Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection & the Impact for Nonprofits

Author information: Ros White , Digital Marketing Consultant , Post information: 26 Aug 2021 , 6 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital Marketing ,

With the launch of iOS 15 this autumn (most likely mid-September), Apple announced its latest privacy-driven feature: Mail Privacy Protection. You may have seen this trending under the arresting (but unhelpful) hashtag #opensaredead.

In this blog, we’ll seek to demystify this change and look specifically at the impact on nonprofits.

What’s changing?

Apple's press release describes it as "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".

What this will mean in practice is that when users upgrade to iOS 15, the first time they open the native Mail app they’ll see the following prompt:

mail privacy.png

This messaging is similar to Apple's App Tracking Transparency, which asks users to opt into ad tracking within an app. Recent reports suggest that 96% of iOS 14.5 US users are opting out of app ad tracking. If we see a similar take up for Mail Privacy Protection, this will severely impact open rate data from users opening emails in the Mail app.

How will open rates be affected?

Somewhat counter instinctively, Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection doesn’t block tracking pixels from loading. Instead all remote content is downloaded in the background by default whether you opened the email or not. In addition, this remote content is routed through multiple proxy servers, preventing the email sender from learning your IP address.

In practice this means that if you send a marketing email to an iOS 15 user who accesses email in the native Mail app, once this content has been downloaded by Mail Privacy Protection, the email sender will register an open regardless of whether the user actually opened the email. This could result in open rates for Apple Mail users registering as 100% by default, seriously impacting the accuracy of nonprofits' overall open rates for email.

What’s the impact of these changes?

The immediate impact of this change is that open rate data from iOS 15 Apple Mail users will become inaccurate and, due to the difficulty in segmenting lists by email client, overall open rates will become inflated making this metric less reliable, if not completely redundant. However, in addition to this immediate impact on a core email marketing metric, there are also a number of other email marketing features that will be affected by this change:

Re-engagement and reactivation programmes

Re-engagement programmes typically use open rate as an indicator of engagement, i.e. if a user hasn’t opened an email within the last 3 months they should go into a re-engagement programme. At Torchbox, we typically segment re-engagement programmes into red and orange segments. Subscribers in the red segment haven’t opened an email in a specific time frame and subscribers in the orange segment have opened but not clicked.

Segmenting re-engagement programmes into red and orange segments

With Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, such granular segmentation isn’t going to be possible as open rate data becomes less accurate. Instead, re-engagement programmes will need to focus on users who haven’t clicked an email in a while and when re-engagement programmes are sent, clicks rather than opens will need to be used to identify users who’ve re-engaged.

Automated programmes

Nonprofits will need to review their email automation programmes for triggers that are based on opens and modify their programmes to use other triggers such as clicks.

A/B Testing

One of the most common forms of testing for nonprofits is subject line testing to improve open rate. Typically, this testing is automated with the winning subject line being used with the rest of the email list. Once these changes come into force, this type of testing will no longer be accurate, making these kinds of automated tests based on open rate redundant.

Send Time Optimisation

A common feature of most Email Service Providers (ESPs), Send Time Optimisation uses a subscriber’s past open rate behaviour to identify the optimum time to send them an email. With Apple Mail’s Privacy Protection, the remote downloading of email content doesn’t correlate to when a user actually opened an email, distorting the optimum time to send the subscriber an email.


The impact of these changes on email deliverability and the algorithms used by spam filters is still unclear. One risk is that Apple Mail users who are inactive still appear active as their emails are ‘opened’ when Mail Privacy Protection downloads remote email content. This could result in Apple Mail users continuing to get promotional emails despite no longer engaging with them.

In addition, marketers may no longer be able to rely on open rate as a sign of a deliverability issue.

Other features

Other features less commonly used by nonprofits will also be affected:

  • Forwards will no longer be tracked.
  • Location info will no longer be available for users who turn on Mail Privacy Protection.
  • Content such as countdown timers may appear inaccurate due to the disconnect between when content was downloaded and when the email was opened.

How should you respond?

Understand how important Apple Mail is to your list

  • Review how many of your current subscribers use Apple Mail to assess the potential scale of the impact on your email marketing activity. Email Service Providers normally provide a breakdown of your email list by email client and the ability to segment your list by email client.
  • Assess how valuable your Apple Mail subscribers are. Do they have a higher conversion rate? Do they typically donate more than other subscribers? Even if they’re a small segment of your overall list, you may discover that they’re disproportionately valuable.

Benchmark current activity

  • If you’re not doing so already, review your current email marketing performance before the changes occur so that you have a complete set of before and after data to assess what impact the changes have had. Look at things like open rate, click-through rate, website traffic, conversions, conversion rate, average donation amount, donation revenue, ROI etc. If you’d like help with a benchmarking audit, contact us.

Focus on clicks not opens

  • Click-through rate/delivered should become the baseline metric for assessing email performance. (For those of you who are new to email marketing this is the number of users who click on an email divided by the number of emails delivered.)
  • Be mindful of the fact that the click-through rate of opens metric will also be affected by the inflation in the number of opens an email generates. This will impact any analysis you do on content engagement or content design tests. As a reminder, the click-through rate of opens is the number of unique clicks divided by the number of unique opens and is usually used as an indicator of how email content resonated with your audience.

Conversion tracking

We frequently see in email marketing audits for nonprofits that conversion tracking for email marketing lags behind tracking for other channels such as paid social. If the focus is now going to fall firmly on clicks, be sure you’re tracking those clicks properly. As a minimum, make sure:

  • Your email links are correctly tagged with UTM parameters. Most ESPs provide auto-tagging, but you need to ensure that it’s set up correctly and enabled.
  • If you’re able to, integrate Google Analytics with your ESP so that you can see conversion data within your ESP. Alternatively, ensure that you’re using Google Analytics to report on the performance of your emails ‘beyond the click’, looking at what conversions your activity generated, not just engagement with the email itself. (NB: for nonprofits who focus on education and awareness rather than fundraising this blog has some useful tips for tracking content engagement)

Clean your list - now!

General industry consensus is that now is the time to clean your list before the changes come into effect. This means that you can accurately determine who are inactive subscribers based on opens and put them through a re-engagement programme before removing any subscribers who remain inactive.

Keep an eye on how your Email Service Provider responds

So far, we haven’t seen any announcements from the key Email Service Providers (ESPs) on how they intend to respond to this change and how this may affect reporting within their platforms. For now, we’ll be keeping any eye on how the key ESPs respond, and suggest you do the same with your chosen platform.

Although these changes do feel seismic, from our experience with working with nonprofits we feel that these changes will force email to catch up with other channels where the focus is far more on conversions and tangible actions rather than simply reach and visibility. And for nonprofits and their supporters, that can only be a good thing.

Have these changes got you wondering about the integrity of your email reporting or how your email automation programmes will be affected?

If you would like any support with your nonprofit email marketing activity, please get in touch.

Author information: Ros White , Digital Marketing Consultant , Post information: 26 Aug 2021 , 6 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital Marketing ,