Has Apple (Mail Privacy Protection) Killed Email Marketing?

By Guy Hanson

Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) in September 2021, designed to obscure (hide) any real opens by your prospects and the devices they are using (making location tracking less accurate). As MPP prevents Pardot, and other email marketing platforms, from accurately reporting email open rates. This sent marketers into a tailspin – reporting would become inaccurate, automation could fire unintended – was the “death of the open rate” upon us?

More than six months have passed since MPP came onto the scene. Can we see any impact? Luckily, Validity as a business, “sits on top of a lot of email data around the world. Partner relationships with providers like Microsoft and Yahoo, major email filtering vendors, and players in the cybersecurity space, give them a unique view of what’s happening.

This guide will include observations made on how email marketing volume, deliverability, opens & clicks, and unsubscribe rates have changed. Then, we’ll focus on how MPP is affecting you, and what does this all mean? Let’s start with a quick refresher on MPP.

Mail Privacy Protection: Quick Refresher

If we cast our minds back to September 2021, Apple brought out new changes that boil down to this: the tracking pixels which anybody in the world of email marketing used to measure open rates, location tracking, what device your customers are using – that was all coming to an end.

Apple was set to obscure the tracking pixel so that it would no longer be possible to identify any of those user actions accurately. Naturally, it was suspected (intended) that it would have a pretty heavy-duty impact on the world of email.

Many email best practices – such as recency management, data hygiene, journey automation – all hang off the back of whether an email has actually been opened.

Some thought that it could result in “Pixelgeddon”

It hasn’t quite been that bad, but we’re definitely seeing some changes.

Email Marketing Volume

Let’s set the scene with the volume of emails sent before we dive specifically into the post-MPP picture.

There are notable events in the two years’ worth of data, going back to the beginning of 2020.

For most people, the end of Q1 in 2020 was recognized as the start of the pandemic. Between the last week of March and the first two weeks of April (or you could say, pretty much overnight), global email marketing volumes increased by around 60%.

This is the global volume of commercial/marketing emails (with the 85% spam email sends excluded). The massive increase was down to businesses suddenly realizing that email was the channel to communicate to their customers. Not only to sell but also to inform prospects and customers about essential information. For example, what’s happening with physical stores, deliveries, loyalty points, or terms of service. Even those businesses that had offline suddenly come online contributed to this increase in email send volume.

So, suddenly the world of email got much busier. The challenge that everyone came to share was the congested inbox – more competition for eye-share and for “wallet”.

Wow, that’s quite an uplift. Is it sustainable? Below, you can see that the blue line fluctuates over the next 21 months – however, the overall trend has continued. There’s a further 14% year-over-year increase.

What’s particularly striking is the two Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekends; on average, the email send volume across those weekends is ~77% percent more than the whole-year benchmark. The 2021 edition showed an additional 10% growth, compared with 2020.

This is being referred to as the “new normal”. Many people considered these trends as potentially a transit event, thinking that email would return back to the “low tide mark”. I think that’s it’s established a new beach!

Email Peak Season

Not only has the overall volume increased, but this high level has been sustained. We can confidently say that email “peak season” is extending. The peak season used to start with Black Friday/ Cyber Monday and typically ran through until Christmas/New Year, even into the New Year sales:

You could compare what’s happened during this peak period to scope creep: suddenly, Black Friday is “Black November” (with Halloween as the kickoff), and Cyber Monday has become “Cyber Week”.

Look around the world, and there are events that occupy space on the marketing calendar – Diwali, Click Frenzy, Single’s Day (which started in China) – stretching out into a three-month period when everyone is trying to get the attention of subscribers.

An increase in overall email sending volumes + extended peak season = safe to say, deliverability is getting ever more challenging.

Mailbox providers, like Microsoft and Gmail, have finite processing capacity. Decisions have to be made about which emails they use their bandwidth to process, which is why they take sender reputation into account.

Email Deliverability

The preferred metric when measuring deliverability is inbox placement rate (IPR), which is the % of emails that ended up in inboxes where they are actually going to be seen, compared to spam rate, which indicates emails ending up in the spam or junk folders.

Inbox placement rate was ~85% in 2021, which is not a poor benchmark. We could rephrase this to roughly one in every seven permission-based marketing emails going to the spam/junk folders (not the inbox).

Inbox placement rate was trending upwards (positively), reaching 87% just before MPP was introduced.

Following that point, the peak season for promotions commenced, which places pressure on inbox placement; and we see IPR trending downwards (see arrow in the graph above). However, although that season passed, inbox placement showed no signs of returning.

Email Reading Platforms

To gather metadata about device usage, location, etc., Validity uses a tracking pixel similar to that used for open tracking. Metadata is categorized into three main groups: mobile, tablet, and desktop users. And then, for tech providers where the specific device can no longer be identified, we categorize the data as “proxies”.

This is a phenomenal graph. Apple’s sharp rise accounts for 70% of all global pixel fires.

Apple wasn’t the first to introduce this type of technology. Over six years ago, Gmail introduced a similar proxy technology which also obscured the data you would otherwise gather from tracking pixels.

Look at the line running down the middle. From that line onwards, the mobile lines have tanked due to the inability to report on behavior with those devices. Not only is this the result of introducing MPP, but this is also further exacerbated by users triaging their Outlook, Yahoo, and Gmail emails into their Apple Mail client (resulting in lost reporting accuracy for them too!)

Email Opens & Clicks

Benchmark average unique open rates were running at about 26% up until the end of September (the blue line); since MPP was introduced, that’s increased to 35%.

If you consider that Apple usage is around 40%, the open rate for those users is 70-80%. The automatic download of images certainly inflates this open rate number.

When people heard about MPP, they thought their Apple open rates were going to become close to 100% – well, that’s not the case.

Fact: the tracking pixel doesn’t get downloaded in all instances. There are multiple factors such as whether the mobile device is connected to a power source, connected to WiFi, or if it ends up in the junk folder. In these scenarios, the tracking pixel isn’t downloaded.

You’re never going to get to a 100% open rate, but you will likely hit the saturation point!

The weekend period sees Apple activity decreasing, which is absolutely a sign that consumers move back to “traditional” devices like laptops or desktops and then, bounce back to mobile usage during the weekdays.

Unsubscribe Rates

After MPP was introduced, you could say that unsubscribe rate trends were counterintuitive.

Yes, unsubcribe rates went down.

While this may seem like good news, hold that thought for a moment.

  1. First observation is that on the days following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, people who subscribed to grab your special offer, are now saying “thanks, and goodbye”.
  2. Second observation is more extreme. During the first couple of weeks of January, we see a classic case of new year’s resolutions; people are cleaning up their inboxes, deciding what they actually want to be subscribed to. This is what stood out to me, as I was doing this analysis, especially when I compared this trend year-over-year. The conclusion? Be aware that as you continue email programs into those first weeks of the New Year, it’s not a good time if you want to avoid unsubscribed.
  3. Final hypothesis: with all emails now “fully loaded” (with images), unsubscribe links will be further away in the email footer, and therefore less obvious to find.

Now for the flip side: spam complaints. This is when someone will leave your email program not by using your organic opt-out link, but instead by using the spam button on the UI of their email service provider. Of course, you would prefer them to not click that, as high spam rate percentages feed into your sender reputation; in other words, you will look like a worse sender to Microsoft and other providers.

Unsubscribe rates are now trending upwards. What’s going on here? Does this all map back to MPP? I’m not sure I have all of the answers yet, but I think there is one thing – with MPP, images are pre-loaded, meaning that your emails are fully rendered the moment they are opened. Anyone that is looking to opt-out of an email typically has to scroll down to the bottom of the email; so a longer email means that this is less likely to happen!

There is solid research that less than 50% of email recipients scroll to the bottom (check out Scrolling and Attention, Nielsen Norman Group. The longer the email, the greater the friction, and the more likely users will use the spam complaint option instead, as it’s more visible. To add salt to the wound, Gmail truncates emails that are 100KB+ meaning that footer unsubscribes get lost.

How is MPP affecting you?

Most people I ask: “How is MPP affecting you?” will say that they haven’t seen a huge amount of variance, but some of these metrics still seem to be below the surface at the moment, while they wait for the true impact.

What we are starting to see from our Email Reading Platform data, is that Apple proxy usage is starting to trend downwards, while Google usage is trending upwards. My opinion is that some Apple Mail users who view their Gmail emails using this client are starting to become aware of the degraded experience they are receiving, and are reverting back to their Gmail clients.

I think we’re going to see other trends emerging from now onwards.

5 Actions You Can Take

The guidance which we’ve been given to our major customers boils down to these five actions:

1. Timing is everything

One implication of MPP is images are getting pre-loaded. This means that you can’t necessarily rely on technology like send time optimization, as you used to.

The idea that you could turn your customer interaction data to determine when they’re most likely to open emails is now going to tell you whenever Apple is downloading the images.

There’s been a huge shift in how people are engaging with emails. We first learned this during the pandemic, and it has persisted as people continue to work from home. There’s a distinct trend toward more engagement in the afternoon, post-lunch time, which does make sense, as people haven’t been commuting (so you don’t need to target them at 8am).

Those organizations who set up email blasts to go out at a specific, rounded time, e.g. 12 noon, 2pm, can tweak their timing. One of our major mailbox providers reached out to us months ago and said that 70% of the traffic they have to process happens in these 10-minute windows after the top of the hour. They suggested we speak to our customers, as it’s in our customers’ best interest to offset that send time slightly, e.g. schedule for 10 to the hour. Performance is going to be far better, not competing with many other senders.

2. The quest for clicks

“We can’t rely on opens anymore, let’s focus on clicks”. Sure, clickthrough rate is a more reliable metric than opens were ever. Obviously, clicks are available in far smaller numbers. When you need volume for statistical confidence, e.g. when you’re running a split-test to determine the winning email version. So, how do you generate more clicks – not just to sell more products and services – but also to get data points for email optimization.

Some of the solutions are relatively simple. You see emails that are leveraging the second subject line (pre-header text) that you would see appear at the top of the email. But it’s almost always plain text. There’s no reason why you can’t hyperlink it and place your call to action there.

Coming back to my hypothesis re. the trade-off between complaints and unsubscribes, you absolutely don’t want to drive up spam complaint rates. Perhaps you need to take a leap of faith and make the unsubscribe action more visible. I’ve always been a fan of putting the unsubscribe action in the header area of emails. You’ve got to breed trust so that if your subscriber has decided it’s time to leave your email program, they’ll thank you for making it easy.

When I’ve seen this implemented in the past, sure, unsubscribe rates have increased a little, but complaint rates dropped significantly – making it a great trade-off.

Get creative with how you generate clicks. I loved this example from Cafe Nero, who asked subscribers to “send us your best joke” in the run-up to Christmas.

3. Zero-party data hero

The idea behind zero-party data is to gain data by getting customers to tell you about themselves, versus inferring information about them from online behavior, etc.

While zero-party data is great, it’s only part of the solution.

You have to think carefully about how you make that ask to your customers – how are you going to persuade them to share what often is sensitive personal data.

We are starting to see email programs doing this, like the one below, where, in the footer, they ask “want a birthday present?”, to capture a data point that they consider valuable rather than “birthday” just being a field in their email preference center.
Speaking of email preference centers, most are your “best kept secret” existing somewhere – if you’re lucky, access rates will hover around 2%. There are fantastic examples of email campaigns that specifically promote their preference center, like the example below from Lululemon, explaining how you can update your preferences:

Every organization should be doing this on a quarterly basis.

Again, you should get creative and build in some personality, like the example below from Adidas, turning it into an online quiz, capturing preferences in a non-intrusive way:

4. Fight email fatigue

Then there’s fatigue. Not only do we face an email landscape with 60%-70% more volume and a peak email season that runs for half a year, your subscribers are going to hit a snapping point and want to leave your program.

The example below from Dyson ran in the run-up to the last Black Friday/Cyber Monday period. This snooze functionality – “would you like to take a short break and return when the madness is over” – will enable you to continue that relationship.

I saw a great statistic from one of the email service providers: programs that run snooze functionality see an average drop of about 88% in their opt-out rates – a very compelling proposition!

What I also liked about this example, is if subscribers do still want to receive Black Friday deals, they have the opportunity to hone in on the specific products they are interested in.

Another way to apply snooze functionality is in the run-up to events that can be sensitive. The example from Etsy below gives the option for subscribers to avoid Valentine’s Day communication. You’re providing the opportunity for your subscribers to say: “hey, it’s not for me”. Other sensitive occasions are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

5. Lean into new metrics

We’ve been talking to email providers about metrics that are outside of our current orbit, e.g. the quality of traffic that they’re driving to their website, data quality, “return on activity” (vs. return on investment)

The way we think about it is that while Apple has taken away some useful, basic metrics, they’ve actually created others somewhat unintentionally. The metadata which you’re able to extract post-MPP, includes the ability to:

  • Identify the portion of your subscriber base who have opted into MPP, and therefore, are impacted by it.
  • Determine which of those pixel fires you can trust as genuine opens versus the ones which are loaded by bots.
  • Recognize the approximately 60% of your audience who are generating rich or high-quality behavioral data.
  • Even the emails delivered to Apple inboxes that end up in the spam folder are sending a clear message that – yes, it’s a valid email address – which you can use as part of your list hygiene activities.

By this point, you can see that it’s to identify who your email subscribers are and how MPP is affecting their behavior. I think that this is the tip of the iceberg, and below the surface are insights that marketers aren’t seeing yet. Behavioral metrics, such as opt-out rates, and complaint rates – we also report on a metric from Microsoft, the sender reputation (SR) which acts like an NPS score for Microsoft subscribers.

Zero-party data will increase visibility, and we also covered new reporting tricks.

If you want to learn more, grab your copy of “What the Heck is MPP?

The Author

Guy Hanson

Guy is a passionate advocate for intelligent use of customer data to drive responsive sales and marketing programs.

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