If you thought Google’s farewell to third-party cookies was big news, you might want to sit down. 

As Apple is looking to gain more user trust so it can push into healthcare, last week the company introduced the Mail Privacy Protection feature at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.1 When released, it will basically cripple the technology that supports open rates and real-time image-based content. 

The new feature will be bundled into their Mail app in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey, and will allow users to opt into it. This represents about half of all email recipients, and the email industry consensus is that the vast majority of Apple users will indeed opt in. Unlike a website that may not function properly when a user doesn’t allow cookie tracking, consumers don’t yet receive content that is too important to forgo.

Mail Privacy Protection will effectively put a gate between the ESP and the Apple Mail user. For those Apple users who opt in, this gate will open up one time to receive a given email deployment—with the related images—and will never open again for that deployment. There will be two primary consequences of this:

1. Open rate data will no longer be correct.
When the sender looks at the open rate for any emails sent to Apple users, they will incorrectly see ~100% open rates. This is because when Apple opens the gate to accept your email deployment to its users, it will accept everything, including the 1×1 email open tracking pixel, and store it all for users to open—or not open. Because it’s accepting everything, that tracking pixel will falsely indicate that every single email was opened. Related data, like geo-location and device type, will also become a thing of the past.

2. Images will no longer be refreshed. 
Live (“real-time”) content from vendors like Movable Ink and Liveclicker will no longer function properly. Real-time content relies on the ability to send a fresh image with updated content when a user opens, but now the closed gate will prevent any image updates. This is going to force a change in how marketers handle information like most recent account balances, current number of loyalty points, the current inventory of airline flights or hotel rooms, etc. 

How big of a deal is the loss of open data?

Historically, the email attribution chain has been: email sent > email received > email opened > email link clicked > customer converted. There’s been an overreliance on email opens as an indicator of engagement, despite the fact that email open data has been getting less and less reliable due to things like email previews and proxy servers. This new reality will shift the focus from an unreliable metric of opens to the far more indicative metric of clicks and conversions. 

Subject line testing will be far harder, but not impossible, to analyze without this metric. It will take longer windows of time because the marketer will be limited to engagement KPIs like click, conversion, and opt-out events that may not occur over a single email touch.

All of this will force relevance, which will be reinforced by inbox placement and spam filters as they too struggle with the loss of this data point.

How big of a deal is the loss of live content?

While many brands are currently using live content as a go-to in email, we expect a long-overdue seismic shift away from it as a result of the Apple announcement. And it’s not just privacy that’s driving this change—the customer experience has been problematic on its own. 

Unlike HTML-based content, image-based content is incompatible with Dark Mode because the background is fixed and doesn’t change with a user-mode setting. Image-based content is also not accessibility compliant because it cannot be consistently rendered properly by email devices used by individuals with visual or hearing impairments. It’s not compatible with read-aloud devices like Alexa and Siri, which can read HTML-based email content but not image-based content, and there are often slow email load times caused by the processing and publishing of each of those real-time images. Finally, there’s always been a meaningful risk to brands of live content being replaced by something inappropriate in such an open system. All of this negatively impacts the user experience.

When is this happening? 

Apple is pushing this block-pixel functionality in their next release of iOS, which will probably be September 24, with the next generation of devices. It’s likely that most will opt into this new feature, especially because most people didn’t even realize this tracking was happening in the first place. 

What is ERGO doing?

We view this as a very positive step, because it places the focus on relevance. Because of this change and the many issues that already exist with real-time content, we’re advising our clients to wean off of open rates as an email channel KPI, to rethink their attribution framework, and have begun encouraging our clients to shift away from live content. While others, like Google, still support email open data, it can be misleading to draw conclusions about open data from only half of our customer base.

As a safe and future-proof alternative, our Enterprise Personalization App allows extremely robust targeting and hyper-personalization of HTML-based content without any of the consequences of live content. 

We’ve been anticipating this for quite a while. It’s unlikely that Apple will reverse course, and it’s wise to plan for other inbox providers, like Google, to follow suit. Marketers need to act quickly to not lose their footing in this new reality. 

We’re here to help you navigate this evolving landscape and show you new and innovative ways to drive relevance in the email channel. Feel free to reach out at hello@ergo.inc.

1 Apple advances its privacy leadership with iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8