Marc Michaels
By Marc Michaels on 08 Oct, 2021

Are email open rates a truly valuable benchmark? Or is it just a vanity metric that the industry likes to shout about? And are email open-rates declining?

Don't worry email marketers, before you read any further... the answer to the first question is YES! Open rates have a lot of value in email marketing.

Below we've shared our view which is based on a number of sources, of what is likely to happen with Apple iOS 15 privacy changes affecting open rates. However, it is a bit of a moving beast, and you'll need to move quickly – so best read on.


What stats are important in email marketing campaigns?

In email marketing, the fundamental bits of data that you should look at include whether the email has arrived to your recipient's inbox, whether they have opened it and, if they have engaged with it. There are a range of email performance statistics you could look at, such as click through rate, email open rate, the number of delivered emails and the unsubscribe rate for example.

It's easy to prove that email service providers have been able to deliver your emails - through the hard and soft bounce stats. However, it's always been a bit harder to prove that it's been opened, as it's a pixel that relies on images being on, which isn't always the case. And indeed, the mere act of opening doesn't necessarily means the email has actually been looked at.

Now, all that is going to get even harder.

Is mail privacy protection impacting email marketing?

Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference hailed its “latest innovations in [its] legacy of privacy leadership” called 'Mail Privacy Protection'. Apple will route emails through a proxy server to pre-load message content, including a tracking pixel, before serving to readers, even if readers don't actually open those emails.

Apple will also block forward tracking, so if your subscriber forwards an email, you will not know. The new feature in iOS 15 helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks recipients' IP addresses, so they can't be linked to other online activity or have their location determined.

This update affects any email opened from the Apple Mail app on any device, regardless of the email service provider used (Yahoo, Outlook etc.). Adobe and Litmus state that it shouldn't affect other email apps used on Apple devices, like the Gmail app. Whilst improved privacy for people is always welcome, this does present the email marketing community with an issue.

Since 2020, Apple iPhone, Apple Mail, and Apple iPad accounted for nearly half of all email opens. One benchmark report noted that 38.1% of all email opens and clicks come from one of the Apple Mail app clients. These are not small numbers.

So, when people updated their iPhone to iOS 15 in September 2021, they should've seen a screen at launch that invites them to select this service. When Apple introduced a similar privacy feature on iOS 14.5 called Tracking Transparency, the feature required all apps to obtain permission before tracking users. Nearly 96% of users in the US declined tracking permissions. We believe that they'll would've been a similar take-up this time around, as people are hardly likely to say ‘do not protect me'.


What does this change to email marketing mean for me?

So what? Well, here's some maths...

Let's say your open rate is currently 20% and 38% of people are opening in an Apple mail mobile device app. Imagine 96% of them enable the Privacy setting, and assuming Apple reports 100% opens for those people, then your new open rate will show as 50.4%.

Over-reporting is the most likely scenario, but it could fall to 12.7% if Apple reports 0% opens. Either way, open rates will become a ‘noisier' metric in email campaigns and a lot less reliable than today.

Will Apple's privacy change for email marketing happen with other providers?

What might happen if Android follows suit? A Google spokesperson has confirmed that Google is considering similar features to block IP addresses.

Are email open rates valuable metrics in email campaigns?

There's a lot of value in open rates, affecting various factors. We've highlighted 7 ways that email open rates are vital in monitoring and aiding the performance of an email marketing campaign:

1. Shows you engaged subscribers

Email open rate is used as an indicator of engaged subscribers in an email campaign, which then informs your understanding of what should be sent in the future.

2. Helps Internet Service Providers

Email open rate is a factor used in deliverability used by ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

3. Email open rates help with A/B testing

In A/B tests, comparing email open rates helps to judge the effectiveness of a good subject line and other tests.

4. Identifies subscribers that aren't engaged with your content

Many automated email journeys have components and rules that are based on subscriber engagement, so sending emails to non-openers or bouncing to print live content for email, such as countdown timers, live sports scores, live poll results and maps, which populate when an email is opened, not when it is sent.

5. Email open rates inform send time optimisation

Open rates inform send time optimisation, increasing the chance of your email message being engaged with.

6. Allows you to benchmark across your particular industry

Open rates provide some relative benchmark within your industry and across sectors.

7. Email open rates help you assess the health of your email contact lists

Open rates can help judge the overall health and quality of an email subscriber list. e.g. GDPR data retention policies may use open rates as a way of showing customers are still active.


Okay, but are open rates truly a good measure of email performance?

On the flip side, there is an argument that when looking at email performance, open rates are merely just vanity metrics. We've shared 3 reasons why email open rates may not actually be that useful in analysing the success of your marketing emails.

1. It doesn't mean someone is truly engaged

Just because someone has opened an email doesn't mean they have read it or absorbed any of the messaging. Therefore, is opening really someone engaging with your email campaign?

2. Whilst open rates may show you the success of good subject lines, conversion is key

Whilst a more intriguing subject line may drive more email opens, the email may still not deliver on the recipient's expectations of what the subject line suggested. Indeed, a supposedly weaker subject line might actually drive better response and conversion. So whilst good subject lines are important, conversion is ultimately what really matters.

3. Other email marketing metrics are more useful

Delivery and response are arguably more relevant metrics to justify list health and quality.

So how should email marketing experts tackle this?

Marketers should prepare for impact to existing logic rules on email campaigns, analytics and measurement, deliverability and email design and content. This will in turn mean remedial action to review your existing email journeys and associated content to see how this will specifically impact you.

Most likely, this will lead to a shift down the funnel in terms of engagement measurement, embracing broader and deeper engagement metrics. This may be accompanied by revising designs, reducing content in emails to bite-size pieces, encouraging response and interaction (clicks) using more CTAs and return paths.


We've shared 3 things your business needs to do:

1. Review your email journey planning

People don't always have time to react to your email. Re-targeting individuals who didn't open, or opened and didn't click, with a follow up email is often a standard part of a journey and can yield additional response - something as much as 50% of the original click-throughs.

This is something we generally encourage, as it is good marketing practice. Any email journeys that have this rules-based logic will need to be reviewed, as it will look like that these people have opened. You will need to consider what the next stage in their journey should now be.

Additionally, any emails that use live content will need to be reviewed. This content will likely now display at the time Apple ‘pre-opened' the email and not when the customer actually sees it, if they really do open it at all.

We also encourage people to send emails at the best time using send time optimisation AI features that look at previous open patterns. These will be skewed short-term, but algorithms will change and improve over time base on clicks and other behaviour.

2. Shift your focus to different email marketing metrics

Open rates are a relatively minimal engagement measure, and given the existing issues around open rates and these new changes, it's worth embracing this as an opportunity to re-shift the focus away from open rates as a core metric to the click through rate by the different segments, A/B tests, etc.

Clicks are a measurement of a more concrete action taken in a journey and give a greater understanding of which elements of the email your audience has engaged with. Therefore, looking at click to open rates will no longer be comparable with past figures.

The end goal with any email is tracking conversions (sales, sign ups, donations) and ultimately, how this equates to your bottom line.

However, not all emails need to focus on that end outcome. With newsletter and retention-type emails, this will necessitate a move away from emails which dump a lot of content to make sure the customer ‘sees' it, to more bite-size engaging content that invites click-throughs on headlines, images, and keywords/phrases in short body text.

3. Think about the construction of your promotional emails

Having more opportunities for customers to click through will generate a focus on click heat-mapping, in order to see which elements of the email are more engaging, to focus more on outcomes and tracking what happens next with the journey. Looking at patterns of response over time across many emails rather than just a single one is recommended.

In future, marketers who re-send the same email to customers that didn't open or click will likely re-send the email just to everyone who didn't click. This would likely mean changing at least the subject line for the re-send and/or some of the content. A proportion of people would have opened and read the first email – we just won't know who!

However, whilst most marketing campaigns are likely to have links to external content, we need to consider that some won't. Many service-based emails won't have any links in the email either, especially for pure notification emails. This may also have implication for multi-channel comms, where there may be rules that non-openers bounce to print, because of the legal need to ensure customers receive the communication.

It also means that the only proof of engagement with what might be considered a more 'obligatory' type message will be the delivery information. However, this is no worse than a postal mail where we can ensure proof of posting.

Perhaps we all need to consider introducing more feedback loops into service-type messages when we want to know customers are taking note of them – e.g. ‘click here to confirm receipt/understanding' buttons, or periodic return paths to mini-surveys, or the equivalent of like/heart buttons.


4. Consider your email deliverability

Fundamentally, you want to ensure that your emails don't end up in someone's spam folder. As well as avoiding spam-type flags, there are other key factors that affect email deliverability including send volume, send frequency, user interaction (opens and click, complaints, or unsubscribes), quality (overall percentage of bounces / undeliverable) and engagement, have become more important over time.

Low open rates are a signal to ISPs that your recipients are not engaged. If Apple over-report, this could be a positive. But it is more likely that ISPs will need to adjust to compensate for this. It's possible that frequency of communications may also become a factor and you may need a longer period of IP warming. But this isn't clear yet. We will all need to keep a close eye on how these changes could affect deliverability.

Summary: What you should do with your email marketing now

It's difficult to say exactly how the Apple iOS 15 privacy changes are going to affect organisations. But they will have an impact, and action does need to be taken now in readiness:

  1. Review all of your email journeys (waves and triggers) that include rule logic based on non-openers and/or bounce to print, live content, or use of send time optimisation, as these will likely need to be changed.
  2. Review your existing activity over time to look at all previous learning, trends and engagement, including a content engagement analysis audit.
  3. Create a content taxonomy and re-design email templates and testing matrices to create more action-focused activity with more bite-size content that invites more CTAs, response and feedback loops.
  4. Track and evaluate at a more granular level and monitor broader content trends and conversion outcomes. Isolate a non-Apple audience for A/B subject line testing. Start Send Time Optimisation now before it gets harder.


Speak to DCX to help you navigate these new complexities in email marketing

Your organisation should be reviewing the way you create and evaluate your email output now, so that you are better prepared. At DCX, we are marketing technology experts and through our marketing activation capabilities, can help you navigate this challenge.

Our digital transformation solutions help businesses do business, better. We're forward-thinking and help businesses stay ahead of the curve, take a look at our digital transformation case study examples to see how we've transformed other organisations across a variety of sectors.

If you want to know more, get in touch today.


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