more, you don’t have to sacrifice your full set of email analytics.

Most email platforms give you some kind of option to detect and segment by device. Split out your iOS-based subscribers from the rest of your users, and you should be able to achieve a far more accurate set of open rate analytics (while also making device-based split testing far simpler).

If you use any automation based around email opens (a follow-up email sequence, for example), now’s the time to reconsider how you’re applying it. If you don’t want the email to go to absolutely every iOS user, remove/ adjust this automation for anyone on iOS. Again, segmentation is vital here – you introduced the segmentation for a reason, and don’t want to lose it except where necessary.

What Mail Privacy Protection Means for Marketers

The simple fact is that Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection for a reason – users have been requesting it. 

While mail tracking hasn’t attracted anywhere near as much attention as user tracking in general, when it’s been publicly discussed, reactions are generally negative, with this Huffington Post story being a fairly standard example.

Take a look at the language used. Being aware of email tracking is ‘unsettling…  invasive… uneasy’. Again, the case being made against email tracking is definitely not as developed as arguments against specific user tracking, but both arguments come from a similar position, and evolve along similar lines.

Given that, it’s very unlikely that the rollout of Mail Privacy Protection will end with iOS users. Expect other platforms to start proactively introducing similar systems in the near future. 

Of course, the best defense is a good offense – being proactive in adjusting how you track and rate your email performance is going to leave you in a far better position than scrambling about to fix your email systems when the next big change comes through. 

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