iOS15 update disables opening tracking in email delivery - 23. May 2022

The digital marketing industry is once again in turmoil. After the AdTech service providers – because of the prevention of the consistent collection of tracking data by means of third-party cookies – this time it has hit the email industry. We have known for some time that the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) know how to exploit their dominant position when it comes to collecting data for their own business models, but also when it comes to the new trendy topic of “data privacy”.

The trigger for the current debate:
Within the framework of “Mail Privacy Protection”, Apple is of the opinion that the user should be protected from automatically and involuntarily revealing the act of opening an e-mail, the time of opening, the place of opening, the current operating system, and the type of device used, as has been the case up to now when opening an e-mail via the IP address. From the point of view of data protection, this view can be supported, except that for the mail senders, the prevention of a reliably fed-back opening rate prevents the first unit of measurement, which is important for the entire funnel. All important impulses after the opening, i.e. click rates and possibly conversion, are not affected. This measure affects all users of the Apple Mail app on iPhone and iPad who activate the function recommended by Apple after upgrading to iOS15. For Mac OSX, email privacy will also be introduced in the course of the third quarter of 2021. Thus, about half of all email recipients will be affected in the medium term. In the B2C area rather more, in B2B rather less.

What does Apple do exactly?

Download external content when receiving email:
The opening impulses – generated by including an invisible small image in the e-mail (opening pixel) – are not blocked, but the request to the server is routed by Apple worldwide via proxy servers from independent service providers. This way, all external content (images and external CSS files) in the email is retrieved across the board. This happens at the time the message is downloaded to the device and not when the user actually opens it.

This generates an opening for every delivered email for every user of an Apple device immediately after delivery without device and location information:
The immediate increase in the open rate since September 20 therefore unfortunately has nothing to do with the ingenious email concept of the senders but with Apple’s fundamental adjustment. However, no consistent result could be observed since the changeover to iOS15. However, rolling out the new version will take several weeks. As a result of the change, the open rate, which has always not been an absolutely precise metric (e.g. opens by users without downloading images could never be measured), has become completely unreliable.

The consequences for the industry:
If the initial point of measuring the success of a shipment is eliminated, the fabric of KPI measurement is completely disrupted. Because Apple’s market share of recipient structure (country, demographics, industry) is 50% or more, the entire market is significantly affected.

The following common practices will no longer be possible in the future:

  • The opening rate can no longer be used as the start of a funnel to optimize performance.
  • Multi-stage processes (cycles/journeys), which trigger further steps on the basis of the email opening, e.g. reminder, reactivation, sunsetting, are no longer possible.
  • Subject line optimization becomes much more difficult because significantly larger test groups are required and the standard deviation becomes significantly narrower.
  • Location-dependent information such as weather data can no longer be played out.
  • Countdown timers can no longer be used because they always show the time of the download.
  • Data dynamically reloaded at the actual opening time, e.g. availability information of products or appointments, can no longer be reloaded.

Providers cannot avoid increasingly orienting their sequence of actions to the click rate and ultimately to the conversion (purchase, registration, completion of a survey). These are, of course, also the actual decisive KPIs. These are measured on the server side during interaction via the web browser and are therefore not so easy to manipulate. However, they do not solve the importance of the full funnel analysis, especially for emails without a conversion goal.

Workaround and alternatives:
When viewing emails online, the opening from the web browser is measured, so it is not affected. However, it will be difficult to drive more users to the browser or drive more to landing pages to get them to take action and thus a measurable click.

The calculation of a synthetic opening rate wants to continue to measure the reliable opening on those devices and operating systems that reliably allow this. After that, the KPIs can be extrapolated by the factor of Apple’s market share. However, this is only an approximation of the actual opening rate and will be increasingly subject to uncertainty.

Mailers can only be recommended more intensively to focus on first-party data and explicit consent for emailing and for using transactional and behavioral data for profiling by interests, location, transactions. Those with value to offer will also receive the appropriate data and permission to continue to target customers in an individualized and personalized way. Relevance and timeliness, based on customer characteristics and selections for personalized offers, are more important than ever.

What is the GAFA competition doing?:
It can be assumed that the other global player in the inbox business will also follow suit sooner or later. Google and Chrome have already set new standards for third-party cookies in terms of improved “privacy”. As a result, more than 50% of the open rate will no longer function reliably for almost every sender, and this will have to recede completely into the background as a decisive measurement variable. Similar measures are therefore to be expected in the also widely used GMail platform. Whether this will also apply to manufacturer-specific Android variants (Samsung, Huawei, Sony-Ericson, etc.) remains to be seen.

The conclusion is sobering:
Data protectionIt is not enough for companies to aggregate your users' data. They must also obtain permission to use this data at the same time. They must obtain an overview of whether and for what purpose they may actively use this personal data or use it for advertising... is high on the agenda. GAFAs have been able to take advantage of the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California and have themselves undergone a change of heart. Or, in the end, their approach is purely opportunistic. They have long since understood that a very lucrative business model can be maintained with data based on a clean permission. By preventing email tracking, a collateral damage is created that puts every sender at a disadvantage compared to the platform operator and offers hardly any benefit to the customer, apart from the immediate confidentiality regarding the place and time of opening. The email industry was already heavily regulated with the consequences of the SPAM fight, the DSGVO and the resulting requirement of double opt-in. Furthermore, the creation of customer profiles (also from e-mail) is tied to the acceptance of a legally prescribed data protectionIt is not enough for companies to aggregate your users' data. They must also obtain permission to use this data at the same time. They must obtain an overview of whether and for what purpose they may actively use this personal data or use it for advertising... declaration.

If dominant market players now also use their position to influence the market with targeted technical measures without consulting the “stakeholders” and without really significantly improving the level of protection for the individual and following a corresponding lobby (as with third-party cookies), this is arbitrary and creates the opposite of trust. Companies take on government functions that no one wants to empower them to do. Sometimes, after massive public pressure, they back down, as with Apple in the case of the announced child protection via photo screening. But when these companies themselves actively collect customer data and profit massively from it, but prevent third parties from doing so without compelling reasons, this raises important questions about market distortion and further state regulation, this time not to protect privacy but to limit market power.

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