Email is one of the most successful communication channels retailers and ecommerce brands use to connect and engage with customers. It is a powerful part of an effective digital marketing program, yet it is constantly evolving meaning marketers need to remain nimble in adapting to changes to ensure the success of their programs.

One of the biggest changes the industry has experienced in recent times was Apple’s introduction of Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) last year. MPP is a privacy feature which prevents email senders from using tracking pixels to measure open rates and device usage, and masks the IP addresses of recipients to reduce accuracy around location tracking.

Marketers have long used open rates as a key performance indicator to measure recipient engagement and to carry out email best practices such as data hygiene, recency management, and journey automation—all of which are also informed by email open rates. Therefore unsurprisingly, the introduction of MPP created widespread panic across the industry with many referring to its release last year as ‘pixelgeddon’ and ‘the death of the open rate’.

Since it’s nearly a year on from MPP’s release, let’s take a look at what its effects have been so far and some of the actions marketers can take to strengthen their email campaigns in an MPP world.

Pre-MPP the industry had already rapidly changed

Before we dive into the impacts of MPP specifically, lets first take a quick look at the email landscape before its release. Pre-MPP the accuracy of the open rate was already in decline. Gmail and Yahoo were both already using image proxies, and other factors such as spam filter testing and bot signups were also skewing open rates.

It must also be noted that Covid-19 had a significant effect on email marketing globally. At the start of the pandemic, the volume of marketing emails increased by approximately 60% over a period of around three weeks resulting in much greater competition to stand-out in the inbox. While the change in volume was expected to return to pre pandemic levels at some point, the volume has never dropped.

In addition to increases in email volumes, peak season—the holiday period email marketers leverage to promote and offer specific sales—has also been extended. While the period used to commence in late November (Black Friday sales) and run through to the New Year sales, peak season has now been extended to include additional events such as Halloween, Click Frenzy and Single’s Day, among others. It is now a three-month marathon!

Increase in volume is challenging deliverability

Why is this important? Well, with increased send volume and an extended peak season, deliverability is now more challenging than ever. Since mailbox providers have finite processing capacity, decisions need to be made around which emails make the cut and land in the inbox, as well as the speed at which they get processed and delivered. This is where sender reputation plays an important role.

When it comes to deliverability the preferred metric for measurement is inbox placement rate (IPR). IPR measures the percentage of emails that land in recipient inboxes compared to those which end up in spam or junk folders. In 2021 this rate was sitting around 85%, which meant that roughly one in every seven permission-based marketing emails ended up in the spam folder (rather than the inbox).

This appeared to be trending upwards, with the inbox placement rate reaching 87% just before the release of MPP. However, following the introduction of MPP in September 2021, peak email season launched and caused IPR to trend downwards due to sheer email volume. While the decline in IPR may have been initially attributed to peak season, it has continued to decline post the season ending, which raises the question: ‘Is there something else causing this downward trend…could it be MPP’?

Email opens have inflated

Pre-MPP, benchmark average unique open rates were sitting at around 26%, but since the end of September 2021, this has increased to 37%. MPP is designed to download all pixels and report an open, whether accurate or not. Because of this, the percentage was expected to jump to 100% of Apple users. But this hasn’t been the case. Instead, considering Apple usage is around 40%, the average open rate for Apple users is sitting around 70-80%.

The reason Apple users haven’t reached a 100% open rate is because there are instances where tracking pixels can’t be downloaded. Factors preventing pixels from being downloaded include if the device isn’t connected to WiFi, isn’t connected to power, or if the email lands in the spam folder. So, while MPP has caused the open rate number to inflate, it’s never going to hit a 100% open rate.

MPP has driven unsubscribe rates down – but it’s not necessarily a good thing…

Counterintuitively, after MPP hit the email marketing scene, unsubscribe rates went down rather than up. One reason this may have occurred is because with MPP, images are preloaded upon opening. This results in lengthier emails and means recipients must scroll further down to source the unsubscribe button. In fact, research from ‘Scrolling and Attention’, Nielsen Norman Group shows, less that 50% of recipients scroll to the very bottom of an email. So, the longer an email, the less likely a recipient is to make it to the bottom.

While a decrease in unsubscribe rates may sound positive for email marketers, this isn’t necessarily the case. Simply because recipients aren’t pressing the ‘unsubscribe’ button, doesn’t mean they’re interested in the content they’re receiving. Instead, spam complaints are on the rise due to recipients selecting the spam button provided by the email service provider because it’s more visible, rather than searching for the opt-out link within the email. This is a negative trend for marketers, because while unsubscribes send a neutral signal, complaints send a negative one, which drives down sender reputation scores and worsens email deliverability as a result.

MPPs impact on marketers

While it’s clear that MPP has had a significant impact on the email marketing world, many marketers claim they haven’t noticed a huge amount of change so far. This may be because some of these metrics have not yet reached their full impact, which is yet to come.

Interestingly though, Validity’s Email Reading data indicates that Apple usage is trending downwards as Google usage trend upwards. This is potentially because Apple Mail users, who view their Gmail emails on Apple Mail, are realising they are receiving a downgraded experience. As a result, they are switching back to Gmail.

Another potential explanation could be due to deliverability. Apple doesn’t fire the tracking pixel if an email lands in the spam folder. So, it’s possible that Apple usage is trending downwards because more emails are failing to achieve inbox placement for Apple Mail users.

Actions you can take

Based on these emerging trends, it’s likely further changes are due to take place in the email marketing world, very soon. Luckily, there are actions you can take to strengthen your email campaign in an MPP world. Here are the top five pieces of advice we offer our customers.

Get the timing right

As touched on earlier, an implication of MPP is images are pre-loaded. This means certain technology, like ‘send time optimisation’, isn’t as reliable as it used to be. Data, which used to tell marketers when the customer is most likely to open an email, now reports on when Apple pre-loads the images. Therefore marketers need to harness other insights into when their subscribers might be most receptive to their emails.

Following the pandemic there’s also been a significant shift in how and when customers engage with emails. While customers used to open emails early in the morning, likely on their commute to work, people have now shifted to work from home schedules, and email engagement has moved alongside this change. Interestingly, engagement in North America, UK and Europe typically peaks in the morning and then again in the afternoon, post-lunch time. In Australia though, email engagement plateaus over the course of the day.

One of our major mailbox providers recently told us that they process 70% of email traffic in the 10 minutes following the top of the hour, for example 12.10pm or 2.10pm. Based on this knowledge, our advice is to offset this send time slightly and schedule email blasts for 10 minutes before the top of the hour e.g., 11.50am, 1.50pm. This slight change in send time is going to increase performance due to less competition.

Increase clickthrough rates

With open rates no longer a reliable performance indicator, clickthrough rate is an alternative metric to measure success. In fact, clickthrough rates are more reliable than open rates have ever been.

But there is one issue, clickthrough metrics are available in much smaller quantities. This is because subscribers are more likely to just open an email, rather than open and click through. In fact, when you look at Validity’s data, if average open rates are typically ~25% and average click rates are ~4% then clicks are slightly less than 1/6 of opens in terms of the total generated.

The challenge for senders therefore is to generate more clicks, not to just increase sales but in order to gain the data they need to assist with email optimisation.

The good news is that some of the methods to increase clickthrough rate are surprisingly simple. One solution is to employ the second subject line (the text that appears at the top of the email, pre-header) to include your call to action and hyperlink to your site.

Looping back to the trade-off between unsubscribes and spam complaints, the header area could also be a good place to include a clear unsubscribe option. While this might increase your unsubscribes a little, in the process it will likely decrease spam complaints—improving your sender reputation and building greater trust with your subscriber.

What about zero-party data?

Zero party data is a great way marketers can organically grow engagement by asking customers to share information about themselves and their interests, rather than simply collecting data based on customer’s online behaviour. These shared details can then be used to craft relevant content, tailored to the customer’s interests. 

Marketers need to be strategic, creative, and credible when requesting personal data. Customers must see that it’s going to provide added value to them. For example, some email programs are offering rewards to customers in return for data. Rather than simply requesting a customer’s name and birth date, with no further explanation, senders are tempting customers to share personal data with questions like ‘want a birthday present?’.

If you’re going to ask for customer’s personal data, it’s crucial you regularly promote your preference centre to ensure this data is up to date. A preference centre is where a customer can edit and remove specific personal data, including how often they’re happy to receive emails. Promoting this centre improves data accuracy while also fostering trust in the customer—the customer know they can update and remove personal information at any point.

How to manage email fatigue

With an increase in email volume following the pandemic and peak season running for three months of the year, email fatigue is a real issue. Email fatigue creates the risk that your customer is going to unsubscribe due to an overfull inbox. This is where the snooze functionality comes in handy. Some email marketers promote the option of ‘taking a break’, especially over busy periods such as Black Friday and Christmas sales. By offering the opportunity to hit pause on receiving content, you’re decreasing the likelihood that your customer will permanently unsubscribe from your email program. I saw a compelling statistic recently published by Oracle which showed programs that introduce snooze functionality see on average a 82% drop in opt-out rates.

Another idea is to offer customers the option to hit snooze in the lead up to events that some find sensitive or upsetting. Receiving communications around events such as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day can distress some customers so it’s important to promote the snooze functionality around this time.

Further metrics for success

While the introduction of MPP has removed some previously reliable metrics, Apple’s update has unintentionally created other abilities. Using the metadata that can be extracted post-MPP, email marketers can now achieve two things. Firstly, they can identify which subscribers have opted into MPP and are impacted by its privacy features. And secondly, they can note whether an email address is valid or not—even when an email lands in an Apple spam folder it still communicates whether an address is valid which is an important detail for list hygiene activities.

Guy Hanson is vice president of customer engagement at Validity.