Anyone seen email open rates increase? Thinking you’re an email genius? Well, it might not be such good news.

On September 20th, Apple rolled out mail privacy protection, a new feature that limits the ability of email marketers to track when users open emails. Apple described it as:

“In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible 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.”

Almost any marketing email system uses tracking pixels to detect opens. These are single-pixel images that do nothing to change the look or layout of the email, but can be used to track when someone opens because each one has a URL unique to each recipient. So when someone opens an email (which actually means asks the email reader to display images), the tracking pixel URL is called and you know that this recipient has opened the email.  You can also get other information, including location, that gives you more data about where the email was opened. This was great, and has worked well for about 28 years (according to the cool team at Groundhogg, the first time a tracking pixel was used was 1993). Now Apple has stopped this approach from working.


What has Apple Done to Tracking Pixels?

The new mail privacy protection doesn’t load the pixel when someone reads an email. What happens is that the Apple servers will download all images for emails. If you then view that email in Apple mail, the images come from the Apple server and not from the server used to track the email opens. This will do two things:

  1. All emails sent to Apple Mail users with the privacy protection system activated will show as having opened the email. This is because the server will download the tracking pixel automatically
  2. Even if the email is opened by the recipient, you will not know when they did it, nor where they opened it, because all the information you will have is when the Apple server opened the email (and where that server was).

So this is not only destroying the metadata you got from email tracking pixels, it will artificially increase the open rate as every email sent to an Apple Mail account with the feature enabled will show as an open.


What Should I Do About This?

Firstly don’t believe email open rates! They will go up, depending on the proportion of Apple Mail users (think most of the people who read your emails on an iPhone or iPad) in your database. So the open rate isn’t going to be that helpful.

Some people might decide to move to monitoring click rates, but there is also a problem with clicks: malware detection bots are clicking on the emails to check that the links don’t route through to anything that could be a security risk. We flagged this as an increasing problem about a year ago, and it’s not going to go away.

Ultimately the best thing to do is to think more about your business goals. What are you trying to actually achieve with the emails you are sending? If you want someone to click through to learn about a product on the web, then are they visiting the pages you want them to see and spending sufficient time? If you want to generate leads, did you get valid form-fills? Or if you want online sales, measure the value of the sales.

It’s becoming very clear that privacy measures are only going to increase. In some ways, this is bad because we’re losing some of the fabulous metrics that are so easy to collect around digital marketing. However, I think it’s a good thing. It’s about time we moved away from dated digital metrics towards more sophisticated measures that determine whether our marketing activities actually made an impact on the organisation.