The Apple iOS15 privacy changes and the impact

This summary was originally written as an internal document for staff at the email marketing platform EmailOctopus. However I am now sharing it, unedited, for additional context and information for those in the industry.

What's this?

Apple recently announced that in their upcoming iOS15 update they will be working to stop the use of open tracking in emails. This will have a knock-on effect to our customers and the industry as a whole.

What is open tracking?

Open tracking is technology used by ESPs, like EmailOctopus, to calculate open rates. Technically it works by adding a small, unique to the subscriber, 1px image to the bottom of the email. When the unique image loads, the ESP makes the assumption that the email has been opened by the customer and this is reflected in their dashboard.

As a technology it has always been unreliable. Some people open emails with images off. Some ad-blockers block 1px pixels. It has however been useful enough to provide some insight into the performance of an email, at least in terms of opens.

What are Apple doing?

It's been widely reported that iOS15 will block the tracking pixels. This isn't the case. Instead, Apple Mail (on Mac and iOS) will be loading every email as soon as it's received even if the user hasn't physically opened it themselves.

As a result every single email sent to an iOS15 device (or a Mac running Monterey) using Apple Mail, will show as an open. Our understanding is it'll show as an open almost immediately after being sent.

What's the expected impact of this?

This change will lead to open rate tracking increasing significantly. It's estimated around 60% of emails are read using an Apple device. As it stands every single one of those will show as an open in an ESP dashboard.

For EmailOctopus this is the known impact

  • That means segmentation on opens will become unreliable to the point of being useless.
  • It means EmailOctopus will need to process a lot more data, as each 'open' creates a datapoint. More images will be loaded too, though it's uncertain if Apple will cache these on their side.

For other platforms or email related products this is the expected impact

  • Automation sequences based on "opened" rules will run for almost all subscribers. It will result in a lot more emails being sent, unless people update their sequences.
  • A/B testing subject lines becomes a lot more difficult. Platforms which offer A/B testing send out 2 emails – with alternate subject lines – to 2 smalls segment of their list. The platform then measures which is opened more, as open tracking will now be much more inaccurate, this practice will likely cease.
  • Some platforms use the IP which downloaded the tracking pixel to ascertain a subscriber location and add it to their profile, which can then be used to segment or deliver emails at different times. As all image download requests are routed through Apple's servers, this won't be possible. All images will now show as downloaded at a single location.
  • Countdown timers will cease to work in email. These timers work by loading a GIF which counts down to a specific time, because a GIF can't be long enough to countdown from 7 days to zero, each time the email is opened a new gif is requested. As Apple will seemingly be caching these images on their servers a new gif won't be regularly requested or loaded.
  • There are some platforms which offer an AI based send-time optimisation product. This works out at what time a subscriber is most likely to open an email by looking at previous open times. That will now become meaningless.
  • It's believed that some products look at Open Rates to assess email sender reputation. This might cause issues as to which IP pool their customers are placed into.
  • Platforms offered functionality to 'prune' a list based on opens. This will no longer be possible on opens,  and unless an alternate way to do this is found it will lead to their customers having larger lists and paying more.

What changes do we expect to make?

EmailOctopus is fortunate to be incredibly well insulated from this change. Unlike almost every other email service provider, our platform relies very little on open tracking – with only a tiny (<3%) percentage of customers using segmentation based on opens. We are one of the few platforms which gives customers control over whether open tracking is enabled and have been considerate of subscriber privacy – never storing data on locations or IP addresses of opens.

That said, we need to consider how we communicate Apple's change, because when iOS 15 drops in September 2021 open rates will massively increase and this will confuse customers.

There are a number of options we can consider:

  • Disabling open tracking by default. Only enabling it with a disclaimer around its inaccuracy.
  • Keeping open tracking by default. Providing 2 open figures. 1 including Apple data, 1 excluding.
  • Keeping open tracking by default. Reducing the prominence significantly of this metric.
  • There are some concerns around how some customers will measure engagement, and keep their list clean. We may introduce a new template block allowing customers to easily provide a link which subscribers can click should they want to opt-in.

In the short term, we should educate customers that segmenting on opens is unreliable and will only get more so. We should not recommend this be done as standard practice.

Email marketing doesn't fundamentally change

This change has caused some concern in the industry. But I don't believe this change it should.

We know open tracking always had issues about inaccuracy. This is just making it even more inaccurate.

Was it ethical to collect additional subscriber information such as location, based on an email open, without consent, or at the very least notification?

At its simplest level email marketing remains the same. If you build trust with a person and have their consent to email them you will reach their inbox. If you then unsubscribe those who say they don't want your emails any longer, your reputation will remain high. And if you respect their inbox by setting expectations on how often you'll send emails, subscribers will continue to open them.