Apple undercuts a key performance metric for media: e-mail opens

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Hi! This is Smart Data, a newsletter for INMA members on creating value with data analytics for media companies and incorporating a data-positive culture. 

I’m INMA’s researcher-in-residence. E-mail me at: greg.piechota@inma.org.

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DATA PRIVACY: Apple made e-mail more private limiting the key news engagement platform

After restricting tracking with third-party cookies and mobile identifiers, Apple announced plans to block trackers on its Mail apps that tell senders whether recipients had opened e-mails. It matters because most e-mails globally are opened on Apple devices.

The change, announced on Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, will likely undercut one of the key e-mail performance metrics — the open rate. 

E-mail marketing and newsletters have become the workhorse for their first-party data, sponsored advertising, and subscriptions strategies of news publishers. Newsletters are the No. 1 reason to register on a news site, a primary loyalty tool — before and after subscribing.

What’s new and why it matters: The new feature, called Mail Privacy Protection, will be included in new versions of operating systems — iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterrey — to be released this fall.

  • Apple explained that it will stop e-mail senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about users. 

  • The new feature will not only prevent senders from knowing whether recipients opened an e-mail, but also will mask their IP address — so it can’t be linked to other online activity.

In recent years, start-ups and established publishers focused on e-mail as the platform that appeared to be the least controlled by tech companies and offered scale. Estimated 3.9 billion people use e-mail worldwide. E-mail boxes are not curated by algorithms like social media or notification feeds. And access to users was not restricted or taxed by app stores.

What’s the impact: While Apple has a minority share in mobile and desktop operating systems, 26% and 16% in May 2021 respectively, it commands much higher share in the mail app market measured by the actual use. 

In May 2021, iPhone and iPad had 94% share of all mobile e-mail opens and Apple’s Mail app — 58% share of desktop opens. That likely means users of Apple devices and software — generally, richer and more affluent people — are the heavy users of the email platform globally

Can Apple users miss the new privacy feature? Not likely.

  • Developers who had access to the new operating systems shared screenshots on Twitter showing the new feature is pre-selected and all users are prompted to acknowledge it when they open the Mail app. 

When Apple introduced a similar direct prompt about app tracking in iOS 14.5 in May, only 20% users allowed the apps to track their activity to personalise advertising or measure marketing effectiveness. 

How publishers are reacting: Most INMA members whom I connected with this week were still digesting the news and had more questions than answers. Here are some early thoughts.

“The big shift: The open rate will become a less reliable metric, as many Apple users will appear to have opened e-mails that were never opened,” said Dan Oshinsky, founder of Inbox Collective and a former director of e-mail at New Yorker and BuzzFeed. “But there is good news to report. Click data should be unaffected by Apple's update, so newsrooms building out a reader revenue strategy should still be able to measure conversion, and organisations that are focused on driving an action — a click or a purchase — should not see those metrics affected.”

Dan Petty, digital director of audience development at U.S.-based MediaNews, agreed: “One possibility [for performance measurement] is looking at referrals for newsletters as a percentage of total sends or opt-ins.”

He added: “We've set up a robust, organised set of parameters to tracking audience coming to our sites from newsletters using Google Analytics and UTM parameters, so we'll still know which newsletters are driving audience, the type of newsletter (a breaking news alert, an automated list or a handwritten curated experience).”

As for alternatives to e-mail, MediaNews turned more focus on driving the audience to its mobile apps.

What do you think it means for your e-mail analytics and first-party data efforts? E-mail me at greg.piechota@inma.org.

DATA STRATEGY: Why it might be better to start with a puddle, rather than a data lake

“Nobody has patience for data transformation projects that start with building the pipes and make everybody wait years for the value. Strike vertically: Find a problem and fix the data that solves this particular problem,” says the author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook.

Caroline Carruthers was one of the first women to take on the role of chief data officer in the U.K. public sector for Network Rail. An author of several best-selling books, she runs the data consultancy Carruthers and Jackson. We sat on a video call on Thursday to discuss the value of data, the best approach to tying data to business objectives, and the role of a CDO. Here are my questions and her answers:

Do all news organisations need a chief data officer?

You need a chief data officer when you are ready to treat data as an asset. The fact that many organisations do have one is not enough. Smaller organisations may do without a CDO. Surely, somebody at the board level has to have a focus on data. It’s an asset like talent or technology.

What’s the job of a CDO about?

Primarily, about making sure data is treated like an asset.

Having talked to executives, I think they sometimes fall into a trap: They have all this volume of data, they put everything into a lake, but they are not sure what to do with it.  

Data should underpin the organisation’s vision. Data strategy cannot be about hoarding data for the sake of it. It’s about thinking of the purpose, or the outcome of using data.

Think of CDO as a constructive, challenging friend to others in the organisation — a detective, like Sherlock Holmes, asking questions, helping in finding answers.

In all the talk about data science, we often miss what “science” really means — you propose a theory, and you experiment to validate it, and this is how you learn. CDO helps keep the wheel turning.

Where to start? Building the pipelines? Getting data specialists on-board? This is what the world’s leading academics urge publishers to do.

I respectfully disagree. I am not from academia. I have been a CDO in the real world, and I know that nobody has patience today for data transformation projects that start with building the pipes and make everybody wait years for the value.

A new CDO should start with building relationships across the organisation, listening to others: What are their challenges? What keeps them awake at night?

There are two sides of the CDO’s job: risk-averse and value-add. We tend to focus on the latter: how we can create better products and services. There is though a lot of value in the former — in stopping wasting money on collecting data that is not useful, in making sure the right information gets in the hands of the right people so they make better decisions.

The success of the CDO doesn’t really depend on the data team. Ten data scientists sitting in the ivory tower can achieve only this much. Enabling everybody to understand the data and make better decisions will be more impactful. 

The CDO should then focus on driving data literacy, engaging everybody, and improving their decision-making.

And instead of a data lake, I would much rather start with a data puddle. 

A puddle?

Rather than trying to fix everything, strike vertically -— find a problem and fix the data that solves this particular problem. Set up data governance, put people in place, get the necessary tech. Solving one problem after another, you will build your base eventually, but people will see the return on investment more quickly. 

The Economist famously wrote: “Data is the new oil.” Is it? Is it true that the more data we have, the richer we are?

I hate this phrase. No, data is more like dirt. You can turn it into valuable things, but it requires effort and most of the time it is just messy.

That’s why having to choose between a puddle of data that I am sure is accurate and useful and a lake contaminated with inaccurate data, I choose the puddle.

How to measure the success in data transformation?

I’d measure it as progress, for example, asking on an annual basis whether we are improving our decision-making and how.

To measure the value of data we have collected, I would ask: How unique and powerful this data is to you? How hard would it be to replicate it? How much time and effort did it take to have it? And if you miss it, would you bother again to get it?

Recommended reading: Caroline Carruthers, Peter Jackson, The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook, Facet Publishing 2021.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Here I share insights and best practices on creating value with data analytics and incorporating a data-positive culture.  

This newsletter is a public face of the Smart Data initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at greg.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Greg Piechota

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