It’s almost here! … How prepared are you? 

Apple is making a privacy change that requires email marketers and campaigners to rethink their approaches to deliverability, reporting, content strategy, and more. It’s big news in the nonprofit and political marketing world. 

The update coming this fall with iOS 15 means that we won’t be able to accurately track opens for subscribers who use Apple’s Mail app. Because Apple will automatically load images, including the tiny, transparent ones typically used to track opens, it will look like people are opening our emails when, in fact, they aren’t. (A merciful and notable exception is if the email lands in the spam folder, in which case the email will not be recorded as opened. Why is that important? Because we will be able to continue to identify a major deliverability problem, i.e., if a significant number of the emails aren’t making it to the inbox.)

If you’re wondering: Does this affect a small chunk of our email list? Can’t we just isolate this segment? Unfortunately, a good number of your subscribers (roughly 30%, according to Validity) will fall into this category, and it will be difficult or impossible to accurately isolate these email addresses in your targeting and reporting. Also, at this time it looks like there is no way to get at “real” open data and we would caution against using any tool or service that claims they can unearth that data for you.

Apple thinks customers will appreciate these new privacy options, and it’s likely other email providers like Yahoo and Gmail will soon follow suit. We all need to adapt to this new “can’t trust open rate” reality. 

Let’s try to cover the marketing categories that this Apple change affects and how you can prepare – and take this opportunity to run an even better program:

Deliverability and the new age of monitoring and maintaining list health

This Apple update doesn’t directly create deliverability issues per se, but it probably does affect the way you maintain deliverability health. If you have been conscientiously targeting “inactive” subscribers with reactivation messages and culling them from your list if they don’t re-engage – which is good list hygiene – then you are probably using open rates as a metric to determine who is “active” and who is “inactive.”

Deliverability 101: If you email people who don’t want to hear from you, or who don’t open or engage with your content, you will find it harder and harder to reach the inbox, and you may even hit some spam traps, diminishing your ability to reach the rest of your supporter base.

Without open rates as a reliable gauge, you are left with two rather unappealing options at each end of the spectrum:

  1. Define your inactive list using clicks as the broadest metric. Instead of defining “inactives” as anyone who has not opened in six months, you swap in clicks for opens and perhaps broaden the timeline. This will dramatically reduce the size of most organizations’ active lists and probably exclude many people who don’t want to be excluded. For example: If your average open rate is 20%, your average click rate might be closer to 3%. That’s a big drop in your active pool and a whole lotta people you’re suddenly suppressing from your standard fare of messaging.  
  2. Continue using opens as the metric. This means you are willfully ignoring that this definition includes a significant number of “false opens” – people whose lack of actual engagement could trigger some deliverability problems for you down the road.

There are some in-between options you could pursue, and we will probably learn more as we go about what else we can do to accurately monitor list activity. 

Most immediately, we recommend you record and store the last accurate open for each subscriber on your list, before Apple rolls out the update. [If your ESP allows it, you can create a field for each user, e.g., a survey field, to store the data. Or you can manually create static segments based on the month of their last open.] This is a short-term fix, but it allows you to rely for a little while on an open metric that you can trust. This should be helpful for those who are trying to reach as many people as possible for year-end fundraising. 

This data capture may also allow you to identify who on the list is breaking from their pattern and starting to open nearly every single email. Those individuals are probably not suddenly zealously following your content – they are most likely Apple Mail users, and you can flag them as such so that you can reduce the risk of using opens as a health metric for the rest of the list. Again, this is a workaround; it’s not foolproof and it gets even less reliable when other providers start taking away open rate tracking. 

It’s also wise to understand analytically what would happen if you redefined your active audience based on a set of composite metrics. For example, maybe you’re looking at clickers, petition signers, and donors. Maybe you factor in historical open frequency and give supporters who’ve opened 5+ emails this calendar year before 9/15 some additional time before setting them inactive. If your ESP offers engagement scoring, perhaps that becomes part of your formula. Yes, your list size would likely drop but, depending on the organization, it may not ultimately have a significant impact if the openers-only group generally represents dead weight in the long run. On the other hand, if your organization is driven by a political cycle or by emergencies, you may find that your non-openers do activate at key moments, even if they appear to be uninterested the rest of the time.

Long term, there are a few shifts that will help you track as closely as you can to actual subscriber activity and maintain list health:

Take a broader look at someone’s relationship with your organization.

Ideally you are already doing this, but if not, you should broaden your definition of subscriber activity beyond email metrics where possible and expand your data inputs. Are you tracking web visits? SMS engagement? Paid media interactions? Direct mail and other offline activity? RSVPs? Are your subscribers logging in somewhere else? Are they making purchases from a store associated with your organization? Try to track and centralize any positive signal from your subscribers so that you can be much more inclusive about what “active” means and safely target a broader contingent.

Adjust your content and channel strategies.

The best way to maintain positive deliverability rates is to deliver content that your people want. If you are bombarding people with unwelcome emails, delivering overly manipulative messages, or using any other unethical method we too often see, then this whole open rate tracking issue will hopefully motivate you to clean up your act and deliver high-quality content. Rethinking and retooling our content strategies will be rewarded by providers like Gmail (who will be more likely to place emails in the primary inbox). 

  • Here are a couple of other tactics that email providers may reward with stronger deliverability:
    • Instead of asking supporters to fill out a form, ask them to reply directly to the email. Or even add a simple: Liked what you just read? Reply directly to tell us your favorite part. Replies are one of the best ways to show Google’s algorithm (and others’) that people are interacting with your emails – even better than clicks!
    • Make sure it isn’t too difficult for your supporters to unsubscribe – include a link in each email, maybe even at the top if you want to go the conservative route. Think about your unsubscribe page and make sure it doesn’t frustrate the user to the point they mark you as spam. At the same time, make sure it doesn’t automatically unsubscribe the user without first making a final pitch and offering some options for reduced frequency or specific types of content.   
  • Send content that will help you get more positive signals from your list and thereby expand your active list. The risk here is that you start prioritizing clickbait over meaningful communications, which can have a negative downstream impact. But there are lots of fun ways to get people to interact with you in an easy and inoffensive way.   
    • Add a like/dislike button to get feedback on your content.
    • Try low-bar one-click petitions or polls or quizzes (you get the idea) to generate higher levels of engagement. 
  • Remember that email is just one channel in the bigger programs we run. Reduce your reliance on email by investing more in SMS and other channels, and build cross-channel journeys that inspire your supporters to engage with you in other ways. 
  • This is also a great time to think about how SMS and paid can help boost email responses – especially with clients that rely almost exclusively on email. Can an SMS preview or chase emails? How can paid media reactivate supporters and supplement at big fundraising or advocacy moments? 
  • If you don’t already have a reactivation strategy, it’s time to implement one – or revisit and strengthen it. Send periodic re-opt-in emails, making them fun, creative, and mission driven to remind supporters of why they signed up in the first place. Leverage some of your best-performing content.

Revisit your acquisition strategy.

This is a good moment to make sure you’re being ethical, respectful, and smart about how you’re recruiting and onboarding your subscribers. 

  • How someone got onto your list is one of the best predictors of how many actions they’ll take – and there’s never been a better time to reorient your acquisition program to focus on people who are actively saying, yes, I want to get email from you. Especially for paid channels, we can measure lifetime value (in terms of clicks, actions, and donations) by acquisition source and start to optimize toward higher-quality names at better prices. Are you buying lists? Probably not a great idea! Are you luring people onto the list through deceptive means? Stop! Especially now that it becomes harder to identify subscribers’ desire to remain on your list, you should be extra cautious about dodgy acquisition methods that ask people to opt out, rather than opting in, to your list. (The dodgiest ones were never OK to begin with!) 
  • Consider a new welcome series strategy that helps you weed out people who may never have wanted to join your community in the first place. If you’re seeing a complete lack of engagement in the first five emails – at a time when a subscriber should presumably be quite interested in your content – perhaps you put them in an inactive or at-risk category and treat this group differently, e.g., purging or setting them aside until the next big moment. If you do use your welcome series to identify subscriber intent, then make sure it is set up for maximum engagement. You may even want to be transparent with the subscriber that they will stop receiving messages if they don’t click. (Bonus points if you set this up as a longitudinal test to see if this welcome series approach serves you well.) 
  • A more extreme approach is the double opt-in requirement. (Yes, you will lose hard-won subscribers, but most likely you will lose the lowest-quality ones, and isn’t that kinda the point?) That said, it pains us enormously to add friction to any signup process, and we’re not convinced the certain reduction in reach and increase in cost is worth the possible reduction in deliverability risk. 
  • If you’re not already running a mobile program and collecting mobile numbers alongside emails, now is the time to get on it. SMS is not only an effective way to engage communities, it’s also just smart to diversify. And we know that cross-channel supporters are the strongest supporters. Adding additional channels to your paid acquisition program does come with a cost, though, so test as you go to determine whether you’re getting the return you’re looking for on your SMS program.  

More collateral damage of Apple’s update – and ways you can adapt 

There’s no question that some of the tactics we as email marketers rely on are going to be impacted. Let’s take a look at a few and how we can adjust:

Non-opener resends (NORs)

This tactic is really about two things: getting the most out of good content and getting back to the top of people’s inboxes. You will no longer be able to suppress everyone who has opened an email without also suppressing most Apple Mail users — and that’s OK! With a lift note or slight updates to intro copy, subject lines, senders, and/or graphics, you can send a similar email twice — if you’re saying what supporters want to hear from you, they won’t mind. You can always suppress those who clicked or took action. And as for getting in front of people, look also to other channels. Try an SMS that tells the supporter the email in their inbox is one they won’t want to miss.

Email envelope testing and optimization

First of all, if your primary goal is anything other than simply getting the subscriber to read the email (i.e., you want them to click, donate, take action), then you should never have been looking at open rates to determine which subject line or sender name is performing the best. If you’re ultimately going for conversions, then that should be the KPI you’re looking at. But there are times when you might have a pure update to share and you want to optimize the number of openers. Our hope/hypothesis: If we can assume that the impact of the Apple Mail “false” opens is proportionally distributed across segments, then we can still use open rates as a directional metric to identify which subject line or sender is performing best. The same can be said for optimizing your send time.  

Open rates as a denominator for testing results

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but some organizations like to use clicks/opens or conversions/opens to determine email test results, for two reasons: (1) you may achieve statistically significant results more quickly and (2) due to the arbitrary nature of deliverability, opens have served as a more reliable denominator than recipients. Again, with the hope/hypothesis we posited above, you can still use opens as the denominator, assuming an evenly distributed impact of Apple’s inflated open rates. However, if you are establishing your email engagement benchmarks with opens as denominators, then you should quickly establish and track new benchmarks. 

User journeys with opens as a conditional

Sorry to say, you will need to revisit your automated journeys if you are using opens as a variable for where or how a supporter proceeds on their journey. 

Countdown clocks

These will become inaccurate because the clock will read the sent time, not the opened time. But we know, for example, that Nifty Images is already developing a workaround for this. And we’re going to let you in on some surprising test results: Your countdown clock to a midnight deadline does not need to be based in real time. We’ve seen everything from hourglass and thermometer GIFs to non-interactive countdown clocks perform as well or better than a real-time clock. Your supporters know what time it is; it’s our job to convey the urgency of the time remaining.

Long-form email content

There’s a real fear that this move by Apple will lead to bad email. Without the ability to see that content within the email was read and had value, emails could essentially become one big button driving to content elsewhere. We’re taking a more optimistic route. There is a lot of value we can provide to supporters that isn’t trackable: information, joy, trust, connection to mission.

In return, you can ask them for a favor:

“We’re excited you have more power over your data with the new Apple update, but it may make it harder for us to reach out. Still want our emails? Move us into your Primary tab so we don’t get lost amid the promotions and commercial updates you receive.” The Primary tab is the gold medal of inbox placement and landing there will set you up for higher engagement and conversions.

If you want to dig in more on this topic, we think Litmus put together an excellent guide for marketers. We’re also very happy to chat with you – please reach out! 

This won’t be the last of the shifts toward privacy and other data moves by the tech industry or regulators. And it isn’t the first. We have adapted, and we always will. Through it all, our tactics may change, but our mission remains the same: putting people first and helping our clients do more good.