RE: Here’s what the iOS 15 update really means for your email program.

Many marketers are losing sleep over the announcement that the new iOS 15 update will block email open tracking, but you don’t have to. While we haven’t invented a new sheep-counting technique, we have put together this article to help you sleep more soundly at night—and prepare yourself for the changes yet to come.

Key Takeaways

  1. Take a deep breath—this is a powerful PR move, but nothing we haven’t seen before.
  2. Open rates have never been the perfect metric or outcome—instead, top-performing email programs optimize for sustained engagement.
  3. It’s not the end of newsletters—because they’ve been dead for a while.
  4. There will likely be many workarounds popping up—but be wary of the implications when it comes to customer trust.

1.     Take a deep breath: We’ve seen this before.

It’s no coincidence that this announcement was made on the heels of Apple’s national campaign around privacy. This effective PR push has become a hot topic in many marketing circles, receiving tons of coverage with varying levels of detail and clarity. While there will undoubtedly be disruption and necessary pivots, it is hard to quantify at this time. The good thing is that we’ve been here before. Case in point:

Do you notice something curious? The above article is from 2013. Eight years later, email marketing is still going strong. And as more details emerge, we’ll all have a clearer picture of the scale and impact of this announcement.

2.     Open rates have always been flawed—and shouldn’t be one of your email KPIs.

High-performing email programs use open rate as a diagnostic measure, but not as a KPI. One reason is that simply opening an email doesn’t provide a great deal of value, since click-bait subject lines are pervasive and oftentimes don’t match the content inside.

Another strong argument against using open rates as KPIs is that said rates have always been somewhat inaccurate—especially on mobile. This is because different email clients (and even email behavior) have always caused open rates to vary in accuracy.

An article on developermedia.com from 2019 goes so far as to suggest that:

“There’s no time like the present for us marketing professionals to stop using email open rates to measure marketing campaign effectiveness. It’s 2019, and they’re still not helping us get where we want to go as marketers, and, at best, they’re an untrustworthy and misleading metric”.

The bigger impact of this iOS 15 announcement weighs on brands that use open rates as an eligibility criterion for continuing to send emails to subscribers—considered a best practice for years. Now marketers will need to pivot, or brands may start to see a decrease in “engaged subscriber” segments for users who tend to open but not click through on emails.

3.     If you’re relying heavily on newsletters, your program may have been dead for a while.

Some of the most confusing reactions to this announcement are the ones that imply newsletters are still the cornerstone of a successful email program:

This is a real head-scratcher for those of us who have long believed that blasting newsletters is one of the least effective things to do with your email list. Instead of newsletters, successful programs provide dynamic and personalized sequences of touches—helping nurture each user to realize value in an individualized way.

4.     Brace yourself for the workarounds—but be wary.

Once additional details are released to the public, we will likely see a host of solutions that purport to bypass iOS changes and maintain the ability to track opens. In addition to first-party ESP (Email Sending Platform) tracking, there are already third-party email tracking solutions (Litmus, Movable Ink, etc.) that will likely be targeted by Apple.

Although only a few details are known, the most likely methods Apple will use to block trackers will be to:

  • Utilize an Apple-managed proxy server to deliver images, thereby blocking IP tracking, device type, and other information (Gmail has been doing this for nearly a decade).
  • Maintain a list of the most widely known tracker URLs and block them.
  • Detect transparent and/or 1×1 pixel images embedded in emails, and prevent these from loading regardless of URL.

This could turn into a whack-a-mole situation if these platforms pivot to use real images instead of pixels and rotate through an endless series of URLs.

Ultimately, this could be a dangerous game for marketers to play, with Apple having the ability to alert users to this activity, which could immediately erode subscribers’ trust of brands.

Summary

While the scale of impact of the new iOS 15 updates is still unclear, it’s undoubtedly time for brands and marketers to evaluate how to decrease their reliance on open tracking. Many have already done this over the years,  as open tracking has always been a far from perfect metric.

At the end of the day, marketers who maintain healthy email programs with high-quality, personalized content and good intentions may need to shift their performance-monitoring priorities, but they will be minimally impacted. In fact, these programs will now have a competitive advantage over email marketers who are taking the “path of least resistance” and not putting their customers first.

Clark Kipling is the SVP of Strategy & Analytics at DEFINITION 6. He brings over a decade of experience leveraging analytics to help clients understand customer behavior across fintech, retail, manufacturing, and other industries.

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