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Losing open tracking will not kill email

Especially if Apple’s move prompts marketers to focus on more relevant metrics, and the message itself.

ICYMI, Apple will block tracking pixels, IP addresses and cache images for its Apple Mail email users reading messages on Apple devices. The aim? To protect its users’ privacy.

As you might expect, the reaction has generated two camps:

  1. The “sky is falling” folks say they will lose all insight into customer behavior. They won’t know who’s opening, when or where; and
  2. The “don’t sweat it” crowd that says we need to break our addiction to the open rate anyway, and this will force us to use other, richer metrics.

My take: This is just another maturity level event that marketers will adapt to in their interpretation of intent. It could change or remove some functions that rely on open data to provide context. But the sky is not falling, email is not dying, and this is our chance to find better ways to measure customer intent.

But I’m sure you have questions. I have some thoughts. However, I should note that this is a developing topic, and things could change as we learn more about how it will work and how it will affect your email performance and other back-end issues.

What, exactly, is Apple doing? The announcement states that they will begin caching all images in emails sent to Apple devices. This caching will basically nullify the open tracking pixel. This may also affect real-time images as the image will not be “re-pulled” once cached for the user across devices.

Apple, being at the forefront of privacy-based product decisions, is doing this to stay ahead of privacy regulations that have not only swept most of the world but are increasing in popularity in statehouses across the U.S.

How big a deal is this? Right now, Apple’s policy change applies to customers who use the native Mail app on their iPhones and iPads, and the desktop email application. That’s a sizable audience: reports that the iPhone’s current share of the email client market is 47.1%, but Apple Mail’s own share is 13%, below Gmail (18.6%).

However, the change applies only to people who use the Apple Mail application to receive email. A consumer who uses an iPhone to read email on the Gmail platform is not affected.

How will this affect marketers? For too long, marketers have been obsessed by the false metric of opens and thinking that open is a gateway to intent. While it might be, we’ve paid too much attention to this one metric.

Apple’s announcement ends this obsession only partially, because Apple is not the only game in town. Now, Google might (and probably will) announce something similar, but let’s reflect on the bigger picture and why I think that it’s a good thing.

As an aside, many email and marketing analysts believe that the privacy legislative progression will mirror the progression of spam laws in the early 2000s to the creation of a national standard (CAN-SPAM). Now, that is a wider discussion, but Apple seems to want to get ahead of state and federal efforts.

What should I do? Pay attention to these four areas:

1. The open metric:

Open rates have never been an exact science since ISPs started blocking images on some devices. Apple’s change will force marketers to abandon their obsession on the open metric and force them to focus on click, revenue and other intent-based KPIs. However, providers will still have some work-around available to them.

The obsession that we mentioned earlier is the focus on subject line testing. ESPs made it extremely easy to run basic A/B testing on subject lines but ignored added functionality on testing the content of the email, dynamic content and the associated reporting

Some marketers started to think that testing subject lines made them more sophisticated and knowledgeable. This misleading metric has created a culture in which we ignore message relevancy and spend time instead creating subject lines that get good opens.

As an example, this change affects only email opened on Apple devices like iPhones, iPads and MacBooks. If Google does not follow suit, an already directional metric would become more directional. That means Android/PC users would speak for your entire audience – you would get no user data from Apple users reading your emails in the Mail app on their devices.

2. Deliverability:

This will change some of the inboxing statistics that many providers report. Those providers will have to make changes on automated processes that determine if you had a block. This could be problematic for how deliverability tracking has been done, but I would expect those companies to pivot to other indicators.

3. Marketing automation:

Marketers will need to look at any automations that base decision-making on the open criterion. This will eliminate some automations if marketers cannot get data to fuel their processes.

This could be a challenge for some (think B2B) where in the initial stages of customer engagement, the open can be a leading indicator of intent. Yet, if we think about engagement, can and should that indicator be changed?

Overall, intent is what we are looking for. At any stage, a click is a stronger indicator. We are on the precipice of redefining intent — and in a good way. As for marketing automation, we need to rely less on email opens and more on website behavior.

Does this mean that the adoption rate for CDP’s and their proffer of 360 customer views increases? Does this drive a larger migration from traditional CRM to CDP?s Possibly, but, overall, these changes will demand a greater sophistication.

4. Send Time Optimization/Real-Time Content:

I’m already hearing people say that this will affect STO and RTC, which rely heavily on open data. And that’s not a bad thing. STO in particular, for most solutions, is a simplistic statistic, one that does not incorporate deeper intelligence and data to determine optimal behavior.

It gives the marketer a false sense of security because it implies that right-time delivery equals engagement and thus intent and conversion. This negates the reality that the message and brand equity determine the engagement more than the message open time.

Yes, STO done right can work, but it takes a sophisticated approach that does not rely on an open as a KPI.

Think about it this way. Just because I know when you’re going to open, does that mean you are ready to convert? Does it take into account other factors like payday, propensity to purchase, past purchase and other data? Rarely.

Similarly, real-time content providers such as MovableInk, or Liveclicker will more than likely have to change products like countdown timers and location-based content because the functionality might end for Apple users.

There’s some downside here. These functions can drive a lot of value, but I, personally, am looking forward to countdown timers being the real-time equivalent of subject line testing.

Wrapping up

In all of this, Apple has moved the bar on intent and reinforced privacy. Now, admittedly, we’ve loved the insight that pixels have provided, but we’ve gotten complacent. Marketers have been missing the boat on what true intent really is when it comes to email. The click is what’s important and what leads to conversion.

Yes, the open does hold some influence as a gateway, but we can glean intent by website behavior and long-term click behavior as well as other data connected to data-sciences efforts related to third-party data.

The world is not coming to an end, and the email channel has not been dealt a kill shot. Yes, in writing this article, I did come to see that Apple’s move will have an effect, but it’s an evolution, not an end of life. This evolution is similar to what we went through with Google Tabs, image blocking and every other forced maturation of the channel.

When marketers realize that this change is limited to those who use the Mail application on Apple devices, they will adapt to the change. Sure, we’ll have this discussion again if Google follows suit. But my primary hope is that this will help marketers break the open obsession as an intent-based metric and focus on the true importance of the email: the message itself.

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