Stay Updated on Apple Data Privacy: Mail Tracking Protection

What’s new with Apple data privacy technology?

In what has become a recurring trend, Apple has announced new privacy technology for another sector of the advertising industry.  This time around, Apple is taking aim at email tracking inside of their Apple Mail application, and will be offering the users a choice to engage Mail Tracking Protection, which will grant them access to a host of new privacy protections.

What is Apple’s Mail Tracking Protection?

Email marketing is largely centered around the use of pixels embedded in HTML-enabled email.  These small images are transparent and invisible to the end user.  However, by loading these images and recording the timestamps from when the image was requested for load, Email providers can determine a number of pieces of information, such as:

  • Did the user open the email?
  • What time did the user open the email?
  • What device did they open the email on?
  • Where were they when they opened the email?

What Mail Tracking Protection will do is make it impossible to accurately answer those questions.  Apple’s statement explains:

Emails that you receive may include hidden pixels that allow the email’s sender to learn information about you. As soon as you open an email, information about your Mail activity can be collected by the sender without transparency and an ability to control what information is shared. Email senders can learn when and how many times you opened their email, whether you forwarded the email, your Internet Protocol (IP) address, and other data that can be used to build a profile of your behavior and learn your location.

If you choose to turn it on, Mail Privacy Protection helps protect your privacy by preventing email senders, including Apple, from learning information about your Mail activity. When you receive an email in the Mail app, rather than downloading remote content when you open an email, Mail Privacy Protection downloads remote content in the background by default – regardless of how you do or don’t engage with the email. Apple does not learn any information about the content.

In addition, all remote content downloaded by Mail is routed through multiple proxy servers, preventing the sender from learning your IP address. Rather than share your IP address, which can allow the email sender to learn your location, Apple’s proxy network will randomly assign an IP address that corresponds only to the region your device is in. As a result, email senders will only receive generic information rather than information about your behavior. Apple does not access your IP address. Source.

According to Litmus, Apple Mail accounts for well over 50% of current email observed opens.  While Mail Tracking Protection is not enabled by default, users will be prompted to see if they wish to enable it with the operating system upgrades releasing this fall.  I would expect a non-trivial number of people to opt in, which will definitely cause fluctuations in the reporting of the above metrics for email programs.

What isn’t changing in Apple’s Mail Tracking Prevention.

Two critical factors are not changing with these additions. First, deliverability isn’t changing.  Users should retain the ability to have email delivered to them. Second,  Channel Attribution in Analytics isn’t changing in Mail Tracking Prevention.  Assuming the email has the correct tagging on the URLs inside of the email, your analytics platform should be able to identify when a link from an email is clicked.  However, note that depending on the browser and operating system,  the link from the site visit back to the email may be temporary, due to Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

Mail Tracking Prevention changes call for a review of key performance indicators (KPIs).

These changes are likely to impact a non-trivial amount of a brand’s email file (in our example shown below, nearly 70% of our campaign would be affected), and this means that a review of KPIs is in order.

Impact assessment for Apple Data Privacy Changes: Look at your email metrics currently & see what percentage of your email is coming from an Apple Mail Client

For an impact assessment, look at your email metrics currently and see what percentage of your email is coming from an Apple Mail Client. This does not mean “people reading their mail on their iPhone”—I read both my work and personal email on my iPhone, but I do so through the Gmail app, which shouldn’t be impacted by this.

Then, when you know the percentage of email coming from an Apple Mail Client, consider what will happen when the open rate for those emails goes up to 100%. Remember, When you receive an email in the Mail app, rather than downloading remote content when you open an email, Mail Privacy Protection downloads remote content in the background by default – regardless of how you do or don’t engage with the email.” 

With most things privacy-related, our intuition is that it will make metrics that we typically want to see go up actually go down. This is a case where the opposite will happen: the open rate for emails will actually go UP—every user who enables Mail Privacy Protection through Apple Mail will appear to the sender to have opened every email immediately upon receipt, even if they never open it.

Hypothetical scenario of how new Apple data privacy updates like mail tracking protection will impact your reported open rate

Hypothetical scenario of how new Apple data privacy updates like mail tracking protection will impact your reported open rate

If your program is focusing on Time of Open, Open Rate, Location, or Device,  be aware that these may no longer be viable KPIs for the program. Instead, start a discussion to focus on the things that  are not changing, such as click-through rate.

A note on open rates:

If you are running optimization experiments on your email subject lines to impact open rate, these will likely not work as well going forward. Since you can’t determine if the user actually opened the email, it won’t be possible to judge if the subject line was effective in the decision. While you can look at click-through, keep in mind what your success metrics are for the given experiment design.

Further, if you’re using open rate as a means for reporting out the impact of your email program (and many, many companies like to include that in their reporting), you may be doing it wrong, as there is no inherent business value in an open rate. We’re in the midst of this with some client work, where the email partner is touting how their open rate is beating their industry benchmarks. But the point of the email is to get doctors to request drug samples, and the number of physicians who are clicking through on the email and actually doing that is 3 to 5…per month!

It’s a little trickier in the optimization world, because there are two different angles for the test. First, if you’re actually trying to test message A vs. message B to see which one might generally resonate more (so that it can be messaging used in other channels), then a test for open rate can make some sense.

Generally, though, you want to get people to take an action from the email, and that action is often “click through to the site to do more stuff…which may include converting.” That’s a higher bar to get to a statistically significant rate (definitionally, a higher percentage of people are going to open an email than who will click through on it.) But, arguably, it’s a better bar to try to clear. And measuring that a user came to the site from email A vs email B is not something impacted by Mail Tracking Protection, as I stated earlier.

Winter (and the holiday season) is coming, so advertisers need to make changes to prepare for Apple data privacy changes ASAP.

This fall will bring these changes and more to marketing efforts, and the time to align on how to address these is in Q3 so that you can hit the ground running in Q4.  We stand ready to help you figure out how to do that, and to answer any questions you may have.

Cory Underwood, Analytics Engineer and privacy expert, writes from the ever-shifting lines of the privacy front. We keep our clients updated on all things privacy as we work to deliver clear business impact, executable strategies, and a capacity building approach on each and every engagement.

Read more of Cory’s posts:

To learn more about our privacy services or get a free audit of your website to see how your brand is being affected by Apple data privacy changes, reach out here.

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