Needless to say, the news was shocking when Apple announced upcoming Mail Privacy Protection changes for iOS 15 at this month’s World Developers Conference. The big change? Marketers will not be able to track stalwart metrics like open rates for customers opting not to share their personal information once this update hits.
With iPhone-based Apple Mail representing a nearly 40% share of email clients, according to Liltmus’s 2021 research, the change would seriously affect campaign analytics. But an even bigger fear is who might copy Apple next.
“Google may follow suit, so it’s the time now to learn how these changes are impacting the business, adopt and begin new strategies, as many of us have been doing for the past few years,” said Kate Nowrouzi, vice president of deliverability for email marketing solution Pathwire.
“The new privacy changes not only are impacting email marketing, but online marketing as a whole. They challenge tracking and what it means to marketers and consumers.”
The majority of consumers are already on edge about data privacy, and eight out of 10 Americans think they have little to no control over their data and are somewhat or very concerned about how companies use it. But that does not mean they want brand communications to go away. In fact, the change should give marketers a renewed focus on what truly matters in email campaigns: the experience.
Meeting consumer expectations
Marketers know that email has historically been a low-cost, high-yield channel, returning on as much as $38 on a $1 investment, according to Nowrouzi.
With the widespread adoption of texting and chat apps by consumers, as well as social media, the expectations for email changed from one-to-one communications (personal emails from friends) to a one-to-many marketing channel. Consumers expect to hear from brands and publishers through email. They just don’t want to be tracked.
“If you feel like someone is following you on the street, you don’t like it,” Nowrouzi said. “This is why privacy matters. And it’s truly valid that some marketers are using some of these metrics to enhance future campaigns’ open rates.”
Apple’s announced Hide My Email feature will allow users to opt out of pixel tracking on their iPhones and other devices, so marketers won’t be able to “see” if a recipient opened their email.
“Open rates are flawed,” said Nowrouzi. “They are an easy metric to measure engagement with subscribers, but they’re imperfect.” She added that open rates can be tainted by bots or the pixels can be misinterpreted, causing inaccuracies in reporting.
“What Hide My Email signifies is that unless the person is going to get some value out of communicating with a company, you have to have the promise of a good experience on the other side,” said April Mullen, director of brand and content marketing for another email vendor, Sparkpost. “If marketers are going to be spammy and inundate with messages, the person is not going to like that.”
Another key change proposed by Apple is the option for subscribers to have their email address obscured when shared with a marketer or publisher.
This kind of technology has been used for years on sites like eBay or Craigslist when users message each other through email, said Alex Cone, vice president, privacy and data protection at IAB Tech Lab. In that use case, an individual selling an item on eBay doesn’t have to entrust their email to every last bidder on the site. In a similar way, Apple proposes to retain the email addresses that use its Mail App, but it then replaces that email with a scrambled proxy email so customers can get the benefits without sharing their identifying address with the brand or publisher.
“It remains to be seen whether or not this Hide My Mail feature from Apple will try to obfuscate single sign-on services,” said Cone. “If going forward, Apple takes email forms for single sign-on, that could create some issues even for [multi-application] platforms”
If Apple privacy updates keep emails from being accessed when signing up for services like Google Workspace, it would give Google a reason to up their privacy and further alter the identity landscape for marketers.
Marketing is going to fundamentally change with the phasing out of third-party cookies and the controls consumers will be handed in keeping their email data from brands, said Mullen.
“We used to not have patience for the long game,” she said. “We’d buy the ads or send emails and make money. The long game doesn’t look at channels and tactics, but instead at how we are going to drive customer lifetime value across the entire lifecycle. There’s not enough patience for that at some companies, but now they don’t have a choice.”
At the highest level, the rush for “quick hits” can be attributed to short tenures for CMOs who have to demonstrate rapid-fire provable results, according to Mullen. The average CMO tenure dropped to 40 months last year, the shortest it’s been since 2009.
Marketers have to be patient and develop a relationship with customers regardless of where they hear from them.
“I think people should embrace what’s ahead of us,” said Mullen. “It’s not going to be easy. But also that’s what marketing is supposed to be. It’s in that compelling value proposition to make them want to have a relationship with you and not just to make a single purchase.”
She added, “I think what’s going to happen is that everyone on the marketing team is going to be in the business of improving the customer experience, and email people will be leading this charge because they’re pros at this.”
The first-party reality
“Everybody will be having to tap into first parties,” Mullen said. “If they weren’t using a CDP two years ago, they’ll have to now. The benefit of a CDP is that if one channel goes dark on you, it’s stitching together a lot of these complex data sets and making them usable across all your channels.”
The emphasis on relationships with valued customers obviously privileges first-party data over shared third-party data. Further restrictions on data through email makes some first-party data scarce and even more valuable.
The IAB Tech Lab advocates for industry standards that could extend transparency and strengthen trust between marketers and consumers.
“What we suggest is there are ways to lean into advancing privacy protection and data protection and actual supply chain accountability that don’t have to be one platform. Ideally we would have browsers and operating systems at the table,” said Cone.
“It’s really hard to be fully transparent with customers until you have an understanding of who all your business partners are,” he added. “To end users, you really need to know the full slate of who you’re working with, otherwise transparency isn’t fully there. I don’t think it’s real intent to deceive if you don’t technically understand who all the players are.”
Standards on data usage throughout the ad supply chain would allow publishers and advertisers to share data without depending on Apple or Google to call the shots.
“If you’re an email marketer, this is a headwind and a challenge,” said Jeremy Hlavacek, CRO of IBM Watson Advertising. “There has been growth in the email channel and that portion of the industry is taking a hit with this change. The larger piece to us is really symbolic. Apple is closing loopholes, making sure identifiers and identities are nonexistent or can’t be found in other channels.”
He added, “People are looking for a back door, and Apple is saying ‘no,’ we’ll close that loophole as well. It’s really going to force marketers to start thinking about a world without identifiers and what that means.”
A common belief shared by successful email marketers is to remember about the person behind the email. Predictive analytics that accurately determine how close a consumer is to a purchase still isn’t the same as building a relationship over a period of time with an actual customer. First-party data remains the gold standard in this pursuit.
“In first party data relationships, privacy needs to be the standard,” Hlavacek said. “The way for marketers to fight back is to have first party relationships instead of having a data relationship with an advertiser. Premium publishers have built a strong reputation with subscribers, and do just fine. There are going to be lots of different first-party data sets owned and operated by a variety of groups. It’s going to be the marketers’ job to connect those dots.”