A guest contribution by Urs Thüring, CEO at Mayoris AG.

The digital marketing sector is in revolt once again. After AdTech service providers have been affected by the prevention of consequent collection of tracking-data by the third-party-cookies, this time the email sector is affected. For some time we know, that the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) know how to abuse their dominant position when it comes to collecting data for their own business models, but also with data-privacy.


The trigger for the current debate

Regarding the Mail Privacy Protection, Apple holds the view, that the user should be protected from an automatic and involuntary revelation of the time of opening, the location, the current operating system and the type of device, when opening an email. This is a justifiable point of view regarding data protection, but by preventing reliable data on opening rates, the email sender looses an important first measuring unit for the whole funnel. All other important actions after the opening, like the click rate and a potential conversion are not affected. All users of the Apple Mail app on iPhone an iPad, that activate the privacy function recommended by Apple after the iOS15 upgrade, are affected. The Mail Privacy Protection is also released for Mac OSX. Therefor, approximately half of the email recipients will be affected in the medium term and more in B2C than in B2B.


What is Apple doing exactly?

1. Download of external content when receiving an email

Opening impulses – that are generated by delivering an invisible little image within the email (opening pixel) – are not being blocked, but the request to the server is being routed through proxy servers of independent providers worldwide by Apple. In this way, all external content (images and external CSS files) in the email is being retrieved automatically. This already happens when the email is downloaded on the device and not when effectively opened.

This causes an automatic generation of openings for every email send to users of Apple devices directly after the recipience without revealing any information about the device and the location.

So unfortunately, the increasing opening rate since the 20th of September has nothing to do with a genius email marketing concept of the senders, but with the fundamental adjustment implemented by Apple. However, no consistent outcome could be detected since the iOS15 update has been released. But the roll out of the new version will take several weeks. As a result of the changes, the opening rate, that never has been an completely accurate key figure (for example, openings by users could never be measures without a download of images), is now absolutely unreliable.

2. Storage of external content

The downloaded content is additionally being stored with the name of the file. Therefore, images with the same file name are not being stored again in following emails. This is why images, that are replaced in the course of measurement and correction processes, need to be inserted in the email with a new file name in order to avoid them being displayed in the original version on Apple devices.


Consequences for the sector

Without the initial success-measurement of a sending, the whole microstructure of the KPI-measurement gets completely mixed up.

The receiver structure of Apple (country, demography, sector) has a market share of at least 50 %, so that the whole market is affected.

The following usual practices will not be possible in the future anymore:


  • The opening rate cannot be used as a commencement of a funnel in order to optimize the performance.
  • Multi-stage processes (cycles / journeys) that fall back on the opening rate to take further action, for example reminder, reactivation or sunsetting, drop out.
  • The optimization of the subject line is going to be more difficult, because larger test groups are needed and the standard deviation is going to narrow significantly.
  • Location-based information, like weather data, cannot be played out anymore.
  • Countdown-timer cannot be used anymore, because they always show the timing of the download.
  • Data, that usually would be post-loaded when the email is actually opened, for example information about the availability of products or appointments, cannot be post-loaded anymore.

The providers have to focus more and more on the click rate and ultimately the conversion (purchase, registration, completion of a survey) when it comes to planning their sequences of action. These are, without question, the decisive KPI anyways. They are measured by the server when there is an interaction in the web browser and cannot be easily manipulated. But they do not compensate a complete funnel-analysis, especially when it comes to email without conversion-goal.


Workaround and alternatives

When an email is opened in online view, the opening is measured by the web browser, so that they are not affected. But it is going to be difficult to get users to increasingly open their emails in the browser or to encourage them to a measurable click by guiding them to a landing page. A synthetic opening rate is one approach to reliably measure openings on the affected devices, that allow this action. Afterwards, the KPI can be projected by the factor of the Apple-market share. This, however, is only an approximation to the actual opening rate and will increasingly be imprecise. It is important for the senders to follow the recommendation to concentrate on first-party data and an explicit consent for email sending and for the use of transactional and behavioral data for profiling based on interests, location and transactions. A good way to achieve permission and data for individualized and personalized mailings is to offer a benefit for the users for their consent. It is more important than ever to be relevant and topical, based on the customers characteristics and selections for personalized offers.


What are the GAFA competitors doing?

It is assumable, that the other global player of the inbox-business is going to follow suit sooner or later. Google, respectively Chrome, has already set new standards with the third-party cookies for an increased level of privacy. Once Google follows, for over 50 % of most of the senders the opening rate will not be reliably working anymore and will therefore not be seen as a decisive measurand any longer.  Comparable measures are expected to be implemented by the also widespread platform Gmail. It remains to be seen, if this also applies to manufacturer-specific android variants (Samsung, Huawei, Sony-Ericson etc.), too.


A sobering conclusion

Data privacy is very popular. The GAFAs learned how to use the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California and also changed their own attitude. Or maybe their approach is merely opportunistic. They have long been aware of the fact, that permission-based data is a useful basis for a very lucrative business. Preventing email-tracking causes collateral damage, it disadvantages every sender in relation to the platform operator and has very little use for the customers, apart from the direct confidentiality regarding opening time and location. Up to now, the email sector has already been highly regulated by the consequences of spam, the GDPR and the resulting need for double-opt-ins. Also, developing customer profiles is bound to the consent to a legally required privacy statement.

It is arbitrary and leads to mistrust if dominant market players abuse their position in order to manipulate the market by the help of technical measures, without cooperating with the stakeholders and significantly improving the individual privacy standard by complying with an appropriate lobby (as with the third-party-cookies). Companies are taking over state functions and no one wants to enforce them to do so.  They decide to step back from time to time, as Apple did with the before announced child protection via picture-screening. But if companies are collecting customer data for their own benefit while preventing others to do so, it is necessary to ask important questions about market distortion and further state regulations – this time not in the context of privacy protection but concerning a limitation of market power in general.


The guest author


Urs Thüring, CEO at Mayoris AG