How Marketers Should be Adjusting to iOS 15 and Mail Privacy Protection

Nov 17, 2021
Brad Gurley

In mid-summer, Apple stirred the email marketing world with their announcement of Mail Privacy Protection (MPP), a new feature built into the latest OS versions for Apple phones, tablets, and computers that seeks to provide additional privacy for recipients of emails. At that time, we told you that the feature could bring major change to the email world but encouraged a measured response in lieu of panic.

Since then, we’ve heard no shortage of predictions and debates about how these features might impact marketers and senders of all sizes. Some said open rates were a vanity metric and gladly welcomed our new privacy-conscious overlords, while others believed the sky was falling and marketing would never recover. Most experts fell somewhere in between, as the industry collectively searched for the proper balance between reason and alarm.

Four months later — and a few weeks into the wide release of these new OS versions — we wanted to provide some updates on what we’re seeing and how that plays into narratives about open rates and privacy. We presented our findings at our annual Accelerate conference earlier this month, and here’s a recap of the details.

Reviewing the basics

Apple baked a few new privacy-centric features into their latest OS releases, but MPP has gotten the most attention for its potential impact on email marketers. The feature is designed to make it more difficult for senders to track when, where, and how many times a recipient opens an email message. This outcome is accomplished by pre-fetching all image content, including open tracking pixels, at the time the message is received. Since each download of the open pixel signals a potential email open, this is likely to falsely inflate open rates.

The pre-fetched content is loaded by Apple’s proxy servers, which also means the geolocation for the IPs will not necessarily be accurate. To take their privacy commitment a step further, Apple has even obfuscated the user-agent string for anyone using the native Mail app on their Apple device. As a result, anyone who opens a message (whether the account is iCloud, Gmail, Yahoo, etc) in the Apple Mail app will show up as the generic “Mozilla/5.0” device type, even if they don’t use Mail Privacy Protection.

Why should I worry?

While we continue to advise a measured response, these changes are certainly cause for concern — with the most prominent reason being Apple’s market share. iPhones are often cited as the device where most email opens happen, with somewhere around 40% being the prevailing estimate for opens that take place on those devices. This round of updates also reflects a change to Apple’s update strategy, with iOS 15 supporting devices from up to 6 years ago. This means many more devices are likely to receive this update and be impacted by the new features.

To encourage users to adopt MPP, Apple also uses language that makes turning off the feature seem unsafe: “Don’t protect my mail” is a pretty strong statement for a consumer to make when setting up their mail client.

Observations so far

Even though iOS 15 was released to the public nearly two months ago, much of our discussion about MPP remains focused on its “potential” impacts. This is primarily because data indicates iOS 15 adoption has thus far lagged behind patterns observed with previous iOS versions. The chart here illustrates the percentage of opens attributed to the iOS 15 native Mail app (orange) versus the percentage of opens attributed to all other iOS versions and apps (blue).

In the first few days of its availability, we saw iOS15 opens increase pretty sharply and then plateau for a bit, and others across the industry reported similar patterns. It wasn’t until late October that the iOS 15 native Mail app began to significantly overtake the other recorded iOS opens in our own data.

The next chart illustrates a metric that may be a bit more surprising: overall open rates haven’t increased as sharply as expected.

We saw a very slight upward trend in aggregate open rates through the months of September and October — on average, a 2-3% increase in open rates across our user base. These numbers are in stark contrast to most of the predictions we heard leading up to the release of MPP.

We’re also not able to see any clear indication of a spike in total opens after the release of MPP, even though we see a growing percentage of opens attributed to iOS 15. This tells us that iOS 15 is growing in adoption — and, from that, we can assume MPP is gaining traction as well — but it’s not having an outsized effect on opens overall.

What’s next?

As we move farther into Q4, a time that’s so critical for so many marketers, what can we anticipate seeing? MacOS Monterey, which also includes Mail Privacy Protection, was released in late October, and we’re seeing additional increases in opens as a result. However, we don’t anticipate a drastic shift in reported opens over the next two months.

Our key recommendation for targeting during the holiday season is to focus on a more holistic view of engagement — specifically, using the data you have from before the iOS 15 release alongside the data you’re seeing since then. Compare and cross-reference those metrics, with those recipients that have consistent engagement both before and after as the core of your recipient base. We also recommend using click data, site visits, purchase data, and other related data sources you have available to integrate into your performance metrics.

For 2022 and beyond, the outlook changes slightly. We know that, at some point, Apple will likely uncover a security vulnerability and all devices will be strongly advised to update their OS. At that point — which we anticipate would occur mid-2022 or later — we are likely to see a larger spike in the “false” opens from MPP. This shift should push marketers to establish a new model of engagement sooner rather than later, particularly in light of the fact that other providers are likely to follow suit. Yahoo has been speaking publicly about the fallacy of open tracking for at least three years, and if Apple’s experiment is a success we may see other major players implement similar measures.

MessageGears response

Along with shifts in how marketers use data to identify engagement, our team is also working on some enhancements to the platform that will help Super Senders discern which opens are more likely to be real vs. automated. Specifically, we’re working to separately identify opens that return the generic user-agent string and are attributed to Apple proxy IPs, providing flexibility for marketers to ingest more accurate open rate data.

We’re also adding granularity to the device breakdown; the current display groups all proxy opens into the same category, while an upcoming release will provide additional differentiation in those charts. Over time, the goal is to separate out Apple proxies vs those used by Google, Microsoft, and other providers.

We’re expecting to have the first of these enhancements ready in November, so keep watching this space for updates. As we move into 2022, our team is also investigating new and innovative ways to integrate other engagement signals including a variety of online and offline data points about your recipients.

About the Author

Brad Gurley

Serving as MessageGears’ Director of Deliverability, Brad spends his days watching mail queues, analyzing customer delivery data, and researching the latest updates to email technology. He’s been in the email marketing space for the better part of two decades and harbors a passion for educating senders on how to more effectively deliver mail to their subscribers. When he’s not busy updating MTA configurations, you might find him preparing a variety of smoked meats or leading a group of friends to the closest karaoke bar.

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