Email Is Still the Unsung Hero of Marketing, But Will Apple’s iOS15 Update Change That?

In this guest spotlight, Sam Holding of SparkPost joins us once again. This time, Sam turns his attention to the new iOS15 update, spelling out what the changes to privacy mean for CMOs and their team’s email marketing strategies.

Earlier this year, I discussed why I believe email marketing is the real unsung hero of the entire marketing stack. Email has been around for years, longer than the shiny new tools we’ve all become accustomed to using over the past 18 months, like Zoom, Teams and other video communications. Yet, it has and will continue to remain one of the primary ways in which we engage and in which brands engage their customers.

Email is the great unifier of digital marketing. It’s the glue that holds businesses and marketing strategies together. But getting into user inboxes is easier said than done and it’s about to get even harder…

Apple users across the world will now see a new software update available to download on their devices – iOS15.

Amongst many other features of this update, there are two particular features that are set to change the way brands use email to target Apple users. And given that Apple mail users make up a significant proportion of email users, the industry is expecting big changes on how brands target customers moving forwards.

Apple’s View on Privacy

Apple has long held the belief that privacy is a fundamental human right. This is something they can do as the owner of the distribution channel, and it’s a trend we’ve seen them follow with capping the IDFA tracking on other apps.

Apple first initiated these types of changes in email last year when they launched the Private Email Relay service which allows users to sign into apps with an anonymous, unique email address. And as the demise of third-party cookies has occurred throughout the advertising industry, it was inevitable that Apple would lean into privacy on open tracking too.

Will the Customer Experience Be Affected?

Whilst consumers want privacy, their data to be handled securely and with their best interests in mind, Apple’s move isn’t actually a panacea for privacy: it’s just one element of privacy when it comes to email.

Using personalisation within emails has become an integral part of a successful email marketing campaign, ensuring brands can connect with their customers through convenient, relevant and personal emails landing directly into their inbox.

A lot of information is passed through the open pixel – a small, invisible pixel that, when loaded, tracks the user as an email open, in addition to details like IP address for regional location tracking, device type and time of engagement.

However, the average consumer probably doesn’t understand that by selecting to ‘protect mail activity’, they get a below-average experience due to the fact that it won’t be as easy for brands to personalise emails based on their behaviours and interests.

As a result of users opting in for enhanced email privacy, information like device, IP address, and time of open is going to be lost and thus some of the innovation that hinges on this data will be lost too. Every marketing strategy must start with the customer perspective, and this means marketers will need to enhance their first-party data now more than ever. Collecting preference and profile data from customers and their actions on other channels and directly with the brand has never been more important.

What Will Opt-in Levels Be Like for the New Feature?

With the release of iOS14.5, when US-based users were prompted to authorise tracking by an app, 96% of the time they opted out of tracking, so the assumption is that this new privacy feature will also have high adoption, and that most users will enable the increased email privacy settings on their device.

If that is the case, reporting may overinflate the number of opens given – Apple appears to be loading the tracking pixels via relay or proxy for users that have opted into privacy. Testing by SparkPost has confirmed that in some cases Apple is preloading images in an email, even for emails that have not been opened. This means brands will not be able to distinguish these false opens from real ones.

What Will the Impact Be on Email Senders?

The changes this brings for email has a lesser impact than the crushing changes to the advertising ecosystem. Besides, opens are not and never have been a perfect metric and come with flaws. It does, however, tell us engagement trends over time. The technology behind email opens, powers more than an engagement metric (even if that metric is flawed). It also makes a lot of the innovation in the email space possible, which is now up to question.

People have come to depend on email opens to gain an understanding of recipient engagement, with things such as the value of the subject line, preheader and brand. But take this out of the equation, and it becomes more challenging to optimise those parts of the email experience.

It is important to remember that opens aren’t the only way to gauge the viability of list engagement, but they are the highest in the email conversion funnel. This means more recipients are likely to be removed from email lists due to a lack of engagement by way of clicks.

But don’t panic because there are things senders can be planning for to reduce the impact.

1. Flawed Subject Line Testing
Subject line testing that relies upon open tracking will be flawed. This will no longer be an easy thing to test for Apple Mail users. Instead, metrics such as clicks and conversions that are further down the funnel from the subject line will have to be used. Companies that use Natural Language Processing to optimise subject lines will need to rethink their strategy in order to update the algorithms that support the effectiveness of their products when it comes to recipients using the Mail App. However, subject line testing that relies upon data from panel engagement will continue to provide relevant insights and predictions.

Send-time optimisation monitors patterns in how and when emails are opened by a recipient. This helps to determine the right time to send the email based on open and click engagement. Technologies in the space that power this capability will need to ensure they are updating their algorithms to pull out open engagements for iOS15 users. It is important to check with any vendors you’re working with on how they plan to handle this to ensure the capability will work properly.

2. You Can No Longer Rely on Opens for Email List Maintenance
In the absence of open rate data, senders will need to rely on deeper behaviours such as clicks and engagement to know if a real human is interested in the content. Opens (and the lack thereof) have long been a key indicator of user disengagement which promoted early removal/retargeting of disengaged users. Some senders might even fall into bad sending practices by not having this metric to use for segmentation. Those who aren’t ready for this may find these new ways challenging.

Instead, looking closer at each recipient’s engagement across channels will be a way of telling if they are interested in engaging with you. If you don’t see clicks or other channel engagement over a period, it might be time to consider removing them from your sends once you send a final confirmation asking if they want to remain on your email list.

3. Send-Time Optimisation & Open-Time Personalisation Will Be Affected
There has been much innovation in recent years with features such as weather widgets and store locators based on your location at the time of engagement. Unfortunately, these innovations will be impacted along with others such as device trackers that detect the operating system to tell you to download the app via the App Store or Google Play. Countdown timers will probably not work due to caching by Apple at mail inception. Essentially, anything that relies on context at the time of opening (location, time, device, etc) through open tracking is potentially at risk.

4. Rethink Your Data Strategies for Local Privacy Laws & Service Availability
If you use email opens to establish where your recipients are in the world, you will need to go back to basics and ask subscribers to update their information to ensure this information is still accurate. This will be critical information for local personalisation, such as local stores, events, etc.

As more and more Apple users update their software, brands will soon no longer be able to assume emails have landed in the inbox based on open rates. It will become crucial to have a sufficient deliverability tool, so you have these metrics at your fingertips, and enable you to mitigate the impact of the iOS15 privacy changes. You’ll need deliverability analytics to give you a sense of inbox placement, to understand the health of your list to ward off deliverability risks.


Sam Holding
Head of International, SparkPost

Sam Holding is the Head of International at SparkPost, the #1 email delivery and analytics service. He leads all international strategies and activities related to sales, marketing and customer retention. Prior to SparkPost, Sam was Senior Director, EMEA at Oracle Data Cloud. At Oracle, he led a team responsible for measurement, context and audience partnerships with publishers and platforms. Sam also has more than 20 years of experience in digital marketing, data products and ad technology, having worked at Trinity Mirror, France Telecom, Experian and Adform before joining Datalogix, which was later acquired by Oracle Data Cloud.