Apple closes down open rate tracking

Apple is taking aim at one of the key newsletter metrics with software updates coming this autumn.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Well, I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a blog post that dated as fast as yesterday’s. Apple is holding its annual developer conference WWDC online again this year, and it kicked off with a keynote yesterday.

And guess what they announced?

In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent 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.

Translation: say goodbye to open rate tracking.

Now, there has been a pushback against it for a while. Some email providers — like Hey — already block the tracking pixels by default. David Mattin reminded me of this when I was last cleaning up my list. Some people consider it a gross intrusion of privacy, and some a vital piece of intelligence on what your users like. I guess we know which side Apple has come down on.

Secrets and Pixels

Sound good, unless you're a newsletter publisher
Sound good, unless you're a newsletter publisher

So, what’s actually happening here? Apple will be intelligently spotting and blocking the tracking pixels used to record opens in emails. When you open an emial with a pixel embedded, it's downloaded from the newsletter software provider's server, letting them know that the email was opened and, because the pixels are unqiue, by whom.

Blocking that process will mean that email opens from anyone using the official mail apps on Apple devices will no longer show once they upgrade to the 2021 versions of the various operating systems. It will look to your newsletter software like users of those devices  never open your emails.

There’s a possibility that Apple won’t turn this on by default — but that seems unlikely given their track record on this.

Still, it’s worth remembering that this will only apply to people using Apple’s own mail apps. Using Gmail or the web or the Gmail app? Tracking will still work. Using Outlook? The Substackerati will still know if you’ve opened their email. Indeed, if your open tracking uses a system other than tracking pixels, it might still work — and no doubt, people will find ways of doing it, and then Apple will shut those down, too.

And that means that a chunk of recorded opens are about to go away for most newsletter publishers. One of the single clearest signals of how well we’re meeting their needs will become ever more inaccurate. From some time in the Autumn, you’re going to have very little idea if people on Apple devices, and the iPhone in particular, I would imagine, are opening your emails. And, for most of us, that will be a significant chunk of our audience.

So, if you follow my advice from yesterday, you’ll be unsubscribing iPhone users who might well be opening every single email you sent. You probably shouldn’t do that. So, uh, ignore what I said yesterday, if you’re reading this in late 2021 or later.

What to do?

So, some advice:

  1. Clean up your mailing lists while you still can.
  2. Look for other signals of email engagement: for example, you could use campaign tracking on links in emails.

Now, you can probably work out some approximation of open rate tracking. Look at your web analytics, estimate what proportion of your audience aren’t using Apple devices, and scale the open rates based on that.

But, yeah, open rate tracking is about to get very unwell. Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted.


Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.