Email Marketing and Apple Mail Privacy Policy (MPP): A Death of Open Rate Review

Released in the fall of 2021, Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) brought panic to the email industry. Since then, many articles have been written about the death of open rate and even email marketing itself. Open rate, regarded already by many marketers as a vanity metric can no longer be an email engagement benchmark, and has almost become obsolete. Email performance reporting became more complicated while all related processes and tools depending on open rate such as Marketing Automation Platforms, A/B testing, geolocation, re-engagement campaigns, and send time optimization (STO) were impacted.

Let’s be honest. We should see that coming…In the last few years, privacy-first has become a global trend. Governments have passed laws to protect consumer data privacy, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ePrivacy, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. Let alone the phase-out of third-party cookies by Google until 2023. Users demanded control over their personal data and Apple, as a tech-giant leader, could not do anything else but give them what they wanted.

In this review, we will revisit MPP, one year after it was first released, and provide you with the best practices available in order to adjust your email strategy. We will also consider what the future repercussions of this milestone may be and how marketers should navigate privacy-related policies.

What is MPP?

So, you probably heard it before but the story goes like this:

In the pre-MPP era, the open rate of an email was tracked by placing a single invisible pixel (a tiny, transparent image) into each email campaign. The pixel loaded each time the email was opened tracking this way the open rate and time of open. It also reported the contact’s location and time zone, the device type (pc, mobile), and the email client.

However, in September 2021, Apple released an official announcement launching Mail Privacy Policy: “In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible unique pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.”

In other words, when a subscriber that previously activated Apple Mail Privacy Protection receives a message, Apple Mail preloads pixels, (it fetches the message and all the images in it) causing the tracking pixel to fire indicating that the email has been opened. So MPP opens automatically every single email. How cool is this?

Apple uses a proxy method to download the email content and as stated in the announcement hides the IP address so that your specific geolocation information, device type, or email client data is not shared.

So to make a long story short since open tracking is anonymized, we are no longer able to count opens, estimate location, device type, or email client. There is a good part too though. The automatic opening of an email indicates that the address is valid. This is a valuable deliverability insight to keep your lists cleaned up and healthy.

How is it activated?

The good news is that users must manually opt in to MPP on their devices. MPP is not activated by default. However, if users choose to opt-in, then this is automatically synced to all devices associated with the same Apple ID.

There are 3 prerequisites in order to enable MPP:

  1. An apple device
  2. Opening your emails on the Apple mail app
  3. Upgrading to the latest version of the operating system

When users open the Apple Mail app for the first time after downloading the latest version of the operating system, they receive a prompt to choose if they would like to “Protect Mail Activity”. If the users choose this option- to be honest, who wouldn’t?- then MPP is enabled.

Mail Privacy Protection Prompt
MPP Prompt screenshot

Alternatively, users can access Mail Privacy Protection in settings by going to “Settings” → “Mail” → “Privacy Protection,” and turn on Protect Mail Activity.

Mail Privacy Protection opti-in screenshot
MPP alternative opt-in screenshot

MPP affects email opened only on Mail app regardless of the email client (Gmail, Yahoo etc). In other words, when you open your Gmail on Mail app on your iPhone, then the MPP is on but when you open your email using the Gmail app still on your iPhone, you are not affected by MPP.

What is the Impact of the MPP?

MPP adoption keeps climbing as more and more Apple users choose to opt-in to MPP.

Litmus’ email client market share data shows the Apple Mail client—on iPhone, Mac, and iPad devices—with more than 57% of combined email opens as of July 2022 (which is half of your subscribers actually!).

Litmus’ email client market share data graph
Litmus’ email client market share data

Apple Mail Privacy Protection has become the most popular subcategory, impacting 52.7% of opens as of July 2022. You can see where this is going, don’t you? Mail Privacy Protection adoption is forecasted to be near 100%.

The numbers have spoken. Apple Mail Privacy Protection is here to stay. So, it’s a good idea to get prepared.

The first thing you are going to notice when MPP has knocked on your door is open rates inflation (reaching 75% for Apple mail users at peak adoption). Do not start cheering for your campaign’s performance because these are not actual open rates but the effect of Apple MPP. Click-through rate (CTR) on the other hand will seem to be artificially lower. The truth is your CTR is probably the same but as your open rate artificially leveled off, reporting results were skewed.

Apart from the open rate benchmark, there are also many processes and tools as well as common marketing practices that depend on open rates. It is important to review the total impact of MPP as described below and adjust your strategy.

  1. Open rates are inflated
  2. Open time is unknown
  3. Device data is not shared
  4. Geolocation is not shared
  5. Engagement-based segmentation and respective targeting based on opens or last open dates are inaccurate
  6. Automated nurture flows and journeys that rely on opens have to be updated
  7. A/B subject line tests don’t work anymore
  8. Send time optimization (STO) is not feasible unless the algorithm has excluded opens
  9. Real-time personalization powered by opens such as countdown timers, local weather, or nearest store location is not accurate
  10. Some interactive emails that reference external CSS don’t work
  11. Email lists cleaning and sunset policies need to be updated

Ok, let’s face it. It’s a big list. The MPP affects practically everything! But do not panic. There are available best practices to follow in order to make your email marketing programs privacy-proof.

How marketers can adapt?

The following go-to tactics will help you pivot and get back on track.

Break down your audience to assess the impact

First things first. To understand the size of the impact, you have to check how many contacts of your total subscriber base use Apple mail. Naturally, the impact of the MPP is going to be bigger if the percentage of Apple mail users in your subscriber base is high.

It would be helpful at this point, to use the still reliable open rates from the segment of non-Apple Mail subscribers. You can leverage this audience to keep traditional tracking as a proxy.

Change how you measure success in your email campaigns

Now that the open rate has fallen, the click-through rate (CTR) has risen even more. Try to focus on this reliable (yet) metric in order to measure the success of email campaigns. Consider replacing open rate with click-through rate instead and use it in combination with other still reliable metrics such as bounces, unsubscribe rates, and conversions to track email performance accurately.

Replacing open rates with click-through rates means you should drive more attention to what you want your subscriber to click on. Encourage them to take some kind of action. Use gamification or formats like quizzes, surveys or just simple thumps up buttons to engage them in a more creative way. You can also consider using more CTAs if this applies to the context of the email.

Re-engineer your Customer Journeys and Automation

Review all the journeys and automations such as welcome and onboarding emails, automated nurture flow triggers and re-engagement campaigns that are based on opens and consider changing opens to clicks instead. Review segments defined on opens or location and use different more appropriate parameters to segment. For example, launching a re-engagement campaign for subscribers that did not open previous emails doesn’t make sense, since all emails of Apple mail users seem “opened”.

Leverage zero-party data

Live, dynamic content based on location tracking of the user when they open the email will no longer be available for Apple Mail users. This includes also other forms of real-time personalization such as countdown timers that will show outdated times (the cached version is pulled at sent time, not opened time).

This is where Zero- Party Data come in and save the day. Ask your subscribers directly to provide personal data in order to enjoy (real-time) personalization. Don’t forget even the most privacy-conscious subscribers love personalization and wouldn’t mind sharing data in a very specific and transparent context in order to enjoy a seamless personal and relevant experience.

Update your A/B testing

Testing email subject lines using open rates as indicators is not an option anymore. Replace open rate with CTR for any A/B email testing you run to get accurate results. Try to be very specific on your target to draw attention to the click-to-action. Start with focusing on more actionable subject lines and preview texts to encourage action and engagement.

Prioritize deliverability and email hygiene

It could not be stressed enough how important it is for your list to be clean and up to date. This makes sure your emails are delivered to the inbox and generates positive engagement. Both of these protect your reputation and your ROI. However, now that open rates are off the table, it is more challenging to stay on top of deliverability. Read on to figure out how you can boost your deliverability and increase subscriber’s engagement.

Sunset policies

One of the practices commonly used for list hygiene is automatic opt-out of inactive subscribers that are not re-engaged after win-back campaigns. However, as sunset policies rely on open rates as an indicator of inactivity, they no longer apply. Replacing open rate with CTR is an option to continue identifying subscribers that stay unengaged and hurt your reputation.

Use double opt-in

Another way to keep your list clean is email address validation and there is no better way to do it rather than with double opt-in forms. Since a new subscriber must click the activation link to complete their registration, you make sure the address is correct and the subscriber indeed wants to engage. So you keep your list clean, and minimize unsubscribe rates and hard bounces. Not 100% of sign-uppers will make it to the end; a considerable 20% will drop out before completing the confirmation step but it is worthy to target building a healthy list right from the start.

Make unsubscribe easy

It is important that your subscribers feel there is a way out. You do not need spam complaints, bounce rates or subscribers that remain inactive and do not engage with your emails. All these damage your reputation. So do not be afraid to highlight your unsubscribe. Instead, promote it. Make it simple to use and obvious in your email.

Highlight your preference center

Apart from promoting unsubscribing, you should also highlight your email preference center. This gives the subscriber control over their data and this in turn drives more engagement. Don’t forget to include it in the footer of your email campaigns and to highlight it specifically in your welcome email series. Don’t be afraid to send emails asking for action in your preference center. Your subscribers can indicate how and for what content they want to be communicated validating at the same time their interest in engaging. Plus, your zero-party data is enhanced and it’s easier to deliver a personalized experience.

Reach out to alternative channels

Last, you might also consider reaching out to your subscribers using other channels such as SMS if they have explicitly given consent for that. Be careful though, since SMS is considered to be more intrusive and is used basically on transactional communication or for urgent matters.

That’s it! You’ve got all you need to start updating your email marketing programs. Now that you’ve learned what the best practices are, let’s see how the email industry players have adapted to MPP this last year it went into effect.

How have email industry players responded?

Apple’s Mail Protection Privacy has impacted the whole email industry. Email service providers and email marketing platforms have been trying to catch up by introducing new features and engaging in new practices.

Almost all ESPs provide now segmentation of your audience into Apple and non-Apple email users. This enables assessing the subscriber base and continuing open tracking and open-triggered automation to non-Apple email users. Of course, this is just an interim and not a permanent solution.

Many marketing platforms such as Litmus do not receive reliable email client data from users of Apple Mail on the new operating systems, regardless of whether they opt into MPP. Therefore, all open from the new Apple Mail apps on those new operating systems (iOS 15, iPad OS 15, and Monterey Mac and newer) are categorized as unreliable. The same stands for SendinBlue which no longer includes Apple mail users to open tracking or open dependent automation.

Other established marketing platforms such as SendGrid launched a feature called the Apple Machine Open Indicator. As implied by the name itself, it indicates that the open comes from a user with MPP enabled. It may be either triggered randomly from an Apple machine or opened by the MPP-enabled recipient in Apple Mail but returned anonymous data. This way, marketers can adapt email sending strategies to rely less on open data for MPP-enabled users.

On the other hand, new Email Protection companies have emerged. One example is DuckDuckGo which offers forwarding services that remove hidden email trackers and let you create unlimited unique private email addresses– without switching email providers or apps. They have also announced adding new features like Link Tracking Protection that helps prevent tracking in email links starting a new discussion about CTR.

What’s next?

It is clear that the email privacy transformation has begun but is far from complete. We have not seen the full impact of Apple’s MPP yet since it is still and will be in progress for quite a while. More and more Apple users are opting in MPP but that doesn’t mean that other tech giants won’t follow Apple and launch respective policies since users seem to adopt them. In this case, we won’t be able to track open rates in non-apple users segments either, and that would make open rates practically obsolete among marketing benchmarking.

It could also be implied that these policies may have started with disabling open rate tracking but no one can really predict what the future holds for the other metrics. For example, they potentially could be extended to disable click-through rate as well. In this case, it is important that there are other fallback success metrics to use. Maybe this is not a science fiction scenario and it would be a good idea to start working on how to respond in case it happens.

Final Thoughts on MPP

Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection has for sure disrupted the email marketing industry. However, it has helped it grow as well. Marketing has genuinely innovation to its core and this applies to this case, too. Ultimately, marketers will find more innovative ways to deliver a valuable experience to their subscribers using at the same time a privacy-first strategy. Respecting personal data creates more meaningful relationships with customers and ultimately more engagement with the brand.

On the other hand, success metrics should become more intelligent and sophisticated. A hybrid way of reporting that incorporates not just one metric but a group of them such as click-through rate, conversion rate, website activity, last login, last purchase (if applicable) and even physical store interaction should be used along with zero-party data in order to deliver a more holistic view of engagement.

It will take some time to tackle all these challenges and you may need to pivot some aspects of your strategy but it is worth a try. Nobody wants to rely on misleading success metrics or be perceived as a spammer. On the contrary, marketers should embrace data privacy policies and re-imagine a privacy-proof email marketing strategy.

Bottom line, email marketing is not going anywhere. It still outperforms many other marketing channels in terms of engagement and ROI. According to Litmus, email can deliver an average return on investment of 36:1. It is a powerful and strategic marketing communication channel that 41% of marketers say that it is very critical to the overall success of their company. MPP and other privacy policies that will emerge in the near future provide an opportunity for innovation as email continues to transform into a more sustainable marketing channel.

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About The Author — Nikoletta Tsali
Nikoletta Tsali

Hi 👋 I am Nikoletta! I am an end-to-end marketer with +10 years of experience in various industries - Energy, Healthcare, FMCGs, and Cosmetics. I love contributing to business and digital transformation projects and to setting up new marketing departments from scratch. I am experienced in go-to-market, revenue and marketing operations, digital, brand, and content marketing. Strategy is my thing and I consider myself a lifelong learner. I have strong values and I support diversity, equity, and inclusion in workplaces being a proud mom of four myself. My highlights; ▶️ Strategic Marketing ▶️ Marketing Operations ▶️ Revenue Operations ▶️ Go to market ▶️ Sales Enablement ▶️ Email marketing ▶️ Campaigns operations ▶️ Digital Marketing ▶️ Conversational Marketing ▶️ Customer XP and journeys ▶️ Data-driven storytelling ▶️ Brand Marketing ▶️ Content Marketing ▶️ Project management ▶️ Agile marketing

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