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

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


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.orgIf you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Greg Piechota

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