Apple iOS 15 Update: What It Means for Email Marketing

Illustration by Rodrigo Fortes illustration of a laboratory running experiments

Have you heard about the major change coming to email marketing in September 2021? 

With its looming iOS 15 update, Apple is putting a major blow to one of the most widely-used metrics to measure email marketing effectiveness — the open rate. 

It’s one of several major changes to email that Apple’s implementing to help protect user privacy. And while there are pros and cons for both users and the businesses who use email to reach them, there’s no debate that it will have a wide-spread impact. 

To continue to be the most effective, marketers will need to be more specific in their efforts and intentional about the information they collect and how it’s used. 

The update is expected to hit in September. Keep reading to learn what’s changing and what you need to do next. 

The iOS 15 update: What Apple’s changing

There are three primary updates that will affect an email marketer’s ability to serve subscribers:

  1. Mail privacy protection will eliminate the ability to accurately track open rates
  2. Private relay will hide the user’s IP address while browsing the web
  3. Hide my email will allow users to mask their real email address with a fake one

Estimates vary based on whose data you use, but it’s fair to assume that about 30-50% of your email list is using Apple Mail and Apple devices to open emails. For all the people in that group who opt in to Apple’s new privacy option, email marketers will lose access to data they’ve always had in the past. 

And in case you’re wondering, it’s likely that almost every Apple user will opt in, because of the language used in the process. Apple will give a user two choices, which read:

  • “Protect mail activity – hide IP address and privately load all remote content”
  • “Don’t protect mail activity – show IP address and load any remote content directly on your device”

Given these choices, it can be expected that almost everyone will select the first option.

How do open rates work?

Open rates have always been tracked through a tiny invisible image embedded in the email code. When the email is opened, that image loads, and the loading of that image tells the sender that their email was opened.

Now, with Mail Privacy Protection, Apple Mail will pre-load that image and all other script and code data when the email is received, rather than when it’s opened. 

This will result in the appearance of an email open where one may not have actually occurred.

So, in September or October of 2021, you can expect to see your open rates jump significantly. But, unfortunately, it will be impossible to tell whether or not more people are actually opening your emails.

In other words, open rates will no longer be able to be the primary metric when measuring the engagement levels of your subscribers. 

Apple’s other iOS 15 updates

The private relay update 

Users will now have their IP address hidden when browsing on Safari. Apple will do this by re-routing the server request through what is essentially a cyber maze, which will conceal the identifying headers and IP address, similar to how a virtual private network (VPN) works. 

This update will inhibit your ability to send geographically-targeted email marketing. 

The hide my email update 

Subscribers will be able to create a ‘disposable’ email address when interacting with businesses — like filling out a form to download an eBook. This is basically a fake email address that will route messages to the real one, but it prevents the email sender from knowing the subscriber’s real address. Thus, long after the recipient has abandoned the fake email address, it may still show up on the business’ email list. 

You would normally just scrub inactive emails from your list or, if you use MailPoet, toggle the inactive subscribers feature to automatically remove those who haven’t engaged lately. But without accurate email open rate data, there’s no reliable way to recognize the fake email address, since it may still show the email as being opened.

Six ways the iOS 15 update affects email marketing

This isn’t a change you can ignore. Here are six ways you might need to change your email marketing as a result of the iOS 15 update:

1. Move away from open rate data

The biggest point here is that you will no longer be able to easily tell who or how many people are opening and at least glancing at your emails. 

This means you can’t tell how well subject lines are working or who your most active subscribers are.

As a result, you won’t be able to segment emails based on who opened previous ones. For example, suppose you have a webinar coming up about a particular topic. In the months beforehand, you send out emails offering links to a case study, two blog posts, a survey, and an eBook that all touch on topics related to the webinar.

Before the iOS 15 update, you could have sent additional, targeted emails advertising the upcoming webinar specifically to people who opened one or more of those emails.

After the update, the only valuable data you would have for creating that targeted segment would come from readers who clicked on any of those emails. That will be a much smaller sample of your subscribers.

The good news is that, while opens have been a great measurement for engagement, there are far more precise ways to segment your emails and determine what’s working. By narrowing in on these metrics, and with the help of MailPoet, your email marketing efforts might be even more valuable: 

Data you can still use from email engagement includes:

  • Clickthrough rates (a general percentage)
  • Those who visit your website (a specific list)
  • The size of your email list
  • Signups for events, webinars, etc.
  • Survey data
  • Purchases and orders
  • Subscriber lifetime value
  • Shares on social media

2. Re-imagine your A/B testing on subject lines

Without open rate data, it becomes more difficult to test how well various subject lines are working, and that includes A/B tests. 

Before, you might send two different subject line options to a random mix of 20% of your audience. Then, you’d send the best-performing subject line to the rest of your list so you can maximize your campaign’s performance. 

Now, you’ll have to look deeper to draw conclusions about subject lines. For example, if your list is large enough, you can still send two emails with different subject lines but the exact same content within the email. If one email gets more clicks than the other, you might assume that it’s the result of more opens for the particular subject line used. 

This won’t be possible for every business. 

So instead, use this change as an opportunity to focus less on subject lines and more on the content of the message itself. For example, if one email has an image, and another has just text and no image, you could compare the clickthrough rates from both emails and determine if the image helped or hindered people from clicking.

Clicks remain the ultimate objective. You can still optimize for those. 

3. Take a new approach to personalized, location-based emails

Another form of personalization depends heavily on the ability to geo-target your email subscribers. With no IP address data, this will be much harder.

If you have, in the past, relied on IP addresses to segment emails by subscriber location, you’ll need to use a different approach.

This pertains to all sorts of potential content such as local events, sports updates, local holidays, concerts, or even information such as ‘locations near you.’ Likewise, if someone like an author, speaker, or consultant is planning a live event in a particular area, they would have to find another way to email the segment of their list that lives nearby.

How might you do this? You just have to acquire location information about your subscribers through other means. You can use a survey. Or you can add a line to your sign-up forms that asks for a location. If you’re running a WooCommerce store and already using MailPoet, you can use the ‘Customer Country’ segment to target your campaigns by location.

Some of these methods do require more participation from subscribers, but those who do participate are likely to be more engaged as a whole and provide valuable returns for your efforts. 

4. Communicate urgency in a new way

Countdown timers are one of the most commonly-used types of live data that will be affected by the iOS 15 update.

If you often feature things with set dates and use countdown timers to increase urgency, the timers will no longer function. Thus, you’ll have to revert to other methods such as more frequent emails or more dramatic use of graphics to communicate urgency. 

5. Take a new look at list management 

Mailbox providers are constantly improving the way that they fight spam. A big part of that fight requires email senders to routinely clean their lists of inactive subscribers, some of which are also known as ‘spam traps.’ 

By continuing to email inactive contacts, you run the risk of being labeled a spammer. Keep doing it, and more of your emails will be filtered into spam or junk folders, or blocked altogether.

The problem is, open rates have historically been the best way to identify inactive email addresses. Without that ability, it’s going to be difficult for senders to clean their lists. You can use clicks to determine engagement, but many legitimate potential customers might open emails off and on for a year before finally clicking. 

Businesses might have to choose between cleaning their lists to maintain good deliverability and leaving them alone to avoid cutting off someone who’s just been “looking” but might become a customer tomorrow. 

6. Consider sending more emails

People want email personalization, in part because it reduces the number of emails they receive, and because it means more relevance. For subscribers who have indicated clear interests in certain topics, in the past you could use open rates to segment content based on this data. With Apple’s new changes, you’ll have to find new ways to identify preferences.

One option to get around this is to just start sending all the emails to everyone again, and many businesses will have to do that. However, customers may feel bombarded with more irrelevant emails.

Another way is to use survey data, prior purchases, click behavior, and other information to create the same types of segments. You can also add subscribers to different lists based on the form they used to register — separating them based on what piqued their interest — or the answer to a question on the form. 

If you can make that work, you can continue to personalize to some degree and not send emails that aren’t relevant to your list.

To the extent you can do it, that’s going to be your best solution.

What should you do about Apple’s iOS 15 update?

If your business relies heavily on email marketing (and most do), know that MailPoet is always working to ensure you have all of the tools you need. This isn’t the first time there have been major changes, and it won’t be the last. Specifically, MailPoet will be highlighting other ways to measure user engagement and determine what’s working — and what’s not — for your email efforts. Plus, MailPoet will lean more heavily on key partnerships and put more emphasis on the tools proven to be effective for businesses across the world. Meanwhile, you should: 

  1. Review your subscriber funnels such as signup forms and ensure subscribers clearly understand what they’re signing up for, give proper consent, and confirm their decision with a double opt-in. 
  2. Take action now to remove inactive subscribers from your lists while you still have the data. MailPoet offers this feature to all users. Go to Settings → Advanced → Stop sending to inactive subscribers and set the inactive definition to six months.
  3. Accelerate your usage of other campaign performance metrics and correlate them to email metrics. For example, look at website engagement such as visits and comments. Look at commerce activity such as orders, repeat orders, and changes in order size.
  4. Adjust your automations so none of your trigger points depend on open rates. Switch to clicks instead.
  5. Segment your lists to send more relevant messages. You can sort subscribers based on past purchase behavior like amount spent and types of products bought, specific links clicked, subscription date, and much more. 
  6. Push for subscriber preferences at the moment they sign up so you’ll know which lists and topics most interest them, as well as any email frequency preferences. Ask how they want to be communicated with.

Email continues to be one of the best ways to communicate with your audience — that’s not changing. Stay tuned to learn how to adapt and make the most of your email marketing efforts!