A marketer's guide to Apple's latest plans to reshape the open web

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Apple is once again making headlines for its latest announcement.

On June 7 at the annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple previewed a slew of new updates that include changes to its Intelligent Tracking Protocol (ITP) and Mail Privacy Protections, which are expected to rollout in September 2021.

The biggest change is happening in the company’s Mail app, which will soon allow users to hide their IP addresses, location and whether they have read an email or not: a move bound to impact email marketers and publishers in likely significant ways.

This is just another move in the tech giant’s increasing interest in consumer privacy. As Apple has declared their stance that privacy is a fundamental human right, they have made a number of bold actions which have created significant complications for the advertising ecosystem.

While past changes have been primarily focused on tracking web and physical location of users, Apple’s shift to focus on email, particularly metrics driven by pixel-driven opens is a significant expansion of the type of activity that Apple seeks to hide. Email marketers have relied heavily on this metric to track user interest, adhere to best practices—and ESPs have used this as a metric to help monitor and enforce network-level compliance standards.    

These subsequent restrictions follow in the footsteps of other seismic shifts happening across the digital marketing ecosystem, including at Apple. They have already made changes limiting first-party data collection by outside parties, including a recent move that requires users to opt into Apple's data tracking using their App Tracking Transparency framework. Google announced it will no longer use third-party cookies in Chrome beginning in 2023, and additionally will not be using user-level identifiers in their place.

These changes are the new normal for marketers trying to reach customers in an increasingly walled-off digital ecosystem. Bottom line: companies like Apple will continue to lock down consumer information at the expense of marketers.

While marketers might feel as if they’re swimming upstream against an ever-changing current, there are future-proof solutions you can embrace. At Epsilon, we’ve spent the last 10 years focusing on creating future-proof solutions for clients—so when they see this headline in the future, they don’t need to panic. We’ve been preparing, and want to help you prepare, too.


What new features did Apple just preview?

The new features build on the April 2021 rollout of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) with a focus now shifting from the apps and IDFA to email and IP addresses. Adjustments mainly focus on user-level functionality and privacy, but raise questions on what lasting impact marketers will have to endure.

Mail Privacy Protection

Arguably, the biggest change is going to come to Apple’s Mail app. According to the company, Mail Privacy Protection helps users prevent senders from gathering a variety of information, including when an email is opened and what IP address they’re using to read the email.

While there have been concerns over email tracking, it's the backbone for many marketers to understand their audiences. According to a report from Litmus, Apple iPhone Mail app opens make up 47.1% of of total email opens across all email clients.

So what do these changes actually mean?

How Does Mail Privacy Work?

The first time a user loads or opens Apple Mail on any device after the Mail Privacy Protection is rolled out, they will be prompted to select either “Protect Mail Activity” or “Don’t Protect Mail Activity.”

  • The feature is not set to default, and users must opt-in.
  • If a user selects “Protect Mail Activity,” Apple anonymizes the user’s IP address and automatically fetches email tracking pixels, which hides the user’s location and device type from the email sender (typically the marketer).
  • Apple will trigger opens from the Mail App of users who have selected protection. There are concerns that this will drive up the number of opens significantly and completely mask which of these opens were triggered by a user rather than an Apple automation.
  • This is applicable to any email account provider which is connected to Apple’s Mail App (Gmail, Yahoo, Comcast, etc.), not just iCloud accounts.

As noted above, there have been real concerns that Mail Privacy Protection will make it impossible to derive true open rates. In fact, it’s totally possible, and Epsilon can show you how.

Epsilon is in alignment with other providers and thought leaders in the industry that open rates can be extrapolated across the entire population to DERIVE a true open rate. Read Epsilon PCM’s ‘How To Derive Your Adjusted Open Rate’ instruction guide for explanation, with the math behind it and the instructions to calculate this from PCM on a campaign-by-campaign basis. 

Hide My Email

Apple is also allowing users to hide their email address through its Apple iCloud+ paid subscription. Users can now create and delete an unlimited number of unique email aliases that forward to their real email account.

Apple will provide users the option to hide their true email address from any sites or apps where they are creating a new account or signing up with an email address. The service is designed to limit companies' ability to collect personal data via email and may help mitigate the rates at which users receive junk mail.

Hiding IP via Intelligent Tracking Protocol (ITP) & Private Relay

Apple is also enabling users to hide their IP addresses while using Safari, which will disrupt some methods of tracking user activity. This means advertisers and marketers may experience greater challenges in tracking online activity, browsing habits, or location. Users will also be able to see who is tracking them through a new Safari Privacy Report.

In addition to hiding IP addresses, Private Relay, a VPN-like service also exclusive to paid iCloud+ subscribers will also mask the sites a user visits. This feature has the potential to be a wrench in the gears for marketer’s online first-party data collection and identity resolution capabilities.

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How much of my email list will be affected by Apple Mail Privacy Protection?

In 2021, an average of 52% of emails were opened using the Apple email client. And the iOS 14.5 update saw a whopping 96% of users opting in for additional privacy protection overall.

The adoption rate is fairly unpredictable. On one hand, Apple is forcing its Mail users to make a choice; on the other hand, the choice isn’t particularly clear. 

Let’s look at the promise in the premise:

  • Hiding your IP address
  • Loading remote content privately in the background
  • Even when you don’t open the message
  • Harder to follow your activity

For non-savvy users, most of this doesn’t mean anything. The part they will cling to is making user activity harder to follow.

For mid-savvy users, automatically loading something you haven’t even opened might be a red flag despite the promise of obfuscation. But Apple has used some subtle tricks to get users to opt-in.

There are only two options, and the first one is opt-in. This priority can make it seem the obvious choice. Also, the opt-out wording of “Don’t protect Mail activity” might be a turn-off.

It’s like when you’re navigating a website that pops up an opportunity to subscribe to the newsletter, and in order to decline, you have to respond “No, I’m not a good person” or something catty like that. Playing on users fears – especially about something they don’t understand – can lead to higher opt-in rates simply because it feels safer.

If this is true, it’s best to assume that 100% of your Apple Mail users will select Mail Privacy Protection upon completing the update.

So at the point that all Apple Mail users have updated, approximately half of your list will be affected. However, at the close of 2021, only 60% had updated. In October, only 30% had updated.

This means that the effects of Apple Mail Privacy Protection have been gradual, so we are able to observe the effects in a slow roll.

What do these changes mean for email marketers?

On the surface, it’s easy to see why these changes are concerning for marketers. These shifts threaten to upend email programs  reliant on IP addresses or other non-consent based identifiers.

It’s easy to say “you’re going to need better indicators” when someone expresses concerns around success metrics, and for a lot of measurements, that’s always been true. But there are other aspects of email marketing that are affected by opens.

Subject line testing will be affected, so it’s important to learn as much as you can as soon as you can, or you will have to wait until your platform has solved for “unknown opens” related to Mail Privacy Protection.

Similarly, send time optimization and real-time personalization can be affected by questionable open data. It’s important to update algorithms and rules to account for unknown opens, and, as always, have fall-back experiences where possible. Now more than ever, growing first- and zero-party data is going to be the key to delivering the best customer experiences.

There will be a big shift in how brands think about open rates

So let’s get “better metrics” out of the way first: through the Mail Privacy Protection feature, Apple plans to always render an email send as opened, regardless of whether the user actually viewed the content.

This will result in inflated (or deflated) open rates for mail hosted by the Apple Mail app. Some ESPs, including Epsilon, are making the decision not to count automated opens as they are NOT representative of true user interactions and ingesting insincere data is problematic on its face. The percentage of emails opened in the Apple Mail app will vary, but Epsilon found iPhone opens typically account for up to 40% of all opens within a campaign. Epsilon plans to manage these opens within the platform, as marketers will have access to this data now. In the future there will be feature and client level configurations to ascertain these Apple opens with percent confidence.

However, clicks – which can be measured even for users who opt-in into Apple Mail Privacy Protection, will remain a strong metric for performance evaluation.

The bottom line: Marketers should no longer rely heavily on open rates and send times as a gut-check for whether their campaigns are working or not—they have to dig deeper into holistic audience and campaign measurement by looking at metrics such as clicks, conversions, site activity, and revenue.

Identifying users and appropriate content by IP will be a challenge

Once Apple’s new features are rolled out, MarTech that relies heavily on IP addresses or other non-consent based identifiers can only expect to see their problems worsen. This particularly affects email marketers, as many ESPs rely on IP addresses to deliver live content based on time-of-open, geolocation, and devices.

Apple’s latest moves also highlight the over-reliance on email for identification—which is prone to consumer profile duplication (hint: the average person having more than four distinct email addresses), leading to less accurate targeting, measurement and a poor customer experience.

The bottom line: These changes will impact those who rely heavily on IP addresses for identification. For marketers that do, they will need to adopt new means by which to track user behavior and serve targeted ads and emails—one that relies on first-party data and is privacy complaint.


What can marketers do to absorb the shock of these changes?

Here are 8 concrete tips email marketers can take to be prepared for the iOS 15 rollout in September:

1. Estimate the potential impact of Mail Privacy Protection

A good place to start is to identify all addresses which are likely opening from Apple's native app in IOS 15. The best way to uncover the potentially impacted audience would be to determine all addresses which have recently opened an email with an iPhone.

It’s important to note that your device reporting could includes opens from other mail apps which use the Apple WebKit, like the ‘Outlook’ app. The vast majority of recent iPhone openers will be native app users. Thankfully, the two largest third-party apps—Gmail and Yahoo—initiate their opens in a manner which will not be associated with an iPhone device.

2. Identify reliable opens using non-Apple mail clients

Device reporting can help you understand which audiences are opening on non-Apple email clients. This audience should become your beacon of truth in terms of reliable opens you can measure and calculate accurate open rates against.

Pro tip: This advice isn’t just limited to opens. This audience can also be used for A/B testing, helping to provide accurate and reliable engagement.

3. Establish benchmarks beyond open rates

While opens have consistently been a “staple” for email marketers, the meaning of an email open has continued to shift over the years—and with Apple’s new rollout, it’s even more important that brands consider multiple metrics to gain a holistic view of user engagement.

Metrics like clicks and unsubscribe rates won't be affected by this update. However, if you have been relying on opens as your primary email success metrics, start to think about some other ways to measure success. The savviest email marketers are tying their email performance to tangible business outcomes, like increased web traffic, average purchase value, and in-store revenue. Think about the goals of your campaigns, and make sure you have a strategy to measure what matters.  

Pro tip: Come up with 2 to 3 metrics to evaluate your performance outside of open rates, and consider what data you would need to calculate those metrics.

4. Rethink your fallback content

More users than ever will have their IP addresses hidden, which means dynamic content (that is dependent on things like location, weather, etc.) could be less accurate, or may not be available at all. Of course, marketers have always had fallback content available for these situations. But make sure you're providing fallback content that is engaging even without the agile elements. Now is a time to revisit your creative strategy and make sure it's grabbing your audience's attention in the inbox and delivering results.

Pro tip: Great creative strategy is rooted in personalization. If you’re not using AI and machine learning to personalize your emails with offers and content tailored to each audience members’ preferences, now is the time to start.

5. Clean up your email list

This is a great time to clean up your email file and remove any inactive subscribers from your file while you can still rely on opens as one metric of engagement. Removing inactive subscribers will help you improve your overall program and ensure that you are mailing to active audiences after opens are unclear.

Additionally, you can consider re-engagement or re-permission pass emails to those dormant audiences to drive to your preference center to ensure your audience does want to stay in touch, but maybe less frequently than you have been mailing.

6. Enhance and highlight your preference center

Brands with active, highly engaged subscribers will most likely see less impact from Hide My Email. Having a great preference center puts your audience in the driver's seat and allows them to decide what content and how often they want to hear from you. Gathering these preferences will help you enhance your customer profile and leverage this data to further personalize communications, cadence and offers.

Pro tip: The most sophisticated email programs have invested in building authentic customer relationships. Not sure how to get here? Start with your profile density. Look at the average number of attributes you’ve collected for each email subscriber, as well as the type of information you’re gathering. Your preference center can be a great way to bulk up your profile density with data that will help you deepen your subscriber relationships.  

7. Review your coupon and promotion strategy

Hide My Email has many marketers concerned about coupon harvesting. If users can create multiple email addresses, will they take advantage of special offers and promotions multiple times? This concept has been around for years, with dedicated services generating single-use emails for consumers.

While the risk of coupon harvesting is always there, many companies continue to successfully offer coupons and promotions via email without suffering significant detrimental effects of coupon harvesters. If you're worried about specific campaigns with high value offers, talk to your ESP about strategies to mitigate coupon harvesting.

8. Focus on first-party connections—not a patchwork solution

Companies that are continually putting patches on their technologies to weather these changes are going to fail. As access to data diminishes, we’re past the point of being able to solve problems reactively as they arise.

In this case, the easiest way to combat IP restrictions is to focus on a solution that doesn’t rely on IP addresses to reach your customers. A strong identity resolution solution built on a foundation of concrete first-party data and resilient identifiers such as name and postal address —not IP addresses or cookies—will be a future requirement for marketers.

But making this shift is not all bad news. As digital trends ebb and flow, first-party and zero-party data is a constant that can weather storms large or small.


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It’s business as usual for Epsilon

More features like Mail Privacy Protection and Hide My Email are expected to roll out across the industry—and not just necessarily from the Apple’s and Google’s of the world. This signifies a broader need across the industry to move away from patchwork solutions to creating something more malleable. The privacy landscape is constantly evolving, and marketers need to be looking ahead to prepare for disruptions. Partner with an ESP that is at the forefront of consumer privacy, and future-proof your email strategy.

At Epsilon, we are confident that we can ride this next wave of data deprecation and help marketers and publishers do the same. For more than 50 years, we’ve been supporting first-party data-driven marketing strategies. Those in the ad-tech space who don’t already have future-proofed solutions are a day late and a dollar short.

As we built our digital solutions, we prioritized privacy, security and strong partnerships that helped us anchor our identity to a durable name and address foundation. This has created solutions that enable brands to have long-lasting connections with consumers in a trusted, consent-based relationship.