The Great Open Rate Apocalypse

Open Rate Apocalypse

Recently, at Apple’s WWDC they announced key new privacy protections throughout iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey. These changes in total are good for consumer protection and bring new transparency and controls to these widely used and much loved platforms.

For instance, features such as hiding your IP, disabling tracking pixels across the web and their new Private Relay feature that adds encryption to web browsing are all fantastic mechanisms that put the user back in control.

You may be surprised to hear that, as the head of an email marketing platform, I’m thrilled that users will now have access to the ‘Hide My Email’ feature, giving subscribers quick and easy control to stop unwanted email in the event that their data has been compromised or sold.

However, in all of these updates, a key change was made that’s going to have a dramatic and immediate negative impact on businesses, creators, non-profits, and more (emphasis mine):

“Mail Privacy Protection works by hiding your IP address and loading remote content privately in the background, even when you don’t open the message. This makes it harder for senders to follow your Mail activity.”

From what we’ve seen around the industry, most people assumed (ourselves included initially), that this change would be more along the lines of what and others have done to try and selectively stop open tracking pixels only from firing.

However, what appears to be happening here is that Apple will be remotely loading all images (both tracking pixels and standard images), resulting in what will appear to be “100% open rates” to the major email platforms, such as Campaign Refinery.

While open rates have always been a rough barometer of engagement and never completely accurate, this change will make open rates almost completely useless, industry wide, nearly overnight.

All Mailbox Providers (Including Apple), Put The Burden On Senders To Only Send To Engaged Subscribers

For a lot of smaller senders and entrepreneurs, it can be a struggle to let go of subscribers who are no longer engaging with your content. Maybe the email address was abandoned, maybe something happened, or maybe the subscriber just isn’t that into you anymore.

We’ve known (and proven) after significant email volume, that sending to recently engaged users has a clear impact on where your email is placed and how many subscribers actually see your content.

See: How to double your openers and triple your clickers.

Every major mailbox provider even states that this is an important piece of the equation when they decide your reputation as a sender, the health of your data and where your content ends up.

For example, Apple explicitly recommends this on their postmaster page.

While every mailbox provider states this is an important function to maintain a healthy email reputation, none of the majors provide any tools, API’s or assets to accomplish this. This is precisely why platforms like Campaign Refinery have leaned on open tracking pixels to get a close-to-reality audience for senders to utilize.

600 Million+ Subscribers Impacted

It may be easy to think that this change will only impact a fringe % of email given how small the marketshare is for active @icloud email compared to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others.

However, this change importantly impacts any mailbox providers that are connected to the Apple Mail App on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. With 1.65 billion active devices reported in January 2021, an impressive 90% uptake rate of new software versions and an approximated 58% market share for Apple Mail – we project at least 600 million active subscriber mailboxes will be impacted by this change.

This means no mailbox provider is safe, and is a large enough portion of the market to render open rates so unreliable as to not be used for anything meaningful.

Punishment For Not Trimming Unengaged Leads

Some email senders are aware of list hygiene issues upon adding a contact. To avoid undeliverable emails, disposable emails, known complainers and spam traps. However, only the most advanced senders know that legitimately collected email addresses can become spam traps overtime.

This is on top of poor inbox placement for continuing to send email to unengaged subscribers, where your content for even your most loyal and excited subscribers goes to lesser inbox locations (promotions, spam etc) due to the deteriorating health of your overall list and sender reputation.

Thankfully, Campaign Refinery has been extremely proactive for half of this equation which will not be impacted at all by this change from Apple. Built-in list cleaning, not only on import, but on a regularly scheduled interval will alleviate much of the pressure that will fall on senders using other platforms.

However, there is still the issue of engagement – we believe we have an answer to that as well.

Opens Are Dead, Long Live Clicks & Replies

While open rates may no longer have the utility they do now once the new software updates drop, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done to grow your base of highly engaged subscribers.

Recently, we introduced a great new way to incentivize subscribers to engage and add you to their address book (the Disney FastPass of email). This announcement does change a few things in that regard, but has actually underscored the importance of this feature.

Getting your subscribers to click, reply and show verifiable “proof of life” is going to be even more important. So having a mechanism and program in place to make that value clear to the subscriber, and not just the value for you as the sender, is they key to the whole game.

We will be testing increasing point values for clicks, and we will be rolling out our reply tracking feature to award points to subscribers who reply to you, further spiking engagement and positive mailbox signals.

If you’re looking for ways to grow the portion of your list who engages at a higher level by incentivizing clicks and soon, replies, we encourage you to grab a free 14-day trial of Campaign Refinery.

What Apple Can Do & Stay Private

The motivation of Apple here is clear, and I would even say it’s admirable.

Protect user privacy, regardless of the cost to businesses or creators who consistently bring value and are trying their best to play within the rules that mailbox providers have laid out (and seem to constantly move the goal posts on).

However, there actually is a privacy focused solution to this, and it’s extremely similar to what Apple already does with their other apps to allow developers to customize experiences without compromising privacy.

In an ideal world, Apple could obfuscate when, where, or how frequently a subscriber opens an email. Instead, they could then update via API at a set interval of “did the subscriber ever open this email?”.

Should Apple deem that to be too much, even a crude feedback loop that would indicate that a subscriber was “unengaged” (even by a nebulous metric of Apples choosing), would in theory be enough for high quality senders to remain in compliance of dumping unengaged subscribers periodically.

Unlike the changes made in iOS 14 that nerfed web based ad tracking that required precise attribution, and would often change a users experience everywhere else on the web, simply knowing if a subscriber is engaged or not in a private/secure way can go a long way in terms of mailbox compliance.

Hopefully Apple will consider (perhaps only with pressure from Google and others) for some kind of middle ground.

For now, however, we have to plan for the utility of open rates to go to zero.

Email will retain its position as one of the only digital assets you actually own, and should follow the trend line of producing way more revenue per subscriber than social equivalents. There difference being that now, as email marketers we must adapt to the new constraints of the channel to continue to prosper.

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