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ICYMI: What Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection Means for Enrollment Marketers

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Unless you are one of the nerdiest among us (present company included), you probably missed the news about Mail Privacy Protection at Apple’s Worldwide Development Conference on June 7. But fear not! We’ve got you covered. 

Mail Privacy Protection will become available for devices running iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey between September and November of 2021. In Apple’s own words, ”Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. [It prevents] senders from knowing when they open an email, and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.” The headline? Apple Mail users will have the ability to hide whether or not they open emails and when. 

Keyboard warriors are still debating whether this marks the end of email marketing as we know it or should be met with a giant shrug, but it’s most likely somewhere in between. Here’s the rundown of how it works, how it may impact your email marketing efforts, and what you can do to prepare for the iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey release in the fall.

What is Apple Mail’s Privacy Protection?

First, some good news: iOS users will need to actively opt in to this new feature so it won’t be active by default. When a user opens the Mail app, they will see a message asking them to either “Protect Mail activity” or “Don’t protect Mail activity.” If they choose “Protect Mail activity,” Apple will route emails through a server to pre-load email content before it’s distributed to readers, even if they don’t open the messages. 

This will impact any emails that are opened using the Apple Mail app, even if someone is using another email service like Gmail or Outlook. For example, if a prospective parent’s company uses Outlook for its email service but that parent reads and responds to emails through Apple’s native Mail app, you wouldn’t be able to track their emailing opening details if they opt into Mail Privacy Protection. Whether or not this will impact URL tracking remains to be seen. 

This change does not affect emails that are opened through third-party mail apps that are installed on iOS devices like the Gmail app. 

Implications for school marketing and admission pros

First, you’ll need to know which email clients your audience is using to understand how (and if) this will impact your email marketing work. Some email campaign management tools like Mailchimp and Hubspot allow you to pull this information, but a surprising number of platforms used by PK-12 schools do not. If yours doesn’t, you can gather this information through a good old-fashioned survey. Since different email clients have different quirks, this is good information to have even when you aren’t anticipating a significant technological change. 

If you find that a large chunk of your audience is using Apple Mail, here is what to expect from there: 

Your data is going to get weird

In addition to hiding open rate information for Apple Mail users, Mail Privacy Protection will make your overall open rate data less reliable. Because it will pre-load email data whether or not someone actually opens an email, it’s possible that you’ll see an artificial spike in your open rates.

Another metric that will take a hit is the click-to-open rate (CTOR), which tells you the percentage of email recipients who opened an email and then clicked on one or more links in that message. This data point has been increasing in popularity as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of email content in getting users to engage with a message. Unfortunately, CTOR is driven by email opens, which means you’ll likely see that data point decline and it will become less of a go-to metric in the future.

This means…

You’ll need to rethink your KPIs

It’s not quite time to plan a memorial service for email open rates or CTOR, but you will want to consider expanding the range of metrics you use to measure email performance. If they’re available to you, include the following KPIs when you review and report out on email engagement:

  • Click-through rate (CTR) – the percentage of email recipients (based on successful deliveries, not opens) who click on one or more links in an email 
  • Subscriber growth rate – how fast your audience is growing compared to the number of unsubscribe requests
  • Conversion rate – the percentage of recipients who take a specific action like scheduling a meeting with an admission officer or registering for an event. If you aren’t using them already, UTM codes can help you with this. A UTM code is text (known as a query string) added onto the end of a URL that includes parameters for tracking specific pieces of information about a campaign: the campaign name, medium, source, and content. If you have goals set up in Google Analytics like requesting a tour or clicking on an application link, you can see how individual emails influence those actions. Some email campaign management tools allow users to create UTM codes for email links automatically, but if yours doesn’t, Google’s Campaign URL Builder is a free, simple, tool for creating UTM codes on the fly. 
  • Website sessions/referral traffic from email marketing – the number of visits and referrals to your website generated from email campaigns 

Tactics driven by open rates will be at risk

If you’re doing more sophisticated email marketing, you know that open rates have a much broader impact beyond simply telling you who’s opening your messages. In the education world, open rates are also used for segmenting lists, A/B testing, optimizing send times, and automated comm flows. 

Without reliable open information, here are some challenges enrollment marketers may face in the months ahead:

  • Automated comm flows that depend on users opening emails will no longer be effective. Alternatively, try using an email click as a trigger instead of an open. Time-based comm flows that send emails based on specific time intervals are also safe bets.
  • If you’re using open rates to segment contact lists by the level of engagement, or to suppress contacts, it’s time for a new approach. Other segmentation criteria like areas of interest, incoming class year, and funnel stage are still on the table, but identifying and purging unengaged contacts could become more of a chore. This could lead to the unintended consequence of sending more unwanted emails to more people because they haven’t been flagged as unengaged in your CRM or email campaign management system. 
  • A/B testing for subject lines, from names, and pre-header text all rely on open rates to choose a “winner” between two versions of an email. Without reliable open rate data, A/B test results for these variables won’t hold much weight.
  • Many email campaign management systems offer send time optimization (STO), which uses a subscriber’s past open behaviors to determine the best time to send them an email. Of course, without accurate open data, this won’t work as effectively as it has in the past. In the short term, if STO is available to you but you aren’t currently using it, use the next few months before Mail Privacy Protection launches to gather send time recommendations while you still can before it becomes diluted.

What you can do before the release of Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection

If you have a high number of Apple Mail users on your contact lists, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your campaigns continue to be effective after Mail Privacy Protection comes onto the scene: 

  • Go back to the basics. Remember the fundamental best practices for sending emails that people want to engage with. Keep content simple and scannable and use CTAs sparingly. Even if it will become harder to test them, subject lines should be tight — aim for 25-30 characters — and personalized when possible. It’s also important to avoid using spam-flagging subject line content like caps, unnecessary punctuation, and special characters. 
  • Embrace the double opt-in. A double opt-in sign-up requires subscribers to confirm they want to be added to an email list, usually through a follow-up email they receive after completing a sign-up form. While creating an extra step for subscribers to opt into communications may seem counterintuitive, there are several benefits to doing this: it protects against incorrect sign-ups, reduces spam bots, and helps build your school’s reputation as a sender. 
  • Test what you can. And keep going. The fact that testing based on email opens may become a challenge in the future shouldn’t discourage you from testing what you can now and continuing to test those variables going forward. You don’t need to stop testing subject lines, sender information or pre-header text in anticipation of a change that won’t happen for a few more months — that data can still be helpful for informing your strategies for future campaigns. And, if you don’t already, test variables like your creative, image load times, calls to action, and links to gauge email engagement and monitor changes over time. 
  • Manage your sender reputation. To maximize the chances of your emails being successfully delivered, following established practices for managing your school’s sender reputation should be part of your regular email marketing routine. Your sender reputation is a score that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) assigns to institutions that send emails. The higher your score, the more likely an ISP will deliver emails to the inboxes of recipients on their network. If you’ve had email deliverability issues in the past, tools like Sender Score can help you get more specific information about where you stand on a scale of 0-100. 

In addition to the tactics I mentioned above, you can improve and maintain your school’s sender reputation by avoiding URL shorteners, having a consistent sending schedule, and regularly reviewing your distribution lists. Another trick is to consider adding branding to sender information for emails that are “sent” from individuals. For example, a sender like “Sarah from High Point University” is more effective than “Sarah Smith” for reducing spam complaints. 

From the 2016 launch of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to Google’s (now delayed) plans to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome, data privacy has become all the rage in recent years. Apple has already made a lot of noise on this front this year due to the impact of iOS 14 on marketers’ ability to track Facebook Ads data, so this latest update isn’t a huge surprise. Enrollment marketers who stay on top of and prepare for these constant changes will be in the best position to keep their digital outreach on track and meet their enrollment goals. 

Angela is the Manager, B2B Brand Strategy at Niche, where she supports content and partner engagement strategy in Niche's work with K-12 and higher education institutions. Before joining Niche, she was the director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School, a PK-12, co-ed day school outside of Washington, DC. In addition to developing research and content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a frequent conference presenter, guest author, and podcast guest.