Apple just launched a new feature within iOS to protect your privacy. Their latest release will invalidate the reporting of tracking pixels, the primary and ubiquitous method used by email marketers to know when subscribers open their emails. Apple’s goal is to reduce the number of things being invisibly tracked on your devices, but it will certainly ruffle the feathers of most email marketers.
The Lonely Pixel
The technology in question is based on a 1×1 pixel image embedded in the email message. When the email is opened, it loads. This loading is tracked on the image hosting server, which logs that the message was opened at a certain time. The technology is now twenty years old and has lived at the heart of email marketing analytics from the very beginning – not because of the desire to track a given person, but to determine the efficacy of a given email campaign.
No one likes to be tracked
Back in the wild-west of email, we (AudiencePoint) were working on constant refresh of a pixel so that we could know how long a given message was open. It didn’t take long for that option to be disabled. 😉 Why did it get disabled? Because folks didn’t want that level of intrusion in their life, and they weren’t wrong. If you think about privacy/security as a pendulum swinging between overreaction and under-reaction, the goal is to reach that equilibrium between good marketing and contact comfort.
To reference the great Mark Twain, the reports of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated over the years
This is not the first time a big product manufacturing brand has attempted to block this type of technology, and they have been greeted with differing levels of enthusiasm.
Outlook: It started with Outlook not loading images by default. When that feature first came out, everyone freaked out and claimed we would not be able to measure the efficacy of digital marketing. The User Experience of the full email made users turn this feature off.
Gmail Promotions: No one will ever see our messages again if they get filed into a tab that says promotions! That assertion was fundamentally untrue. If anything the tab legitimized email marketing even more, creating storefronts for folks to window shop from their inbox.
Caching Images Gmail and Yahoo! preloading images. This improved the user experience, as customers didn’t have to wait for images to load from chincy image servers. Once Google received the image, it could cache it for future use, which improved the underlying user experience of the subscriber. They did, however, forward the signal along that the email was opened, they just masked things like the IP address and user-agent. Not a bad compromise.
Firewalls Same concept here as caching images at the mailbox provider level. The problem of grabbing the images is that every email sent into this particular technology would show as opened.
Hey! This was the last foray into protecting the inbox from the evils of contact tracking. They wrote technology that suppressed these pixels from being loaded. A great idea that wasn’t implemented well.
What We Know about Apple
At the time of writing, there was a lot of confusion, but this is what we know. Based on online discussions with influencers and industry rumors, we’ve compiled the main moving parts of the new functionality.
They load everything!
Apple’s new technology will preload everything, like EVERYTHING: images, css, anything stored externally. The app will do it in a background thread, and likely the contents stored on iCloud. While Apple is a virtue-minded company, they also have a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. Make no mistake, this is a business model for them. They sell space on iCloud, this content is space. Their approach is to load and save everything. This approach is almost more challenging because it introduces A LOT MORE NOISE into an already noisy space.
Images cache across clients
Brian Sisolak, Co-Founder & President from PeakInbox shared “Once an image loads, it’s cached on the device. This will be an issue with countdown timers and any live data driven graphics. If an image is shared across email sent from a marketer, it is cached once on the recipient’s device and never re-pulled. The same image URL caches across senders as well, although this is a highly unlikely scenario. An image even caches across different email accounts on the same device – if you have a personal and work account setup in the Mail App.”
No View Source in Apple Mail
Wanna see the headers of the message, or where the images are loaded from? Sorry, Apple doesn’t allow that. Until someone cracks that nut, there is going to be a lot of conjecture.
Azure is involved
The IP addresses from the opens that have been isolated from folks running in the beta reside almost entirely in Azure, the cloud technology by Microsoft.
The User-Agent is Mozilla/5.0. This is the general token that says the browser is Mozilla-compatible. For historical reasons, almost every browser today sends it.
Do we need to track contacts?
Yes, and No. We don’t need to, but we have all benefited from the automated feedback of open and click rates to determine what is working and what isn’t. This sounds like a small thing, but it has fueled the evolution of our industry from irrelevant blasted content to personalized, curated content based entirely on your preference and behaviors. WE AS CONSUMERS GET BETTER CONTENT BECAUSE OF THIS TECHNOLOGY.
Doesn’t matter, the wave is coming
The content is better, but the privacy wave is coming and as marketers we are going to have to respond accordingly. Yep, that means that as marketers, we are going to have to be more creative in how we hit our goals and perhaps even redefine what those goals are.
How should we think about measurement these days?
Change your KPIs – 2012 called and they want their KPI back. If you are still using Opens as a KPI for your effectiveness as a marketer, STOP. Use clicks, revenue, engagement. Pick one, two or five, they will all be better than Opens.
Journeys are gonna need a review – Think about it like this, reviewing all of your Journeys to find open-based splits and replacing them is going to improve the value of your program substantially, but it will not come without a bit of pain.
Deliverability will have to change – The industry has moved more and more to engagement-based decisioning about whether content should be placed in your inbox or not. The mailboxes look at what you are opening and clicking to determine if the content should hit the spam folder or the promotions tab. So, either the user of seed-lists for deliverability will find new found legs, the mailbox providers will ease their tyrannical grip, or something will break free.
Open Time Personalization – Images created at the time of open for the sake of personalizing content, will have to be rethought to be personalized at the time of send.
Other tech will change – Historically, you might run an AB test to determine the efficacy of one subject line over another. That will no longer work. Marketers will need to find new, better KPIs to gauge the efficacy of subject lines to compel subscribers to open.
Can AudiencePoint help?
Our GDPR-compliant data pool helps brands send emails based on how their subscribers interact with multiple other brands. This insight helps paint a more complete picture of the subscriber, so each campaign can be tailored to their true patterns and preferences, not simply how they interacted with your last email to them. If you have rolled your own tech, or are leveraging your ESP for insights, you may want to give our sales team a call. We can augment your analytics by showing you a holistic view into your lists and fill in the gaps left by your own campaign results, especially as privacy policies continue to tighten.
How much data do we have?
A lot, but that isn’t the point as much as the relevancy of the data. Normalizing behavior across multiple brands to arrive at better predictions is the key to successful Optimization programs. That is what we do.
It cuts way deeper
We started with STO, but have grown into a new product called ListFit which exposes deeper insights into subscriber behavior, and is 100% independent of this new Apple technology. ListFit can tell you who on your list is engaging with any brand. How often they like to receive emails, when they were last active, and what their relative level of engagement is across all senders we track. We’re revealing all of this and more with ListFit.
Is this new technology from Apple good or bad? Time will tell. We do know that it is fundamentally different from anything we have ever seen before and will require creativity and the right partnerships to return to what “feels” normal. For now, it’s a good time to think about how you measure success and what metrics you should adopt moving forward.